You heard that right—he was over six feet tall, probably three hundred pounds, and had a booming drama voice that he would level at you whenever he disagreed with you. Thankfully, I need not cross swords with a drama teacher here, but with a history teacher.
Jon Saltzman just wrote a well-reasoned piece on abolishing the Electoral College (EC) that I found quite persuasive. He is at his best in painting a portrait of the historical context that gave rise to the EC. There is no denying that a representative voting system was much more practical than direct democracy in the days of horse and buggy. Indeed, people were suspicious of direct democracy, due in part to the excesses of the French Revolution and also due to a reverence for state sovereignty. The fact that Saltzman used the superb phrase “post-natal America” almost clinched the matter for me.
I am not totally opposed to Saltzman’s suggestion, but it certainly gives me pause. There are a great many institutions that people love to treat as piñatas—from the indirect election of senators (since changed) to the two-party system to the EC. These institutions run against the democratic grain, do they not? In an age in which Trumpians threatened to riot if the primary was “stolen” and Sandernistas rage against Hillary-biased super-delegates, should we not discard a good number of our antiquated practices?
This is where I would ask our resident historian, Mr. Saltzman, to describe to me more of the logic underlying these practices that seem so foreign to us. Why were they created in first place? Would there be any deleterious effects from their elimination? If much of the rationale behind these practices includes a fear of direct democracy, should we not ask why such a system was feared?
The French Revolution was not only an example of the excesses of direct democracy, it was the inevitable fruit of direct democracy. A direct democracy presumes an optimism about human nature that also infects socialism, communism, and certain varieties of libertarianism. We presume today, in line with those myriad ideologies, that more immediate power centered in the hands of the people is a good thing.
The Founders, concerned as they were with the despotic impulses of the individual and the masses alike, sought to curb and check power whenever possible. They knew that the impulses of the people were not always good ones, and sought to slow down and mediate those impulses through the people’s representatives. I find myself swayed by the animating impulse of the Founders—willing to be considered on the wrong side of history in order to stand athwart it yelling “Stop!”
If the Founders were concerned about direct democracy as a threat to freedom, how exactly did they envision the EC as a remedy to that threat? I must confess my ignorance here, but I would imagine that they saw it as another opportunity to mediate the impulses of the electorate through the careful deliberations of their electors. There was likely a great concern to use the EC to remind us of that vital bulwark of individual liberty—state sovereignty. While states do not represent the unanimous will of their populaces, they do represent the regional consensus over and against the regional consensus of others.
What about unintended consequences of losing the EC? Using the Bush-Gore example from 2000, the popular vote nationally—and especially in Florida—was swayed by networks prematurely calling the election for Gore. A large number of more conservative voters in the Florida Panhandle did not vote based on those proclamations. Therein lies the fickleness of the popular vote. While the EC may not have changed the outcome, it certainly shows the logic in not presuming that unmediated power on behalf of the people is a good thing.
Likewise, consider the often accompanying argument against the two-party system. Like the EC, such a system seems to disenfranchise the millions (like me) that are not satisfied with their choice of candidates. Yet, what is the alternative? In a two-party system, the candidate of each party (normally) has to accrue a clear majority of voters to attain victory. They then have a mandate from the majority of the American people. With more parties, a regional candidate with a bare plurality of votes can claim the presidency on the strength of southern voters, urban voters, etc.
I think much of this is tied to the age-old American philosophy of pragmatism. We all clamor for a government that “works,” and value efficiency over most anything else. We bemoan partisan gridlock when the alternative might be potentate governance. Perhaps we should even consider repealing the direct election of senators and make sure that they are politicians of principle rather than popular acclaim.
I would rather have a government of a thousand vetoes than a government of a thousand accomplishments. I want a process so painfully slow that only the best possible measures can succeed. The French sought heaven on earth, and instead secured hell. We are a nation of laws, not of men, and as long as we remember that, this nation will not perish.