The Electoral College has been under attack quite a lot recently. This method of electing the President of the United States is increasingly being assailed as an archaic and undemocratic provision of the Constitution which desperately needs to be replaced by a more democratic national popular vote, in which the candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote, throughout the nation, is elected president.
I think that electing the president by a national popular vote would be a bad idea for a number of reasons, not least because it would not, in fact, be more democratic. This may seem like a paradox, but we need to consider just what democracy actually is, and why it is a desirable form of government.
First, I have to commit a sort of political heresy and suggest that democracy is not actually the end all and be all of all good government. The essential purpose of government is, as Thomas Jefferson stated in his immortal Declaration of Independence, to secure the inalienable rights given to us by our Creator. Any government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. The best way to create a government that actually secures those rights and has that consent is for the government to have at least a democratic element in its constitution. At some point, the citizens ought to be consulted about policies. More democracy, however, is not necessarily better and even a democratic government can be tyrannical. If it is possible for 51% of the people to vote away the rights and property of 49% of the people, then that government is every bit as tyrannical as the rule of a dictator. Indeed, it would be preferable to live under the rule of a king or dictator who respects the rights of the people, than a democratically elected president who does not.
The men who drafted the constitution were as aware of the dangers of a tyranny of the majority as much as of the dangers of tyranny from other sources. This is precisely the reason they included such undemocratic features as an unrepresentative Senate and the Electoral College. The founding fathers were more concerned with preserving liberty than with creating what we would call democracy.
So, what is democracy anyway? Democracy can be defined as:
1. Government by thepeople,exercisedeitherdirectly or throughelectedrepresentatives.
2. A political or socialunitthathassuch a government.
3. Thecommonpeople,considered as theprimarysource of politicalpower.
5. Theprinciples of socialequalityandrespectfortheindividualwithin a community.
Democracy is more than simply holding regular elections. Dictatorships have often held elections. Democracy is a system in which the people govern themselves and play a role in the decisions made by the state. Democracy works best in small communities, the city-states of Ancient Greece or the traditional town meetings of New England. The larger a community is, the less likely it is to be truly democratic, even though it may possess the trappings of democracy such as free elections and elected representatives. A nation, like the United States, with three hundred and twenty million that spans across a continent with an enormous diversity in geography and population cannot really be very democratic at all. It can only be ruled despotically. We may be governed by a democratic sort of despotism, but it is despotism, none the less.
Why do I say this? Because one person out of three hundred million has effectively no voice. Small numbers of people are always diluted or drowned out by the whole and the only way for anyone to have any influence is to organize a large number of people, which invariably takes time and money some people do not have. The individual really has no voice on the national level no matter how democratic the forms of the government might be.
Also, with such a large and diverse population, it is impossible for the national community as a whole to come to any real consensus on policy. Even if the majority makes the decisions, there is a minority of many tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions who feel the policies have been imposed upon them. This is even more the case if the people holding the majority and minority positions live in different regions. It is simply not possible for any government on such a large scale to take into account the opinions of every, or even most people when making decisions.
Consider this map of the 2016 election results by county
I think that it would be fair to say that the red and blue regions are roughly equal in population. Considering that Hilary Clinton won more popular votes than Donald Trump, it is likely that the blue regions slightly outnumber the red regions. If that election had been based on the popular vote Hilary Clinton would now be president. If we switched to electing presidents by popular votes, any candidate would find it easier to campaign in the smaller, more densely populated blue regions rather than travel out to the more sparsely, but wider, red regions. The issues and policies of the blue areas would take precedence over the issues and policies of the reds. Electing the president by a national popular vote would be more democratic in one sense, the majority would be electing the president, but it would be less democratic in a more important sense, large portions of the country would feel themselves ruled by a government not of their choosing and not concerned with them. It would not be long before they began to feel as though they were merely colonies of the coasts. How long before they decided to separate?
If democracy in a large, diverse nation is impossible, should we split the country into smaller, more manageable pieces? Well, in a way we already have. When the founding fathers drafted the constitution, each of the former colonies was meant to be a sovereign state within the larger United States. This is why they are called states, a term normally used to indicate a sovereign, independent political entity, and not provinces. The idea expressed in the constitution was that each state was to be independent, sovereign, and in control of its own affairs, with the government of the United States handling those affairs which concerned all the states; diplomacy, war, coinage, etc.
Over the centuries for various reasons, good and bad, the country has become more centralized, with the federal government gaining more and more power, at the expense of the sovereignty of the states, to the point that the states have almost mere administrative appendages of the federal government. There may be advantages to a more centralized national government, but it is going to be less democratic. Replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote will be one more step on the road to making the states irrelevant, and the nation less democratic. We need to be decreasing the power of the federal government increasing the sovereignty of the states if we want to live in a truly democratic country in which the ordinary citizen has some influence on public policy. I would even take this a step further and suggest that some of our larger states; California, New York, Texas, among others, ought to be split up to create smaller, more manageable units.
If we really want to live in a democracy, we need to be making our politics smaller and more local. Abolishing the Electoral College is a step in the wrong direction.
For Dylan Matthews at Vox.com the answer to that question is yes.
This July Fourth, I’m celebrating by taking a plane from the US to the United Kingdom. The timing wasn’t intentional, but I embrace the symbolism. American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it.
Of course, evaluating the wisdom of the American Revolution means dealing with counterfactuals. As any historian would tell you, this is messy business. We obviously can’t be entirely sure how America would have fared if it had stayed in the British Empire longer, perhaps gaining independence a century or so later, along with Canada.
Would we be better off today if the Revolution had not succeeded? Rather than celebrating our independence from the mother country, ought we to regret it? I am something of an anglophile, so I am a bit wistful about that regrettable separation myself. Sometimes I do think it would be nice to be part of the country that gave us Doctor Who and Mister Bean, not to mention the many more substantial gifts that the British have given the world. Still, that is not saying that we would all be better off, and it is possible that much that was good about the British Empire may not have come to be without the sentiments expressed by our founding fathers.
It is, of course, impossible to know what would have happened. It seems to me that much would depend on the way in which the American Revolution had failed. If King George and his ministers had been more statesmanlike and showed a better understanding of the sentiments of the colonists, and if cooler heads had prevailed in the colonies, the Revolution might have been averted altogether. Perhaps there might have been some trouble in 1775 which was quickly resolved by judicious compromises, in which case the North American colonies might well have developed somewhere along the lines of Canada or Australia. On the other hand, if the British had defeated the Continental Army in 1779 or 1780 and killed George Washington, things might have been very different. Years of war had increased bitterness on both sides and it is likely that the rebellious colonies would have been held as conquered and occupied provinces, much like Ireland. Like Ireland, there might have been continuing unrest and repeated rebellions. Since Mr. Matthews seems to take the former scenario, so will I.
Dylan Matthews gives three reasons for believing that the American Revolution was a mistake.
But I’m reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.
I believe all three reasons are mistaken. I do not think that slavery would have been abolished earlier, that the policy towards the Indians would have been greatly different if the American Revolution had not succeeded, nor do I believe that a parliamentary system of government is superior.
The main reason the revolution was a mistake is that the British Empire, in all likelihood, would have abolished slavery earlier than the US did, and with less bloodshed.
This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.
According to Matthews, the American Revolution was fought by White men, for White men and everyone else would have been better off if they had failed.
The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would’ve been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn’t be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?
Though he admits that abolishing slavery would have been harder if the North American colonies were still in the British Empire.
It’s true that had the US stayed, Britain would have had much more to gain from the continuance of slavery than it did without America. It controlled a number of dependencies with slave economies — notably Jamaica and other islands in the West Indies — but nothing on the scale of the American South. Adding that into the mix would’ve made abolition significantly more costly.
But the South’s political influence within the British Empire would have been vastly smaller than its influence in the early American republic. For one thing, the South, like all other British dependencies, lacked representation in Parliament. The Southern states were colonies, and their interests were discounted by the British government accordingly. But the South was also simply smaller as a chunk of the British Empire’s economy at the time than it was as a portion of America’s. The British crown had less to lose from the abolition of slavery than white elites in an independent America did.
It is not clear to what extent abolitionism would have gained any traction in Britain if a major part of their empire depended on slave labor and if the principles of equality and consent by the governed that were expressed so well by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence had remained unwritten. In any case, slavery would not have been confined to the South. In 1776, slavery was legal and accepted in all thirteen colonies. It was only after the American Revolution had been won that the first wave of abolitionism, prompted in part by the obvious hypocrisy of declaring all men equal while still holding slaves, led to the Northern states to abolish slavery. In 1787 the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, organizing the Northwest territories and prohibiting slavery. Most people believed that it was only a matter of time before slavery was ended in the South. This didn’t happen partly because of the invention of the cotton gin and partly because the expansion into the south west, where slavery hadn’t been prohibited, was made easier by slave labor.
It seems likely, then, that by 1834 slavery would still be legal throughout North America both in the original thirteen colonies and in the settled lands beyond the Appalachians. Would the British Parliament still have abolished slavery, knowing that such an act would lead to revolution in the colonies. We would have fought the American Revolution in the 1830’s instead of the 1770’s. It seems likely that the Parliament might have delayed abolishing slavery for many years rather than lose the colonies, especially if the French, no Louisiana Purchase, and the Spanish, no Florida cession and perhaps no revolutions in Latin America, maintained some presence in North America.
What about the Indians?
Starting with the Proclamation of 1763, the British colonial government placed firm limits on westward settlement in the United States. It wasn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to keep American Indians from being subjugated or anything; it just wanted to avoid border conflicts. But all the same, the policy enraged American settlers, who were appalled that the British would seem to side with Indians over white men.
American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn’t have occurred. And like America’s slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels.
Ethnic cleansing is a loaded word that is not particularly applicable to what occurred in the relations between the Indian tribes and the American government. It was never an official policy of the U.S. government to exterminate the Native Americans. Here is what the Northwest Ordinance had to say about the Native inhabitants of the Northwest territory.
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.
Condescending, to be sure, but meant well. Unfortunately both Indians and settlers wanted the same lands so there was war and the Indians were defeated. This is bad enough but not the same as rounding people up and exterminating them in camps. But, who cares about accuracy when we have a chance to portray America as the Evil Empire? In any case, there is no reason to believe that the Indian policy, both intended or actual, would have been greatly different. The Proclamation of 1763 could not have been enforced for any period of time, given the demographic pressures that led the British colonists to want to expand westward. Matthews compares the treatment of the Indians by America and Canada, in Canada’s favor, but there were fewer settlers in Canada and the lands were less desirable.
In the US, activists wanting to put a price on carbon emissions spent years trying to put together a coalition to make it happen, mobilizing sympathetic businesses and philanthropists and attempting to make bipartisan coalition — and they still failed to pass cap and trade, after millions of dollars and man hours. In the UK, the Conservative government decided it wanted a carbon tax. So there was a carbon tax. Just like that. Passing big, necessary legislation — in this case, legislation that’s literally necessary to save the planet — is a whole lot easier with parliaments than with presidential systems.
This is no trivial matter. Efficient passage of legislation has huge humanitarian consequences. It makes measures of planetary importance, like carbon taxes, easier to get through; they still face political pushback, of course — Australia’s tax got repealed, after all — but they can be enacted in the first place, which is far harder in the US system. And the efficiency of parliamentary systems enables larger social welfare programs that reduce inequality and improve life for poor citizens. Government spending in parliamentary countries is about 5 percent of GDP higher, after controlling for other factors, than in presidential countries. If you believe in redistribution, that’s very good news indeed.
This is actually the best argument I could make against a parliamentary system. It is too easy to pass legislation. Under Britain’s current system all that is needed to make any changes imaginable is a majority in the House of Commons. There are no checks and balances. Any dictator would only need that majority to impose whatever rules he wanted. It is only tradition and the good sense of most Britons that has prevented anyone from trying, so far. I would be happier if the House of Lords had equal power with the House of Commons and the Monarch would still exercise a veto over legislation. This would be undemocratic, but many people confuse democracy with liberty, or ends and means. The end of government is the preservation of liberty. Democracy is only a means to that end. A democratic government can fail to preserve liberty and tyranny under a democracy is every bit as odious as any other kind. Frankly, I prefer freedom to efficiency in government.
After reading this article, I am not convinced that the American Revolution was a mistake. If anything, I am more grateful than ever that the founding fathers made the sacrifices they did to make the United States of America a free and independent country. I do not believe the world would have been a better place if the revolution had failed. It is more likely to have been less free and less prosperous. So, I will continue to celebrate the Fourth of July, while being grateful that the British are our best friends.
Not too long ago, President Barack Obama proposed that voting be made mandatory. I cannot see why making people who are disengaged and uninformed about politics vote would lead to any improvement in American politics. I suspect that Mr. Obama is counting on those disengaged and uninformed people to deliver more votes to the Democrats and more support for the sort of policies he supports. In fact, if this is his intention, he may be disappointed. As this article in the Washington Post suggests,universal compulsory voting may not make much of a difference in the balance of power between the parties.
But perhaps I am being too cynical about Mr. Obama’s motives. Mandatory voting would lead to increased voter turnout which surely would be good for democracy, wouldn’t it. Low voter turnout in the United States has been something of a scandal in recent decades. Voter turnout has generally been around 60% in Presidential elections and 40% in midterm elections. This low turnout seems to indicate a loss of faith in the political process among Americans. If we had a higher voter turnout, our democracy would be more robust, right?
I am not so sure about any of this. Personally, I believe that the problem with American politics is not that too few people are voting, but too many. That is to say, too many of the people who do go out and vote are among the disengaged and uninformed. I think our politics would be improved by putting limits on the number of people eligible to vote.
To start with, I think we really need to raise the voting age to thirty. More than twenty-five centuries ago Aristotle argued that young men should not be involved in politics because they lack experience and are carried away by their passions. I imagine that Aristotle would think we were insane to allow men as young as eighteen, not to mention women of any age, to vote in national elections. Very few people under the age of thirty, and all too many over that age, have the experience and maturity necessary to make wise decisions about their country’s future. Young people are often the most enthusiastic supporters of dictators and demagogues.
There is the argument that if one is old enough to fight for their country, they are old enough to vote. I don’t think that is a particularly good argument. The skills and experiences necessary to serve in the military are not the same as those necessary to make responsible decisions about the country, and what of the great majority of young people who do not serve their country? Still, it might be fairly argued that young people who have served in the military are likely to be more mature and responsible then their peers and perhaps the right to vote should be extended to veterans of any age.
Which brings us to the idea proposed by Robert Heinlein in his science fiction book Starship Troopers; that only veterans be permitted to vote and hold office. This idea has often been criticized as Fascist or militaristic, which only demonstrates the ignorance of the critics. In the world Heinlein describes everybody is eligible for government service in some capacity, it need not be strictly military, and it is matched with the applicant’s abilities. The service is not a sinecure, real and demanding work is involved, even it if only amounts to peeling potatoes in KP, and not many complete their term. The idea is that only those who have demonstrated a willingness to place the needs of the community above their own desires should have the right to vote. Non-veterans cannot vote but have all the rights that any citizen in a twentieth century democracy would have, and Heinlein hints that the Federation government is somewhat more libertarian than our democratic governments since the voters aren’t continually voting benefits for themselves.
I think this idea has some merit, although I can see some flaws. There probably would be a more informed and engaged electorate and if voting were seen as a right to be earned through service rather than just something handed out to anyone who reaches a certain age, it would be more valued and taken more seriously. On the other hand. if the franchise wee restricted to a small minority, it is difficult to see why the people with the vote wouldn’t be tempted to vote themselves all kinds of privileges at the expense of non-voters.
Not too long ago one of my children was going through the process of getting her driver’s license. It occurred to me that we put effort into teaching prospective drivers the various traffic regulations and require them to take tests to show that they can operate a motor vehicle before granting them a license to drive. This is held to be necessary and good because of the dangers to the driver and others if the driver lacks the ability to drive safely. Yet, he give almost no preparation and do not test the ability of a prospective voter to make important choices about the future of the country. Surely putting the future of the nation in the hands of incompetent and unprepared voters is a far more serious matter than the relatively few people affected by an incompetent and unprepared driver. We ought to have voter ed classes in every high school which should cover the basics of what used to be called civics. When a voter reaches the voting age, he should be required to take a test in order to receive a voter’s license which should be renewed at regular intervals, just like a driver’s license. If an applicant fails the test or if the license is not renewed, he may not vote in the next election, but he can take the test again after the election. Again, this will make voting something to strive for, rather than something simply handed out and those people who do apply for a license and pass the test will take their duty as a voter more seriously. Having renewable voter’s licenses provided at no cost to the successful applicant will also help to cut down on voter fraud.
But, maybe instead of limiting the number of people eligible to vote, we should weigh the vote in favor of the more responsible elements of society. In his short story, “The Curious Republic of Gondour“, Mark Twain explained that the constitution of the Republic gives every citizen the inalienable right to a vote. Unfortunately this meant that the scum of the Republic had the same amount of political influence as the intelligent and successful, which was leading to the ruin of the country. The leaders of Gondour decided that they could not take away any citizen’s vote, but there was no reason why everyone should have just one vote. They permitted people to have additional votes based on wealth and education. The votes based on education were more prestigious than the ones based on wealth because a voter could lose money but not education. This might not be a bad idea and I think it could be arranged without a constitutional amendment.
Of course, none of these schemes are likely to be put into effect or seriously considered. We could at least try to do a better job educating voters about our system of government and to approach the issues with reasoned consideration, but I am afraid our political leaders prefer dumb and excited voters. Part of what the TEA Party has been doing has been to educate people about the constitution and look at all the hostility that engendered.