Posts Tagged ‘Electoral College (United States)’

The Democratic Electoral College

April 27, 2019

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 the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.
2. political or social unit that has such a government.
3. The common people, considered as the primary source of political power.
4. Majority rule.
5. The principles of social equality and respect for the individual within 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.
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That Cartoon from the New Yorker

January 23, 2017

This cartoon from The New Yorker has been making the rounds lately.

170109_a20630-1000“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

What, exactly, is the cartoonist trying to say here? That we should not be led by democratically elected leaders but by some body of elites or experts especially trained in government, perhaps with some sort of license or certification, just like a pilot? That only persons specially vetted should be permitted to hold public office? That this body of certified leaders ought not to be accountable to the people they lead since they are not sufficiently acquainted with the nuances of government? Is the only role of the passengers simply to sit down and shut up while the pilot flies the plane? Do they have no recourse if the pilot is manifestly incompetent or flies the plane to a destination contrary to their wishes?

I think the cartoonist has it backwards. The passengers do not work for the pilot. The pilot works for the passengers. The passengers are the ones who decide where the plane is going. They are the ones who buy the tickets from the airline for the plane that will take them where they want to go. The pilot cannot decide, on his own, what the plane’s destination will be. If a pilot decides that he knows better than the passengers where they ought to go, or if the pilot shows that he is not capable of properly flying the plane, than the passengers have good reason to complain to the  airline and demand a refund of the price of their ticket. If an airline continually employs incompetent pilots who ignore their duties to the passengers, that airline will lose customers and eventually go out of business.

If we apply this analogy to the country, it is we the passengers who decide in what direction we want the country to, not some self-proclaimed elites. We elect people to public office so that they will work for us by taking the country in the direction we want. We do not elect them to office to tell us where to go or how we should live our lives. It may be, as the cartoonist suggests that we have chosen poorly in electing Donald Trump as our next president, but it is still our choice to make. As a very wise man said some two hundred years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

 

Recently, it seems that we have been electing pilots who do not want to listen to us, the passengers. They seem to have the idea that it is their job to take the airplane where they want it to go on the basis that they know better than the rest of us. We have been trying to get the pilots to listen to us , with mixed results. Now, we have elected a new pilot from a very different background. This new pilot has not been to flight school, as we may put his lack of experience in electoral politics, but perhaps he will be more inclined to remember his proper job. Perhaps the other pilots may learn from this last election and start to listen to us again. If not, we may have to switch airlines, or exercise our right to,”alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”. We may hope that it doesn’t come to that, but it is up to those we elect to represent us to start doing what we tell them to do.

The Election of 1828

November 10, 2014

The election of 1828 was a rematch between the two major candidates of 1824, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson believed, with good reason, that he had been cheated out of the presidency in the last election and he was eager for revenge. For his part, Adams had not had a particularly successful presidency in part because of the irregularities of his election and the continuing hostility of Jackson’s supporters. Adams couldn’t imagine that a man like Jackson could possibly be competent to be president.

But you mustn’t think that this contest was nothing more than a personal quarrel between the two candidates. This election was nothing less than an epic struggle to determine who would rule the new republic, a small moneyed elite based in the East or the sovereign people, as least according to Jackson’s supporters. Adams’s people viewed it as a battled for control between rule the respectable stakeholders in the country and rule by an ignorant mob. The United States was becoming more democratic. In the election of 1828 only two states, Delaware and South Carolina still had their state legislatures choose their electors. Everywhere else, the Electors were chosen by popular vote.

The second party system was still developing and both candidates were theoretically of the same party. There were no caucuses this time. King Caucus was finished. The two candidates were nominated by state legislatures and special conventions. Vice President John C. Calhoun opted to run with Andrew Jackson so John Quincy Adams selected his Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Rush as his running mate.

As President, Adams had favored a more centralized government with protective tariffs to promote industry, a national bank, and federal support for internal improvements such as building roads and canals. Adams also believed that the federal government should promote education and science. In this, he was, perhaps, ahead of his time. Many of his countrymen did not see any use for such frivolities. Adams did come across as rather too intellectual for many Americans at the time, who valued the practical wisdom of a man like Jackson.

It was a little harder to determine what policies Jackson favored since he didn’t have much to say, at first. In general, he seemed to prefer a more decentralised Union with a smaller government closer to the people. Jackson tended to oppose using the federal government to sponsor internal improvements, believing this to be mostly a duty of the states, though he did agree to using surplus federal revenue to help the states fund such improvements. He believed the government should live within its means and not borrow. He passionately opposed the idea of a national bank.

If Jackson was a little vague on the policies he preferred, he was not at all uncertain about the means to win elections and obtain office. He understood that the key to success in politics was organization. Jackson did not share his opponent’s, and the founding fathers’, disdain for political parties. He believed that parties were essential to preserving democratic rule and liberty. Immediately after the election of 1824, Jackson and his supporters began to build up a party organization to oppose Adams in Congress and prepare the way for Jackson’s campaign in 1828. This party organization was first called simply the “Friends of Jackson”but before long they began referring to themselves as the Democratic Party. Thus was formed one of the two great parties that have dominated American politics.

This new Democratic party began promoting Jackson’s cause with partisan newspapers, parades, rallies and all the paraphernalia of what came to be American presidential campaigns. They referred to Jackson, the war hero, as Old Hickory and carried around hickory sticks. They made much of the corrupt bargain that had placed Adams in the White House against the will of the people.  Jackson was a man of the people against those East Coast Elites championed by Adams, another emerging theme in American politics. Jackson was not as educated as Adams, who knew his Greek and Latin, but he had the practical common sense of the common man. It might be fair to say that Jackson was the first truly American politician.

John Quincy Adams and his supporters tried to fight back. They overcame their dislike of parties and organized themselves into the “National Republicans“. They had their own newspapers, parades, rallies, etc, but somehow they couldn’t match the enthusiasm of Jackson’s supporters. They relentlessly attacked Jackson’s character and supposed wartime heroics. Six men who Jackson had had hanged for desertion were transformed into martyrs who had served their time and only wanted to go home. Jackson was said to have indulged in gambling, cock fighting, slave trading, drunkenness, theft, lying and even murder. Jackson’s mother was a prostitute brought over to America by British soldiers. Once again the  irregularities of Andrew Jackson’s marriage to his wife, Rachel, were brought up, and Anti-Jackson newspapers referred to them as a “convicted adulteress and her paramour husband”. Rachel Jackson died soon after the election and Andrew Jackson was convinced that these slurs had killed her. He never forgave his enemies for that.

The election was not a close one. Jackson received 642,553 popular votes (55.9%) and 178 electoral votes. Adams got 500,897 popular votes (43.7%) and 83 electoral votes. Jackson swept the nation except for New England, Maryland, Delaware,and New Jersey which went to Adams. New York’s Electors were split 20 to 16 in favor of Jackson.

The Election of 1828

The Election of 1828

 

Andrew Jackson got to be president, but there is no need to feel sorry for John Quincy Adams. He went on to have a distinguished career in the House of Representatives where, among other things, he fought the good fight against slavery.


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