Along with packing the Supreme Court (as FDR wanted to do when an annoyingly independent judiciary was throwing up Constitutional roadblocks to his New Deal) there has been an even more disturbing idea re: upending American governance today. Having seen Al Gore in 2000 and then Hillary Clinton in 2016 win the popular vote, yet lose the electoral vote, there is a growing cry to eliminate the Electoral College altogether. Fourteen states have already joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which in effect would give their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the popular vote. The logic on the surface seems not ludicrous from both a practical and philosophical standpoint. The advocates for its abolition claim it’s an outdated mechanism from an era when communications were difficult, and it was easier to send electors in the people’s stead. Philosophically, we are an Athens-inspired democracy, they say, and as such it should be one person-one vote.
Yet the Framers greatly distrusted the Athenian model, one which they knew had a dark side, as demonstrated by the trial and execution of Socrates. They wanted power diffused and layered. Although they surely aimed to form a government that, as Hamilton wrote in Federalist 68, reflected “the sense of the people,” they did not trust the whims of a purely popular vote they feared could degenerate into mob rule. Hamilton even went so far as to proclaim to Jefferson, “Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast.” Few in the new nation carried Hamilton’s overtly snobbish and monarchical urges, but the mindset, insult to you and me aside, is there for all to see.
So why is this idea of abolishing the Electoral College gaining traction? Certainly the Democrats’ understandable frustrations of losing two elections they feel was theirs is the catalyst (although, one doubts if Bush or Trump had won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote if these same descendants of Pericles would be so vociferous). But more to the heart of it, the blame for why such a radical idea is given consideration at all falls on our school system. The American classroom has almost completely jettisoned the teaching of any U.S. history that didn’t begin in the Progressive movement’s Year Zero of the Kennedy assassination in 1963 (ask any credentialed college student ‘Who was Patrick Henry?’ or ‘What’s Guadalcanal?’ and you’ll see what I mean.) As such they were never taught the mindset behind the framing of our Constitution and how separation and diffusion of power, not just of the central government but also of what has been called “the tyranny of the majority” was essential to creating a system that not only worked for the thirteen original states but was, to use a business term, “scalable.”
What I mean is this. Studies and methodologies vary but overall of the ten most prosperous nations, seven have populations of less than 18 million. One, Australia, has 25 million, and another, Canada, has 37 million. Then there is the United States, population 320 million. How is it that we are the only nation in this coveted group with so many people. India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Russia, etc. are nowhere to be found here. Much of the reason can be traced back to 1787 when the men who crafted our government gave us, as Franklin so famously told a citizen while adding a warning that seems relevant today, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The key to the nation’s success has been federalism. Put simply, we are not the United STATE. We are the United STATES. That ‘S’ makes all the difference. We are really a layered collection of fifty laboratories in which each state may pursue policies it deems best suited for its culture, geography, business environment, demographics, etc. In short, with a nation of so many people and 3.7 million square miles whose geography varies from the midwestern plains, to the Rocky Mountains, two coasts, five Great Lakes, swamps, deserts, forests, arid and wet climes, teeming metropolises, and sparsely populated farmland and small towns, and so on, one-size-fits-all governance breaks down.
The Electoral College is the most vivid reflection of this truth. And the most important line of defense against the creeping central state and coastal metropolitan hegemony. Majority rule works fine in local elections. Even my fellow New Jersey folks are similar enough that majority rule in state elections is viable. Yes, my town may not be Atlantic City, but there is enough common sinew to bind us – I no doubt have passed a croupier or two as we all tool along the same Garden State Parkway on our way to the shore.
But what common cause does a Montana bison rancher have with a North Carolina minister, or an Alaska fisherman with a West Virginia coal miner, other than a more over-arching sense of American-ness? For such reasons the Framers in their wisdom gave us a system that spreads out the influence of one region over another in a way that majority rule never can. Should, for example, five students in Manhattan dictate policy, both fiscal and social, to that same fisherman, coal miner, rancher or minister, with the latter four powerless to veto them? Surely the Framers thought no.
It’s interesting to note that in 2016 Donald Trump won 3,084 counties, Hillary Clinton 57. Yet Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 1.5 million. As an illustration, in the five counties that encompass New York City, she received well over 2 million more votes than Trump. Therefore these five counties alone, which comprise just 319 square miles, more than accounted for Clinton winning the popular vote of the entire country. This is what centralized power in dense population centers the Framers sought to disperse looks like.
Oppressive government from on high is not the only threat to a working republic. The Electoral College is a source of stability and proper representation. It gives those in the smaller states, especially in the heartland, a say in their own destiny, and with it a sense of citizenry. They are active participants, and at times great influencers, in the nation’s decisions, and not just the flotsam and jetsam floating wherever the irresistible tides as dictated by California, New York, Florida, or Texas propels them. After all, if the mechanics of the nation in which you live is to simply cater like rural serfs to several urban pockets of that country far removed from your own parochial interests and beliefs, and if you know that you will never have a voice, then why stay in this nation at all? Those pushing for majority rule at the expense of the very foundations of an electoral system that has served us as well as any can when applied to so large and diverse a country as ours are unwittingly sowing the seeds of disunion. If any of them had been taught anything about our history besides slavery, Indian genocide, and Viet Nam, they would understand the fire they are playing with. The last time secession was tried it didn’t go so well. And 3,084 counties is a lot of land to lose, regardless of population.
Or maybe they do understand, and for them it’s just about cynically changing the rules to aid in the accumulation of raw power, come what may, in a world where they know they’ll be far removed from the ramifications of their seismic machinations. If that’s the case then there will soon be no reason for a good portion of the United States – the United STATE – to stay in the republic at all. If you want to know what that leads to, visit the Antietam battlefield.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can order his book here: