The latest vitriol isn’t surprising in the wake of a presidential election where one party won the popular vote only to lose to the party with a majority in the electoral college. The defense is left to those of us who understand how tentatively the battered remains of our deeply divided nation rest on this foundation of our republic. It seems that we are the only ones who realize that it has always been so, and that the great divisions were the very reason for the the creation of the system.
Many will hear, and a few might read (against the fashion), self-styled intellectuals discussing the system as one created in the distant past for a different time that is now out of date. The somber tones, judiciously raised eyebrows and knowing looks heavily imply that the system was created with evil intent, obviously to oppress the weak and support slavery, because – of course – that’s what all those dead white men where doing.
At best, this idea is ignorance born of all the modern prejudices about the past; at worst, it’s outright deception. Mostly, it’s belligerent lemmings repeating words they’re either too ignorant to understand, too lazy to look up, or just something that fits easily into their world view. The reality is that at the time when the electoral college was created, it was a compromise to protect smaller northern colonies against the most populous colony, Virginia. It wasn’t created to aid the southern cause, but to limit it.
For anyone who understands the implications of moving to a strict majority electoral system, and doesn’t live in a large coastal city, the idea is terrifying. We have a government that feels very comfortable reaching into each of our lives in intrusive ways, from cradle to grave – and beyond. We have a media that clings to the urban coasts and views 90% of the country’s land mass in the same way the earliest settlers did: a vast and forbidding wasteland, full of ignorant, superstitious and probably dangerous savages. Even the supposedly “free” and “open” Internet is, in its common application, run by those hostile and contemptuous of the lesser beings they exploit.
Let us be very clear, for those fooled by rants against the Electoral College which never actually explain it. It would be unsurprising if many rioters demanding a change believed that states received votes based on some archaic system that has nothing to do with representation. That is not so. A state’s electors equals the number of Representatives that state currently has in the US House of Representatives, plus their two Senators. Plus three electors for Washington, DC – that is to say, for the Democrats. So Enlightened California has 55 electors while those scary folks in Mississippi have just 6.
The problem these anti-electors have is not with the distribution of electors, it is with the idea that states should give their block of electors to one candidate whether they win a plurality – say 42% in a 3-way race – or 90%. The idea that a vote that is tilting slightly one way in the rest of the country could be overturned and reversed by a massive majority in two or three large states fills them with unutterable joy! The base desires and ignorant opinions at last silenced by their betters!
And their ultimate ambition goes further than that. To the clear-eyed rejectors of the Electoral College – those who base the belief of their own principles and not a reactionary (and momentary) response to an election that didn’t go their way – states are a truly outdated, interceding form of government. The idea that people in different regions should have different laws is ridiculously. If New York and California are wise enough to put strict limits on gun ownership, how preposterous is it to allow other, more backward states to ignore their guidance? Can you imagine a wiser nation, such as France or Germany, allowing such autonomy to internal regions? It’s an embarrassment.
Of course, many of the limits on federal power within our Constitution are based on rights retained by the states and the individual. It seems unlikely that the abolition of states would revert those rights to the individual – our enlightened brothers and sisters have their eyes on claiming those rights for the new Federal Union they intend to dominate. This would also require abolishing the Senate, as it exists now: No states, no senators. It does not occur to them that states are not just outmoded entities that exist to thwart the national will, but are a better means of addressing regional concerns in an almost incomprehensibly diverse nation. Or that further removing the individual from any voice in his or her own governance is the further disenfranchisement of the individual and victory for tyranny, no matter how “enlightened” its source.
It has always been, and will always be, that those who believe themselves to be superior (intellectually…morally…racially), will seek to silence and disenfranchise those they consider beneath them. It is not a simple majority among equals we have to fear, but the tyranny of a majority who, once assured of always prevailing, will view it as their right and even duty, to suppress the will of the permanent minority they despise.
And if the infinite good of electric engines and public transportation don’t translate well to rural Iowa; if environmental treaties that make millions of urbanites feel good about themselves bring financial devastation to hundreds of communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia; if millions of Americans are forced to act against their own religious morality in favor of a higher, social morality – so what? The majority has spoken. Even if that majority does not know anything – believes it does not need to know anything – about the lives of people living in over 90% of the nation’s land mass.
Already they have taken the people’s money and voice. How long before they feel the same contempt for the agents of local representation – US House Members and Senators – that they feel for the presidential electors? Is it really so different, after all? No one really cares what someone in Alabama, or Kentucky or Montana thinks anyway, right? Or they really shouldn’t, given what those people are like. Better they keep quiet and leave, well, everything to their betters.
The Electoral College has the annoying responsibility of requiring anyone who would wish to be president to consider the concerns of ALL the people, not just most of the people in a couple like minded states. The end of the Electoral College would not just be the first step toward the end of a government that serves at least some of the interests of all of the people, it would be the first step toward the end of the republic itself. If you don’t know that, then you don’t really know this country. And you’re part of the problem.
It is obvious that Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the first half of the 19th Century, believed that the narrow experience and prejudice of the majority within the young United States would silence any voice outside their own, limited by ideas of decency and what was right. I have no doubt that many people writing, speaking, or creating …something…in today’s increasingly visible public square believe that they are shouting from beyond the barriers raised by the rabble that is the majority. And they consider it a badge of honor.
But Alexis de Tocqueville could not imagine the world we live in, or the mediums that give a voice to those on the outside. And he could not foresee a day when control of the medium would confer more power than the common square, and the barriers constructed against the liberty of opinion would be directed inward, not outward. He, like some of the founding fathers and political philosophers like John Stuart Mill, feared a tyranny of the majority, never guessing technology would make the possibility of the tyranny they imagined obsolete.
It is the loud, the aggrieved, the self-righteous and the ambitious who man the barricades now, enabled by their sycophants in the new medium. They hear no other voices – they have no wish to – and have convinced themselves that no other voices are worth hearing. If the tyrants exist outside any consensus of opinion, then it is that opinion that must be wrong. Stupid, or bigoted or backward. Obviously hurtful or even harmful, it’s best ignored – or better yet, silenced. Their pain is anecdotal, their fear is unwarranted, their anger is a threat.
Why keep them around at all? Oh yes, they pay for everything. If only they’d learn their place.
And so, if Alexis de Tocqueville were to visit us again today, he would see his fears of a tyranny of the majority were unfounded. No threat there. Unintentionally lumped into one massive community, their voices fade into a background hum, insignificant and slightly annoying. Despised, exploited and ignored.
Except every now and then, when they forget their place, and terrify their tyrants by reminding them just who really is outside those formidable barriers. It will take a effort of vitriol and contempt by the tyrants and their sycophants to put them back in their place.