Debates continue about popular voting and the electoral college

Abolish the Electoral College? Differing Perspectives

In Defense of the Electoral College

By Robert Wilkes

The demand to abolish the electoral college in favor of a one-man-one-vote nationwide election is au courant but misbegotten. The Electoral College is essential if we are to preserve our American ideals and the Constitutional form of government that has served us so well for so long.

Our ingenious Electoral College, unique among western democracies, is not outdated; rather, it is needed now more than ever. This unique system of electing our national leader is part of what makes America an extraordinary nation. What happens in Paris determines what happens in France. And if progressives get their way, national elections would be contested in California and New York, the rest of the country be damned.

The Yeoman Ideal

The clear thinking of people in what is now derogatorily called “flyover country” has a long philosophical and literary tradition. It can be dated from Homeric times. The Roman poet Virgil recognized the harmony of the countryside and the praised the warmth and sense of community of farming folk in his poem Georgics (“farming things”). Aristotle revered the rural farmer and thought it the most honest of occupations. He coined the word “homogalaktes,” sharers of the same milk, to describe the harmony of people living together in small-scale communities. He believed that a rural polis is more stable than an urban polis because in the latter, politics is pursued for its own sake by salaried professional politicians. Oh, how right he was.

The American Founding Fathers were well educated in history and determined to avoid the mistakes of that brought classical democracies to ruin. Thomas Jefferson lauded the yeoman in his book Notes on the State of Virginia: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

Foundation of Our Democracy

As Athens evolved from kings to oligarchs to democracy, the dispassionate thoughtfulness of rural folk was the ideal of the Greek city-state. In America and other Western democracies, we enshrine as the ideal citizen the persona of the independent-minded man or woman who makes his own laws and willingly leaves his home to fight for his country. In Rome this was personified by Cincinnatus, the senator who served the Roman Republic, then, seeking no power for his own ends, returned to his plow. American has its own Cincinnatus. His name is George Washington.

In our day, small-state people are referred to by blue-state politicians as “deplorables” and “bitter,” “frustrated” people who “cling to their guns and religion in antipathy to people who aren’t like them…” No further proof is needed as to the intentions of the anti-Electoral College crowd. Only the Electoral College stands in the way of writing small-state voters out our electoral process. The coastal elites don’t need them and don’t want them.

If the Electoral College is lost, all political power will be in the hands of self-serving, career politicians in the sway of a frothy, mass-media-driven mob. And as we know in our time, mobs don’t think. Mobs are easily and surreptitiously steered into violence and destruction by a few well-organized provocateurs. You can deny it, but it’s on my TV screen nightly.

While some defend one-man-one-vote, history shows that a small number of provocateurs hiding within a great numerical majority of people can change the course of a nation, even destroy it. The people who took to the streets in the Russian Revolution of 1917 thought they were fighting for a democracy. The violent Bolsheviks, less numerous but more organized and more willing to kill, commandeered the Revolution and gave us the horrific USSR.

The Electoral College, and the wisdom of two senators from each state, prevents a disaster such as that from happening here.

We Must Keep the Electoral College

We are a nation, not a diverse collection of warring tribes based on skin color, sexual orientation, or national origin. A nation is a people with a common language, a common land, and a set of common values that people hold dear. Our traditions are founded on yeomanry and husbandry, on the grit of the independent citizen who makes his own laws and fights for his country. This is our national character.

These ideals provide guardrails that keep this republic steady as it hurtles into an unknown future rocked by pandemics and social strife. If you eliminate those guardrails, some may call it America, but it will be something else, something we will not recognize and will regret.

Indeed, rather than suffocate the voice of small-state America, we should invite their wisdom to be more prominent in our political dialogue. That voice has been quelled and their opinions marginalized because the national media is dominated by coastal, one-sided propaganda machines. Flyover values are not revered, they are mocked.

Simple, rural good sense can help us emerge from the violent and politically deranged madness of our blue-state cities. No one is defecating in the streets of rural America. No one is unmanning the police. Country people roam the streets at night in safety. Country children are not getting shot and have fathers at home. Country sons and daughters feel the call of duty to country and serve in our armed forces. We need the values of our country people now more than ever.

No, pray, do not overpower these good people with your tyranny of numbers. You need them because you have lost your way. They are the salvation of this once-great, and, God willing, still-great country.


Misperceptions of the Electoral College

By Paul Burstein

Robert: Your claim your impassioned defense of the Electoral College is based in the wisdom of our nation’s founders, on their understanding of yeoman farmers, on the virtues of rural life, and on its ensuring that the U.S. can avoid mob rule. Sadly, you are mistaken on all accounts. Allow me to explain.

Founders’ Intent?

You describe the Electoral College as “ingenious.” Well, maybe, but not in the way you mean. When the Constitutional Convention first voted on how to elect the President, the vote was unanimous⁠—he should be elected by Congress. But there was no agreement on how long the president’s term should be or whether he could be re-elected, so a final vote was postponed. In the meantime, opponents, who either hadn’t voted or thought better of their vote, tried to get the Convention to change its mind; they tried one proposal after another; nothing worked until they came up with the idea of the electoral college, which finally won the day.

What did they think was wrong with election by Congress? That it would ignore yeoman farmers or small states? No⁠—they were concerned about the separation of powers. They wanted the president to be elected separately from Congress. How did we wind up with the Electoral College? In the same way we wound up with so many other elements of the Constitution⁠—the less populous states refused to support the new Constitution unless they were given power out of proportion to their population. Adoption of the Electoral College involved nothing more than power politics and logrolling.

Yeoman Farmers?

As to the wisdom of yeoman farmers and the virtues of rural life: it’s true that Jefferson and some ancient Greeks were much enamored of yeoman farmers. But what options did they have? It wasn’t as though they thought yeoman farmers were more virtuous than baristas or computer scientists. They thought yeoman farmers were more virtuous than slaves, landless laborers, and the very few people who lived in cities (when the first U.S. Census was conducted, maybe 3% of the population). That was because for Jefferson, at least, yeoman farmers were independent–they could make independent political judgments because there was no one who could force them to do otherwise.

If we take Jefferson’s criterion seriously and ask about today’s farmers, it’s turns out that they’re not exactly like the yeoman farmers of old. The ever-declining number of independent farmers are dependent on the companies that provide their seed, the companies that process their products, the banks that loan them money, and the federal government, which provides 15-25% of total farm income. I don’t know whom, if anyone, in the modern economy would meet Jefferson’s standard for independence, but it certainly wouldn’t be farmers.

Let us not forget who was not included in the Founders or the Greek’s yeoman farmer: women. There’s the need to, as Abigail Adams said, “remember the ladies.” For Jefferson, women were necessarily dependent on men, and could never be independent⁠⁠—and therefore shouldn’t participate in politics.

Rural Life?

Rural life, while often praised, has its downsides. Which states have the lowest per capita incomes in the U.S.? Rural states⁠—Montana, Kentucky, Maine, Alabama–are the usual suspects. The lowest life expectancy? Likewise: Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma. Half of all patents issued to Americans in 2019 went to residents of just six states⁠—California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington⁠—not a rural state among them. Farmers may well be virtuous, but they tend to be poor, live short lives, and contribute relatively little to the nation’s economic progress.

As to mob rule, rural states have historically been bastions of radical movements, if not exactly mob rule. Everyone thinks that radicals mostly come from New York (historically) and California (lately). But this was because the radicals from those states were active in media-rich environments and surrounded by people who wrote a lot. The many radical movements in the northern tier of states, from Washington and Oregon to Minnesota, and the populist movements in the South, were scary to those in power too. But they didn’t have access to mass media and didn’t know lots of writers.

Mob Rule?

It’s true that Madison was worried about mob rule. One of his biggest fears was of what he called the “tyranny of the majority.” Namely, the fear that if a majority of voters⁠—a “majority faction”⁠—agreed with each other consistently across a wide range of issues, they could just vote for what they wanted on everything without paying any attention to the minority at all. Those in the minority, who had no hope of winning, might very well turn against democracy.

But Madison had a solution. Most people knew that democracies flourished in small countries and doubted that democracy could succeed in a big country like the U.S. Madison, however, thought democracies would be more likely to succeed in a big country. Why? Because a big country would contain so many different kinds of people that it would be impossible to create a majority faction. Using the language of today, Madison thought that democracy in the U.S. would be preserved by diversity.

As to your fear that without the electoral college national elections would be contested only in California and New York, you are forgetting that the most populous states are California and Texas, with Florida and New York after that. In any case, why would only the biggest states count? With no electoral college, every vote counts the same. The Republicans aren’t going to do well in California, so they’d try to get out the maximum vote in the states that favor them. The Democrats, unable to do well in red states, would try to maximize their vote in California. In other words, the parties would do pretty much what they’re doing now.

Should we preserve the Electoral College because it was such a brilliant invention for preserving the nation? It was the small states that were brilliant, grabbing power where they could. Because farmers are independent and virtuous? Not any more than anyone else. To avoid the mob rule that Madison worried about? He thought diversity was the answer, at least to some extent. To avoid having elections depend entirely on campaigning in California and New York? They wouldn’t.

But of course the Electoral College needs no defense. It was adopted to give small states disproportionate power. They’re not going to give it up.


Defending the Electoral College is More Important than Ever

By Robert Wilkes

Dear Paul: I find your arguments to be a series of petty niggles—and some issues that you just have wrong. Let’s start with the niggles. Yes, the Electoral College was created by the “Great Compromise” drafted by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth in 1787. And yes, it was the product of political sausage-making. But that doesn’t alter the fact that one of the clear motivations of the compromise was the fear of a headstrong “democratic mob” steering the country astray. Thus, carping about the origins of the Electoral College is a niggle. It does what it was created to do and has operated as planned. Its format is rare among national polities. For that reason, I call it ingenious.

Likewise, the movement of population from rural to urban does not change the virtues of the Electoral College. It only amplifies the wisdom of the founders. They treasured country virtues, virtues that live on in the flyover states, even if much of the population lives in towns and is no longer farming. Your question as to whether the founders would have valued farmers over baristas (i.e. people with degrees in poetry who become latte artists) is telling, because it’s so far off the mark. It ignores the valid position of Electoral College rooted in Classical Greek and Roman political philosophy that, in order to guarantee political diversity and the franchise for all, we must give voice to people who are not professional politicians.

My ideal of America is captured in the Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell, where a common man among common men is standing and speaking at a town meeting. It’s clear that that man didn’t spend a year as a community organizer and become a lifelong politician, somehow retiring fantastically wealthy in his early fifties. Rockwell was portraying the common man with common sense, the reason for the Electoral College.

Yeoman Farmers Revisited

You wrote: “The ever-declining number of independent farmers are dependent… I don’t know whom, if anyone, in the modern economy would meet Jefferson’s standard for independence, but it certainly wouldn’t be farmers.” You apparently have not spent much time with farmers. If you think rural folk are not an independent lot, you are falsely imagining the lives of people you know little about. Farmers are free to buy their seed at the lowest prices from whomever they choose. They are free to sell their crop to the processor offering the highest prices. Lots of businesses have lines of credit from banks. Farmers, like urban business owners, are free to run their businesses as they choose.

The farmers I know have a strong (I would say “healthy”) distrust of government because they are bedeviled by excessive regulations. Yes, as you point out, there are a few crops that are subsidized to keep prices low, such as corn, cotton, and wheat. Personally, I don’t agree with the policy of subsidizing farmers. But the money given to the farmers is, in general, returned to the public in the form of lower prices. How much farmers contribute to the national economy is a niggle and irrelevant. They feed us. We can’t live without them.

Yes, Mob Rule

Your niggle about my statement that the election would be contested in California and New York was interesting, but my basic point is true. Instead of “New York” I should have said the “New York media market,” which is how politics is run today. California has 39.5 million people. The New York Media Market (NY, CT, MA, RI and NJ) has 39.7 million. Florida is big but it didn’t matter in 2016. Clinton still won 3 million more votes even while losing Florida. Ask Al Gore how that works. Win the large media markets and win the election once the Electoral College is swept aside.

Your statement that rural states have historically been bastions of radical movements might have been true 100 years ago, but it is not true today. The radicals are in the cities. Although, ominously, now they’re mobile. They will fly to burn down a small city near you just as readily as a large one. All they need is an incident that can be twisted into a civil rights issue because civil rights is the river they swim in. But civil rights is not really their cause. They are nihilists. Destroying America is their cause.

Finally, you mention that Madison believed our country’s size would ensure political diversity and that diversity would preserve our stability. This is where you make my case for me. I agree, but only if we retain the electoral college. Eliminate the electoral college and you squelch the virtues that exist primarily in flyover states and within the yeoman farmer. Lose the Electoral College and political diversity is lost. Don’t let us become one big California, where the Democratic Party—the party of the megacities and mobs—dominates all political power; a state that is burning, literally and figuratively, and the middle class is fleeing.

The Electoral College works as intended. It keeps the mob from taking absolute power and that would be the ruin of the nation.

 

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here

Paul Burstein

Paul Burnstein is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Washington. His research has focused on politics, social movements, social stratification, research methods, and the American Jewish community. Burstein is the author of American Public Opinion, Advocacy, and Policy in Congress: What the Public Wants and What It Gets (Cambridge University Press).

Robert Wilkes
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Robert Wilkes is a Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall. His eclectic career has included military and civilian aviation, engineering, marketing, and communications. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.

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