Last time we looked at the complicated and yet ill-defined nature of the Electoral College – an institution that every four years, like clockwork, emerges out of the depths of the Constitution and into the conscious minds of Americans to confuse them about how the president and vice president are actually chosen and then, having done its duty, disappears back into the mire where important things go so we can all get back to focusing on sports. It’s a system that does not apply to any other elected officials in the US, and it is one that seems, on the surface, to be completely insane.
Who thought this was a good idea?
The Founding Fathers, that’s who.
And the question that we left off with last time, of course, is: why?
You really want to know the answer? The Founding Fathers did not trust you.
That’s it! That’s all it was! Isn’t that simple? Doesn’t that make you proud to be an American? Honestly, I can feel my internal organs turning into bald eagles and assault rifles even as I type this. It’s kind of uncomfortable, really.
To put it in the simplest of terms, the Founding Fathers did not think that you – the mass of the citizenry of the United States of America – were capable of selecting a proper candidate for the most important single office under the Constitution, at least not without an intermediary body there to make sure you didn’t louse it up.
Every four years Americans rediscover the Electoral College, and every four years there are anguished calls to get rid of it because it is undemocratic because it sits athwart the will of the people like some giant boulder in the path of democracy, limiting the ability of the Common Man (and, since 1920, the Common Woman) to select the leader of their choice.
To which the Founding Fathers would have responded, “And?”
To them this was a feature, not a bug, and for us to understand why requires a long hard look at the mental world the Founders inhabited when it came to their politics, and how that world differs from ours. Because contrary to what so many loud and irritating voices insist when bludgeoning you with their political views, it does differ. It differs in broad and fundamental ways, and until you understand that simple fact the rest of it isn’t going to make any sense at all.
All of modern American politics takes place in within a very narrow spectrum of Lockean Liberalism, which doesn’t mean what most people think it means.
There are no Conservatives in America, not really. Conservatism is a very specific ideology, one that first gets codified in Europe in the late 18th century as a reaction against Liberalism and one that never gains any real following on this side of the Atlantic. Here in the United States we have left-wing political liberals and right-wing economic liberals, and we call the latter “conservatives” largely, one suspects, for the sake of rhetorical convenience. But they’re all Liberals, in the sense that the Founding Fathers would have understood the term.
Liberalism is the quintessential form of Enlightenment politics, and as such it draws from the three fundamental principles of the Enlightenment.
It is based on reason. Liberals are great ones for starting out from first principles and working out how reality ought to function from there. The importance of equality is perhaps the greatest example of this. Equality is found nowhere in nature, but it is something that all Americans today believe in their bones and we insist that our society reflects this value even when it clearly does not.
It is based on the idea of universal natural laws. Liberals firmly believe that this is the only proper form of politics for all of humanity, regardless of history or culture. That’s why we tried to install democracy in Iraq, for example.
And it is based on progress. Things can and will get better. Using our reason, we can figure out the natural laws that govern human society and politics and use that knowledge to make progress. Got a problem? We’ll invent our way out of it. All Americans believe in progress, even if we disagree vociferously over what constitutes progress and what doesn’t.
From here Liberalism adds three other principles.
First, that the individual is the fundamental building block of society and all of society must be set up to benefit and protect this individual. Most political ideologies are based on groups. Conservatism, Socialism, Nationalism, and so on – all are group-oriented ways of organizing the world. Liberalism is all about the individual.
Now, who counts as an individual varies over time. At the time of the Founding Fathers “individual” meant “adult white man with property.” That was the individual society was set up to benefit and protect, and if you didn’t qualify then, well, you didn’t qualify. You start to see the property restrictions abolished in the early 19th century, and technically the racial restrictions were eliminated in the 1860s even if it did take another century for that to become anything even remotely like reality (and it’s disturbing how ferocious the war to reimpose those racial restrictions has become here in the 21st century). Women don’t count as individuals until the 20th century, and children still don’t. But that is a matter of negotiation, not a difference in principle. It’s the individual, however defined, that counts in Liberalism in a way that is essentially unique among major world political ideologies.
Second, that the primary function of society is to free this individual from restraints. Humans are basically good, says Lockean Liberalism, and the job of society and government is to give them the freedom to do the right things without interference or coercion.
And third, that the most important thing individuals need is equality of opportunity, a level playing field to use their individual talents, free from restraints, to get ahead. This is not equality of condition, mind you – there is nothing here that says individuals will end up equal. It’s simply equality of opportunity – the equality of the starting line, not the finish line. This, more than anything else, is the mainspring that makes liberalism work. It all follows from this one principle.
These ideas can be spun in two basic ways.
If the playing field you want to level is economic, then eventually, if you follow the logic long enough, you will end up with a firm belief in the sacred nature of private property, the importance of private interests, the need for small and passive government, and the general rightness of laissez-faire capitalism, where atomized individuals are freed from restraints to maximize their equal opportunities in the marketplace. Americans have for generations called this sort of economic liberalism, “conservative.”
If the playing field you want to level is political, you will eventually end up at a belief in civil and political rights that must be protected by a firm and active government that has the power to step in and take substantive action in both the marketplace and society at large, and a strong emphasis on popular participation in this government being extended to the widest number of individuals practicable. Americans have for generations called this form of political liberalism, “liberal.”
But either way, these forms of liberalism all depend on the worth of individuals, individuals who must be given an equal say in their own fates. Liberalism, in other words, insists on democracy as the proper form of government. There is a reason why it is called “liberal democracy” – it’s because they go together. Liberalism assumes that the only proper form of government is a democracy, where the will of the people is the only thing that matters.
Vox populi, vox dei, and all that jazz.
Under such a system, the Electoral College is an anomaly. It is undemocratic. It puts an unaccountable body between individuals and their choice of rulers. It represents a check on the power of the citizens of a liberal democracy to select their own leaders. And every four years, like clockwork, Americans look at the Electoral College and complain about all this, because it does not fit into the political world we inhabit. It does not fit into a world defined by Lockean Liberalism.
The Founding Fathers, however, were mostly not Lockean Liberals. This is the place where the political differences between them and us manifests most clearly.
They did not, as a rule, believe in that sort of politics in general – and most of them certainly did not do so in 1787, when the Constitution was written. They didn’t set up the United States to be a democracy. They set it up to be a republic.
Their world was defined not by liberalism but by republicanism – “neo-Harringtonian republicanism” or “classical republicanism” if you want to get precise – and in that sort of world, the Electoral College makes a lot more sense than it does in ours.
Republicanism is an older ideology than liberalism.
Where liberalism comes out of the Enlightenment, republicanism was a response to the political crises of England during the 17th century, particularly the English Civil War of the 1640s, a vicious struggle between the Puritans who ran Parliament, on the one hand, and the Anglican monarchy on the other. The short version of this includes such things as the overthrow and execution of the king, followed by ten years of Commonwealth rule that was so badly mismanaged that eventually the Puritans themselves asked the son of the late and now lamented king to come back and restore the monarchy in 1660.
English political thinkers looked at those upheavals and the big lesson they got out of it was that if any one person or group got too much power in a government, they would destroy liberty. Where the idea of equality of opportunity is what makes liberalism go ‘round, the core of republicanism is the notion that there is an eternal conflict between liberty and power. They are opposites in a zero-sum game, and where one wins the other – by definition – loses.
Imagine a pie cut into two pieces, one labeled “liberty” and the other labeled “power.” You can divide that pie any way you want, but the overall size of the pie never changes. So if one piece gets bigger, the other must get smaller. That’s what it means to be a zero-sum game – all of the changes sum up to zero. If you have +2 power, you must also have -2 liberty.
Republicans believed that of the two, it would always be power that was going to get bigger at the expense of liberty rather than the other way around. Power is always engaged in conspiracies to destroy liberty, and those who would enjoy their liberty must be constantly on their guard against even small movements by power against liberty. Power therefore must be checked – otherwise it will eat up all your pie of liberty, leaving you with nothing but crumbs!
You can have a lot of fun with the pie metaphor. Don’t even ask what the whipped cream stands for. Even trained historians sometimes have to be hospitalized if they think about that too much. Best to leave that sort of thing to the professionals.
Republicanism is thus a very dark, very conspiratorial, almost paranoid view of history, government, and human nature, one very different from the more optimistic ideas of Enlightenment liberalism. Those who believe in this sort of politics, such as the Founding Fathers, are not people who are going to be very trusting when it comes to government and political power. Power must be checked, so that liberty can be preserved.
Okay, fine. You have to check power in order to preserve liberty. Fine. Got it. But how do you do that? How do you keep power in its place?
In order to check power and preserve liberty, you must have what republicans called a balanced government. Power must be divided, and the pieces balanced against one another.
That doesn’t really answer the question, though, does it? All that does is move the question down one level. Okay – a balanced government. Great. What’s that? And more concretely, what are you balancing in a balanced government?
There are two answers to this question.
In classical (or traditional) republicanism – the views that drove the Revolution – what you are balancing are the orders of society. Republicanism, unlike liberalism, assumes a social hierarchy. People are not equal. They were not created equal, they do not end up equal, and they do not deserve to be treated equally. Society is instead divided up into three groups: the One – the most powerful person in the society; the Few – the small group of elites who occupy the next level down; and the Many – the great unwashed, otherwise known as you and me.
In a properly balanced republican government, each of these would have a branch of the government.
The One would be the monarchy – the king and his representatives, such as governors, ministers, the military, and so forth. The Few would be the aristocracy – the nobility, the lords. The many would be the Democracy – the rest of us, as embodied in the legislature, the Commons. A properly balanced government would have all three of these branches and when they were balanced, when each branch stuck to its own turf and did not infringe on the rights of any of the other branches, then power would be checked and liberty would be secure.
This changes somewhat after the Revolution.
We didn’t really have a One or a Few in the new United States. All we had was the Many. The liberals were right about that, which is one of the reasons why liberalism will eventually win this contest. But a good republican had to find something to balance, and if social orders wouldn’t work then something else must be found. So the Founding Fathers eventually worked it out to balance the functions of government rather than social orders. Government should be divided by what it does, not by who it represents.
So the One becomes the Executive Branch – the President. The Few becomes the Judicial Branch – the courts. And the Many remains the Democracy, which in this case becomes the Legislative Branch – the Congress. This is the system put in place in the Constitution, and the one we all learn in 5th grade civics class.
Notice that Democracy here is only one third of a republican government. Under Lockean liberalism, the ideology we all subscribe to today, Democracy is all of the government. There’s no room for anything else, and anything that interferes with this – anything “undemocratic” – is automatically problematic. But to a good classical republican thinker, that view itself is problematic. Democracy – however you define it – was only one of the three branches of a properly balanced republican government and it, like the other two, had to stay within its proper bounds, otherwise the whole system would come crashing down. It has to be checked, lest it get out of hand, assume absolute power, and eat your pie of liberty. And the whipped cream, too!
This becomes important when we get back to the Electoral College, so hold onto that thought.
Because that is the main question, after all: what happens when those branches are not balanced? What happens when one branch of the balanced republican government tries to take over, tries to stomp on the turf of the other two?
When that happens, republican thinkers called it “corruption.” That was a technical term back then – when you see 18th-century writers complaining about corruption they’re not complaining about bribes or nepotism as such. They’re complaining about one branch of a balanced republican government becoming unbalanced and invading the turf of one or more of the other two. Because when that happened, power was no longer checked and liberty would die.
It would die in different ways, depending on what branch got out of hand. If the One got out of hand then you had Tyranny, a dictatorship. If the Few got out of hand, then you had an Oligarchy, which is sort of dictatorship by committee, where a small number of powerful elites run things – small being defined as “more than one but less than a bunch.” If the Many got out of hand, you had Anarchy. Where everyone’s in charge, nobody’s in charge and the powerful then swoop in to crush everyone’s liberty.
The bottom line here is that you have to have all three parts of a republican government – One, Few and Many, whether the traditional or separation of powers variations – and they have to be balanced. They have to stick to their own turf and they have to have some way to check the power of the other two. It’s a very complicated bit of machinery, republican government – much more complicated than a simple liberal democracy.
So, let us consider the Electoral College in light of the republicanism that defined the mental world of late 18th-century politics for the Founding Fathers.
When you look at it through this lens, it quickly becomes clear that the Electoral College is not the anomaly that it is under the liberalism that currently defines American politics. It is, instead, a perfectly reasonable body to have, one whose purposes are fairly clear.
The Electoral College serves an ideological function: it is a check on the Many. Remember, power must be checked in order to preserve liberty and the definition of corruption is for one branch of a balanced republican government to stomp on the turf of another. For the Many to be completely in charge would be corruption, after all.
This becomes relevant when it comes down to the question of how one goes about selecting the One, which you have to think about with a President in a way that you really don’t with a king.
This is a very different question from how you select the various members of Congress or the judges. The One is the most powerful individual in government, and both the Few and the Many must have some say in choosing such a figure. To leave such a momentous decision entirely in the hands of the Many would be unbalanced – it would render the One simply a creature of the Many, and that is corruption.
So the Electoral College is a temporary Few whose purpose is to make sure that the Many do not have complete control over who gets to be the One.
As such it is in fact explicitly anti-democratic. It is a check on the Democracy, keeping it in its proper place and avoiding the Anarchy that you would get if the Many controlled everything.
Even if you could figure out a good way for the Many to pick the One on their own, the Founding Fathers simply did not believe that the Many could be trusted with such a decision without oversight. The Founders firmly believed that the Common Man (and now Woman) would be easily led astray by silver-tongued demagogues and fear mongers pandering to the worst instincts of the insensate rabble, rousing the mob to dangerous and violent excesses which, left unchecked, would destroy the republic. There is no “vox populi, vox dei” in republicanism. The people are fickle, subject to irrational passions and inexplicable enthusiasms, and easily herded by those who would prey on their anxieties and appeal to their base nature.
If you doubt that, please cast your mind back over the 2016 presidential campaign and then try to tell me the Founders were wrong.
Go ahead. I dare you.
The job of the Electoral College is to prevent this, to interpose a body of (presumably) wiser and cooler heads who can ensure that the most important position in the balanced republican government is not going to be given to an unsuitable person.
This also helps to explain the practical nuts and bolts of the way the Electoral College was designed – or, more accurately, not designed.
First, it explains why there is an Electoral College at all.
Okay, you need a check on the Many, but why not just use one of the existing bodies in the government? Why not use the Few you’ve already got – the judiciary – or give it to the House of Representatives, since that’s where it will end up if the Electoral College can’t decide, instead of creating this temporary Few for this one purpose?
The answer is that having a separate institution cuts down on the conflicts of interest. Just as Constitutions are supposed to be written by a special temporary body elected just for that purpose – a constitutional convention – and not the sitting legislature, who would write it to suit their needs, so too do you need a special temporary body to select the One.
As Alexander Hamilton explained in The Federalist Papers – specifically Federalist #68, which dealt with the Electoral College – the temporary and specific nature of the Electoral College means that there would be no time for outside forces or inside agents to arrange secret deals, nor would there be any temptation on the part of the President to curry favor with them for the next election since there would be an entirely new body of Electors by then. The Electoral College exists for one purpose only and then they go away, thus reducing the temptation to usurp power and destroy liberty.
Second, it explains the astonishing flexibility that is built into the Electoral College by the Constitution, particularly the freedom that electors have to vote the way they see fit rather than being bound by the will of the Many in the selection of the One.
The Electoral College – those calmer, wiser heads – is designed specifically to judge the person whom the will of the Many has designated to be the One and if that person is deemed to be unfit for the office, it is the job of the Electoral College, this temporary Few, to overrule the fickle passions and interests of the Many, to overrule the Democracy itself, and pick someone worthy.
It isn’t democratic.
It’s not meant to be.
It’s meant to be a check on the Democracy, on the Many, so that the Few can have a voice in the selection of the One. Alexander Hamilton also declared this publicly in Federalist #68. “It was … desirable that the … election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."
The Founding Fathers did not trust you.
They put the Electoral College in there to make sure that you didn’t screw up the most important office the Constitution has to offer. They wrote that into the foundational framework of the new nation so that it couldn’t be removed lightly. They really, really, genuinely did not trust you at all. And they had very good reason not to do so.
We don’t really get this anymore. We don’t live in a republican world, and we haven’t for nearly two centuries. Those concerns are not our concerns, though whether they should be anyway is an interesting question.
Republicanism was already being contested in 1787, when the Constitution was written and the Electoral College was created. Liberalism begins to emerge as a counterforce in American political thinking in the 1770s. It gains strength throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries and much of the immediate post-Revolutionary period in American history can be seen as a contest between liberalism and republicanism over which ideology would claim the allegiance of the newly independent United States.
By 1820 liberalism had triumphed and republicanism was effectively dead. It would fade from the scene, leaving only the balanced republican government set up by the Federal Constitution of 1787 as a residue. For the rest of American history most Americans would have no idea that there ever was any other way of looking at politics besides liberalism and they would wonder, every four years, why we have this thing called an Electoral College.
Now you know.