Monday, October 31, 2016

A Birthday on Halloween

It’s Lauren’s birthday today.

Lauren loves her birthday, though this year has been a bit more low key than usual.  She’s reaching a busy stage of life, after all – friends swirling around, schoolwork piling up, clubs and activities making demands in the background, and so on – and our family is generally pretty low key about birthdays anyway.  I tend to forget mine, more often than not, though I like that she enjoys hers so much.  It’s a nice contrast.

We are spreading it out a bit more this year than we used to do as well.  Tonight she had a couple of friends come over after school and they handed out candy to the trick-or-treaters.  There was pizza and ice cream cake, and it was a good time.  Wednesday we’ll go out to dinner with Kim’s parents at a place of Lauren’s choosing, assuming she chooses one by then.  Maybe this weekend there will be more friends over.  It’s still up in the air.

But it is good to celebrate, however one does it, because Lauren is worth celebrating.

Happy birthday, Lauren.  You make me proud.

Love, Dad.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Founding Fathers Did Not Trust You: The Electoral College (Part 2)

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.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Founding Fathers Did Not Trust You: The Electoral College (Part 1)

How many of you voted for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the 2012 election?


Unless something is very unusual about the people reading this blog, the plain fact is that none of you voted for either of those candidates.  There are only 538 votes for president that count, and in a nation of some 320 million people, the odds are that yours was not one of them. 

Those votes belong to a group of people known, perhaps not surprisingly, as electors.  You get to vote for them – if you are lucky – and they get to vote for a president.  Since 1804 they also get to vote for a vice-president, but that’s extra. 

They do this in December, a month or so after everyone thinks that the dust has settled from the election.  Figuring out the specific date for this is kind of like figuring out when Easter will happen, in that it requires you to know several other dates and quite possibly to sacrifice some small, helpless animal.  Or not.  Accounts vary.  For the record, electors meet in their respective state capitals to cast their ballots on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, which, for the 2012 election cycle, was on December 17.  It will not be until December 19th in 2016.  Then and only then do they cast their ballots, which means the election is not officially over until five weeks after everyone thinks it is, just in time for last minute holiday shopping.

These electors are collectively known as the Electoral College, a deeply misunderstood institution in modern America.  The British biologist JBS Haldane once remarked that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose,” and the Electoral College fits that description quite nicely.  Unlike most colleges, it has no students, no faculty, no campus, no dorms, no football team, and very few cheerleaders, most of whom cannot do a split to save their lives, though one thing it does share with most colleges is an inordinate amount of politics.  In this it shares more than a few similarities with the College of Cardinals, though without the puff of smoke at the end of the process.

Wouldn’t that be fun, though?

For most Americans the Electoral College is something of a mystery, an arcane and semi-magical thing that drops into their lives once every four years when the political wonks begin to ramp up their chatter about the presidential election as if they were squirrels at an all-night walnut bar, and then just as quickly vanishes until the next time.  In the interval it rarely gets explained, and few people ever ask for it to be.

The reason for all this mystery is that the Electoral College is a holdover, a relic of the mental world of the Founding Fathers.  That world that has not existed for almost two hundred years now, and it has been so thoroughly forgotten that most Americans have no idea that it ever existed at all.

Don’t ever pay attention to any half-baked politician, apoplectic cable-news talking head, or semi-literate Facebook troll when they start spouting off about What This Great Nation Of Ours Was Founded Upon.  Nobody is running on that platform today, and none of you would vote for them if they did.  Things have changed.  The Electoral College – and the baffled looks that modern Americans get on their faces on those quadrennial occasions when they stop to consider it – is Exhibit A for that point.

So what I want to do here is two-fold.

First, in this post, I want to take a closer look at the Electoral College itself: what it is and how it works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

And second, in the next post, I want to step back and examine the question of why the Founding Fathers put such a system in place at all.  The Electoral College is a complicated and – to modern Americans – often counter-intuitive system, one that does not apply to any other office except the President and Vice President.  There are reasons for both of those facts.  And those reasons are interesting.

If you go around and ask people about the Electoral College – and one of the joys of being a historian is that you can do this and people already think you’re a bit lopsided so they don’t think any less of you for doing so – it quickly becomes crystal clear that not many people these days understand how it works.  In a sense, this is not surprising as the Constitution is actually quite vague on this subject, as it is on many points. 

That is by design.

The Founding Fathers understood that a framework of government needed to set out broad principles rather than dwell on the nuts and bolts of day-to-day administration.  They were much better historians than most modern Americans, and they understood that times change.  To imprison future generations in a cage made of “Original Intent,” particularly at the level of operational details – and especially since they themselves often disagreed about what precisely that Original Intent was – was therefore irresponsible.  Their job, as they saw it, was to lay down general guidelines and let those on the ground fill in the details of how things actually were supposed to work when they got to them.

The Electoral College, at its most basic level, is a body of men – and, recently, women – whose only task is to select a president and a vice president.  In addition to the theoretical and ideological questions regarding why we have this body in the first place, which I will get to next time, this raises a number of practical questions as well.

For one thing, who are these people?  How does someone get to be an elector? 

The Constitution does not say.

Article II, Section 1 simply says that “Each State shall appoint, in such a Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

That’s all it says!

So the number of electors is determined by the Constitution.  Wisconsin, for example, gets ten, since we have eight Representatives and two Senators at the moment, at least until the next census.  That much we know.  Also, the Constitution says that nobody with a federal job can be an elector, so at least we know who can’t be one.  Along those lines, the 14th Amendment – ratified in 1868, after the Civil War – also prohibits certain types (though not all types) of people who have committed treason against the United States from being electors, though it also allows Congress to lift such a ban for specific individuals should it so choose.

Pretty much everything else is up for grabs.

These days, the electors are chosen by the various parties that are running candidates for president.  It’s considered something of an honor, really – a reward for services rendered to the party.  It’s about one notch up the scale from being a delegate to the nominating convention and another notch below being named ambassador to some tranquil little vacation-oriented country if your candidate wins.  If you’ve spent a few years knocking on doors or working on the phone banks, or if you’ve donated large sums of money to the cause, at some point the higher-ups of your party may well designate you as an elector. 

Your name then goes onto a list or “slate” of electors.

The actual ballot that the voters will see will not have your name on it, though.  It will have the candidate’s name.  But through some legal sleight of hand, it is understood by the state that when the voter marks that space they are actually voting for the slate of electors designated by that candidate’s party.  Thus the confusion at the beginning of the post – you don’t see those names; you only see your candidate’s name, so you think you’re actually voting for that candidate.  You kind of are, in a roundabout sort of way, but not directly and not necessarily, and that’s a long and complicated thing that I’ll explain shortly.  It’s just easier on everyone to put the candidate’s name there, so that’s what happens.

As a general rule, states work on a “winner-take-all” system when deciding which slate will ultimately get to cast its votes for their candidate.  The citizens of each state vote, and whoever gets the most votes gets all of that state’s electoral votes.  In Wisconsin in 2012, for example, Romney got 1.4mm popular votes while Obama got 1.6mm, so all ten electoral votes went to Obama.

The thing is, though, it doesn’t have to work that way.  None of that is spelled out in the Constitution, and “Each state shall appoint in such a manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” leaves an awful lot of leeway when it comes to figuring out who gets to be an elector and what they do once they become one.

For one thing, it doesn’t have to be “winner take all.”

Forty-eight states plus the District of Columbia work that way, but Maine and Nebraska work on a district system, where electors are chosen much like Representatives.  Under such a system it is entirely possible for a state to have some electors voting for one candidate and some for another, and this has in fact happened.  In 2008, for example, four of Nebraska’s five electoral votes went to John McCain, while the other went to Barack Obama.

On the one hand, it could be argued that a district system is more representative than a winner take all system, as it allows for more of an opportunity for a state’s divided popular vote to be represented in a divided electoral vote.

On the other hand, given the increasingly brazen, arrogant, and shameless gerrymandering schemes that one sees implemented by state legislatures these days when it comes to setting the boundaries of legislative districts – particularly the Great Gerrymander of 2012, which has so deeply distorted American politics over the last several years (in Wisconsin, for example, in the first elections after the Republican Party gerrymandered new legislative districts the Democrats got 51% of the popular vote but only 39% of the Assembly seats) – this likely is not true at all. 

In point of fact, district electoral voting is nothing more than a way to introduce gerrymandering into the presidential election.  If you truly wanted a representative system that reflects the will of the people accurately you’d just abolish the Electoral College entirely rather than throw it into a gerrymandered district system.  Anything else is just partisan politics.

But then, there isn’t anything in the Constitution that says you the voter get to have any input into the selection of your state’s electors at all. 

Remember “Each state shall appoint in such a manner as the Legislature thereof may direct?”  It is entirely Constitutional for a state to decide to leave the selection of its electors up to the state legislature without allowing its citizens any say on the issue whatsoever.

This was a common practice in the early republic, in fact.  Nine of the fifteen states did it this way in 1792 and ten of the sixteen did so in 1800.  As late as 1824, six of the twenty-four states still used this method.  It was last used in 1876 by the newly admitted state of Colorado, though in the disputed election of 2000 the Republican-dominated government of the state of Florida threatened to appoint its electors rather than see a recount of disputed votes determine who actually won the election there, and only the US Supreme Court decision halting the recounts before they were complete prevented them from doing so by making those threats moot.

Bottom line, the state legislatures, with no input from you whatsoever, could, if they so chose, pick random people off the streets, select them by lottery or by throwing darts at the phone book, or choose them based on how much they have donated to the election campaign of the sitting governor (currently under indictment), and so long as those people were not federal employees or traitors, those people would become electors with the full blessings of the Constitution.

If you want to see the Constitution amended really, really quickly, watch what would happen if a state tried this today.  But even that wouldn’t undo the selection.  You’d still have those electors and their votes would still count.  It just wouldn’t happen again.

Okay, so let’s assume that by one way or another we have chosen our electors.  Now what do they do?

Here the Constitution is in fact somewhat clearer, spelling out a fairly straightforward process of what needs to happen once the selection has been made.

The first thing is that electors meet to cast their ballots.  There is no central meeting place for all the electors spelled out in the Constitution, and as noted earlier they meet in their respective state capitals on the duly appointed day in December.  The Electoral College, in other words, is an activity, not a physical place. 

Once met, the electors then cast their ballots for their chosen candidates in whatever manner they deem appropriate.  The Constitution lets them do this however they choose.  They could cast paper ballots or electronic ballots, throw color-coded marbles into buckets, or perform specific interpretive dances to indicate their choice.  It’s up to them, so long as everyone agrees that a ballot, however defined, has been cast.

As the Constitution was originally written in 1787, electors cast two ballots, each for a different favored presidential candidate.  The only requirement for these ballots, beyond that they be for different people, was that at least one of the candidates be a resident of a state other than the one the elector was in (a restriction that, oddly enough, is still in place).  This was meant to ensure that no single state would dominate the executive branch. 

From there it was simple.  Whoever got the most electoral votes would become President and whoever came in second would become Vice President.

This system was designed for a world that had no political parties, the way the Founding Fathers felt politics ought to happen – you got the second best candidate for the second-highest office, after all. 

Two things happened quickly to change that.

First, parties developed anyway, and, thanks to the “second guy being vice president” system in the original Constitution, the 1796 election resulted in a Federalist President (John Adams) being saddled with his Democratic Republican opponent (Thomas Jefferson) as vice-president.  This worked about as well as you’d think it would.

Second, as a result of that election the parties developed the idea of “running mates” – candidates specifically running for vice-president rather than for president.  This didn’t work either, and election of 1800 was an unmitigated fiasco, since the Democratic Republicans forgot to have one of their electors not vote for their vice-presidential candidate Aaron Burr and Burr ended up tying Thomas Jefferson in the Electoral College.

From there it got ugly.

As a result, the 12th Amendment was quickly passed and ratified in time for the 1804 election to have the electors pick one specifically presidential candidate and one specifically vice-presidential candidate.

Having cast their ballots, each state’s electors then total them up and send the results to Congress.  There the President of the Senate – the incumbent vice president, according to the Constitution, or the President pro tempore of the Senate, if the vice president is unavailable – opens up the results and counts them in the presence of the entire Congress, both Senate and House, and the first candidate to reach a majority of the total number of electors – 270 today – is declared the winner, regardless of the popular vote totals. 

Three presidents have lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote and taken the oath of office as president, the most recent being George W. Bush in 2000 who lost the popular vote by about half a million votes but whose disputed victory in Florida was enough to push him over the magic 270 line.  Officially, the US doesn’t even keep track of the popular vote since that’s not what elects presidents, though these days figuring it out from the state totals isn’t hard.

This all seems relatively clear, if rather more involved than it needs to be, but there are two complicating factors at work here.

First, there is always the possibility that someone will not, in fact, receive a majority of the votes in the Electoral College.  The Founding Fathers actually anticipated that this would be the norm, but with the advent of political parties to discipline the votes of the electors, it has become the exception.

In recent history there have been few presidential elections with more than two viable candidates, and by definition a two-candidate race will give someone the majority unless there is a tie, which is exceedingly rare.  But this has not always been true.  Several times in our history the presidential election has been contested by three or more viable candidates, and while this usually still resulted in someone winning a majority, it didn’t always do so.

In 1824 none of the four candidates for president won a majority of the Electoral College.

If nobody wins a majority or if the final electoral vote is tied, the Constitution calls for the election to go to the House of Representatives.  Each state gets to cast a single vote among the top three finishers in the Electoral College. In the Constitution as originally written it was the top five, but with the 12th Amendment that was reduced to three, for reasons that probably made sense at the time.  Whoever gets a majority of the states is declared the winner, regardless of where they finished in the popular vote or in the Electoral College. 

John Quincy Adams, declared the winner by the House of Representatives in 1824, remains the only US president to lose both the popular vote and the Electoral vote and still get into office.  His single term in office went about as well as you’d think it would, given that fact.

Under the 12th Amendment, the Senate would get to choose the vice president from among the top two finishers in the Electoral College (not three, oddly enough), though by a majority vote of the individual Senators rather than by state.  There is nothing in the Constitution that says the Senate has to pick the vice president that the winning presidential candidate chose as his running mate, and it is entirely possible that you could have them be from different parties. 

In 1824 there was really only one serious candidate running for vice president, so no matter who came out of the House everyone already knew John C. Calhoun would be second in command.

The second complicating factor here is that there is nothing in the Constitution that says an elector actually has to vote for the candidate they said they’d vote for.

There are prohibitions – things that say who an elector cannot vote for.  An elector cannot vote for a presidential candidate and a vice-presidential candidate who are both from the same state as they are, as noted.  Nor can an elector vote for a vice-presidential candidate who would be ineligible to hold the office of president should something happen to the president during their term.  If you can’t be president, you can’t be vice-president.  But there is nothing in either the Constitution or federal law that binds an elector to vote for the candidate they have pledged to vote for.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia do have laws on the books requiring electors to vote for their pledged candidate, but such laws have never been enforced and there is considerable doubt as to whether they are enforceable at all under the Constitution.  The Supreme Court tends to take a very dim view of state interference in matters of federal elections, which is why state laws imposing term limits on members of Congress are invalid.  Nor is there anything in the Constitution that would make such a freelance vote reversible.  There are no do-overs in the Constitution, so even if you can punish an elector, it won’t alter the vote.  Plus, twenty-four states have no such laws on their books anyway. 

Generally the parties extract commitments from their electors to vote for their candidates, but again, such commitments really are not enforceable in any meaningful way.  Instead, they rely on the fact that electors who are selected by the parties themselves on the basis of service and loyalty to the party are not likely to buck the party when it comes to casting their ballot for the party’s nominee. 

Bottom line, though, for all practical purposes an Elector is basically free to vote for whomever they think would be the best president, regardless of almost any other consideration.  Neither prior pledges nor the popular vote are binding restraints on their decision.  So long as Electors don’t vote for one of the prohibited categories, they’re good.  If 270 Electors decide in December 2016 to cast their ballots for Aaron Rodgers, well, the Green Bay Packers had better have a backup quarterback ready to play.

There is even a term for when Electors stray from their commitments – they are called “Faithless Electors” – which if nothing else tells you that this sort of thing does happen from time to time.  There have been 157 Faithless Electors in American history, the most recent being in 2004.  In 1988, for example, Lloyd Bentson got an electoral vote for President, even though he was actually running for vice president, and in 1976 Ronald Reagan got an electoral vote even though he wasn’t running at all.

Had the 2012 election been less of a blowout loss for Republicans they might have found themselves in a very difficult situation on these grounds, as at least three Republican electors publicly declared in September of that year that they would cast their votes for Ron Paul rather than the party’s official nominee, Mitt Romney (though none did, in the end).  Had they actually done so in a close contest such as the one you saw in 2000, it might have been enough to send the election to the House.  Though whether that also would mean that the vice-presidential election would go to the Senate is a separate question.

You also heard serious calls from some extremist Republicans in 2012 for electors to turn their back on the popular vote and refuse to cast their ballots for Obama regardless of the will of the people, to appoint Mitt Romney president no matter what.  Fortunately the vast majority of Republicans – and all of the Republican electors – ignored these calls as the organized subversion of the will of the people that they were, but there would have been no remedy if it had happened.  The system can be gamed by subversives, if they are organized and disciplined enough.

So, bottom line, what you have here for choosing the most powerful office in the United States is a very complicated and in some senses fragile system, one unlike the process for choosing any other office.  It’s a system that places a body of officials between the citizens and their candidates and one that does not particularly bind those officials to respect the will of the citizens as expressed by the popular vote.  And if the system fails to choose a candidate, it doesn’t default back to the citizens.  It defaults back to another intermediary body – Congress – and they get to choose. 

Who thought this was a good idea?

The Founding Fathers, that’s who.

And the question is: why?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Voices from the Past

My grandmother would have been 103 today.

The ghosts accumulate, as you get older.

It’s 1974 in this picture, and they’re probably somewhere in St. Louis.  There are a couple of other photos that go with it, including one with a Mississippi River sternwheeler, and another that has the Anhauser-Busch brewery in the background.  She’s 60 in this photo, and since it appears to be summertime my grandfather is either 61 or 62 depending on whether his birthday has happened yet.

They had been married for 35 years at that point, and they still smiled like that in photos together.

They’ve been gone for a while now, and the thing that you discover when people you love pass away is that you never really get over it – you just get used to it and get on with your life, because really what else can you do?  You treasure the memories and try to keep those alive, and you keep moving forward.

That’s what they would have wanted anyway. 

Sometimes, though, the past comes rushing back at you.  And this can be a lovely thing.

When I was in college, back in the 1980s, I took a class on 20th century history.  It was the fall of my senior year, and one of the big projects in that class was to do a paper on how the Depression and WWII impacted people here at home.  So I took my trusty little cassette recorder over to my grandparents’ house and interviewed them for about an hour and a half.

I still have the tape, even if my cassette recorder fell apart decades ago and nobody even remembers what cassettes are anymore, let alone makes cassette players.

Except that somebody does still make those players, and for a nominal fee they also provide you with software that will convert those old cassettes into mp3 files.  I’ve been meaning to do that for a while now, and a couple of weeks ago I finally decided to spring for one of those little gizmos. 

They’re really easy to use, it turns out.  You install the software, put a few batteries into the player, hook the player to the computer with a micro-USB cord, swear at it for about half an hour, and you’re good to go.  At least that’s how I did it.  Your mileage may vary.

And then I got to hear voices I haven’t heard in a long, long time.

They talked about the Depression and WWII, of course, but also about their own lives and thoughts, about what they did during those years and after, and – for the last ten minutes or so – about my freshman roommate, who had come over for Thanksgiving dinner a couple of days earlier.  They liked him, as did pretty much everyone.  You couldn’t help but like Gervase.

It was odd, in a way, to listen to that tape, but it was lovely too.  I remembered doing that interview – where we sat, some of the things that were said – and hearing it again, bringing those people I loved back, if only as voices on a tape, was a wonderful thing.  At some point I’ll get copies out to the various folks in my family so they can share that experience too.

As a historian I know that you cannot live in the past.  I’m a professional.  Trust me on this.  But it is a nice place to visit now and then, and the company is good.

Happy birthday, Nana.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Elections and Transfers

The election of 1800 was the nastiest, most vitriolic election in this country’s history.

If you think the current junior-high-level mudfest holds that title it’s probably because you haven’t studied much American history.  For what it’s worth, you’re in good company.  Most Americans haven’t.  The simple fact, however, is that we haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of the rhetoric that has been deemed appropriate in presidential elections in the past.  If 1800 is too far back for you, try looking at 1828, or 1860, or even 1968.  There’s a lot of elections to choose from.  We’re a rude and often reprehensibly juvenile culture when it comes to politics.

The language in this year’s contest is certainly enough to make any decent human being weep (seriously – I have no idea how I am going to teach this election without getting fired for repeating verbatim things the GOP candidate has said on camera) but 1800 takes the cut-glass flyswatter.

The election of 1800 was a rerun of the previous one – something that happens surprisingly often in American history – and pitted the Democratic Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson against the Federalist John Adams.  Adams had won in 1796, and under the Constitutional procedures then in place (since changed by the 12th Amendment) this meant that his opponent Jefferson became his vice-president.  With only a couple of months of actual campaigning once George Washington had announced that he would not run again, it had been a short but vicious election.  I imagine that cabinet meetings during the Adams administration were rather strained.

In 1800 the gloves really came off. 

Everyone knew there would be a contested election.  And everyone knew who the candidates would be.  Well, everyone except Alexander Hamilton, who had hopes of getting Adams off the ticket.  But still.  Mostly everyone.  They had a long, long time to get their rhetoric ready for this one, in other words, and it was an age that knew well how to use rhetoric as a weapon.

Grab your popcorn!

And as you read through the couple of paragraphs after this one, bear in mind that the subjects of all that rhetoric are two of the Founding Fathers.  Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and was arguably the most complex intellect this country has ever produced.  He’s on our money – twice, if you count the $2 bill, which nobody ever does even if they should.  Adams was one of the most incisive scholars of his generation, served as George Washington’s vice president, and was a man of such stout principles that he defended in court the British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre.  He won, too.  We see these men as marble figures of lofty renown – Jefferson’s face is literally carved onto a mountain in South Dakota, after all – but we often forget that they were human, that they were politicians seeking power and being judged by the electorate just like any other politician. 

Their contemporaries, however, did not forget this.

Thus John Adams – admittedly not the most handsome man in America (he was widely known as “His Rotundity,” pun not quite intended but I’ll take it anyway) – found himself described as blind, bald, toothless, and crippled, yet still somehow active enough to import mistresses from England to satisfy his base needs.  He was accused of wanting to overthrow the Constitution, betray the Revolution, and return the US to English rule or at the very least install a monarchy in the capital.  He was described in the press as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” 

Meanwhile, Jefferson was described as an “audacious howling Atheist,” a “rattle-brained modern philosopher” whose “wild and licentious” character had “the morality of devils.”  For weeks – weeks – the leading Federalist newspaper in the country had the same unelaborated headline: “GOD AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT, OR JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!”  He was described as both a fanatic whose election would result in the open practice of murder, rape, robbery, incest, and the spitting of children on pikes, and at the same time as weak, effeminate, delicate, and “a mixture of milk and vinegar, of honey, and of gall, every thing by turns, and nothing long.”  Federalists denounced “the celebrated whirligig chair which he invented purely to check the eddying motions of his watery brain, by a counter turn for every occasion” as the invention of a “Bedlamite.”  They anticipated the destruction of both the Constitution and Christianity as a whole should Jefferson win, as Jefferson would no doubt turn the US into a pale copy of Jacobin France and soak the ground with the blood of the innocent.

This wasn’t random. 

The nastiness of the rhetoric of the election of 1800 emerged directly out of the larger political situation.  In particular, it came out of two things: the perceived fragility of both republics and frameworks of government, and the fact that classical republicanism, the dominant political ideology of the late 18th century, did not recognize political parties as legitimate.

In 1800 the Constitution was all of a dozen years old.  Counting the British Crown, it was the third basic framework of government Americans had lived under during the previous two and a half decades, and there was no guarantee that it would be any more long lasting or effective than either the Crown or the ill-fated Articles of Confederation had proved.  Further, republics – as all of the Founders knew well – were historically ephemeral things, prone to collapse and easily converted into anarchy, oligarchy, or, worst of all, tyranny.  They were fragile in part because they required high levels of virtue among the citizens and leadership and this was a rare and easily broken quality.

Virtue in classical republicanism did not mean the avoidance of sins the way we use the term today.  Virtue was a jargon term, and it meant the ability to set aside one’s petty private interests and work for the public good.  There was only one public good – it was unified and easily visible, and all men of virtue would naturally work to achieve it.

This is why political parties were a sign of decay in a republic.  Parties – “factions” or “juntos” in the language of the day – represented groups of men putting their private interests above the good of the whole and thus were surefire ways of destroying republics.  And the election of 1800 most certainly was a partisan one.  There were two easily identified and mutually incompatible parties with coherent visions of the future and agendas for achieving that vision, and each side naturally saw the other as an illegitimate faction working to destroy the republic by subverting the public good to their private interests.

Neither side saw the other as legitimate, in other words, and in an environment where the republic’s survival was assumed to be both fragile and under attack, it really isn’t a surprise that the rhetoric got ugly.

Once you get that down, you will also probably not be surprised by the fact that the nastiness didn’t stop once the voting was done, either.  There was still a whole lot of campaign to go even after the votes had been counted.

Yes, John Adams lost.  But it was not altogether clear who had won. 

Thanks to that same marvelous little quirk in the Constitution that had led to Jefferson serving as the vice president to the guy who beat him, which was a quirk that apparently the Democratic Republicans had still not quite figured out four years later, there was no actual election for vice president in 1800.  The Constitution simply assumed that whoever got the most votes in the Electoral College would be president, and whoever came in second would be vice president.  And in an age that did not see political parties as desirable this made sense.  You got the second-best person for the second-highest office, ready to step in should something happen to the winner.  But in an age of political parties, where it was clear that someone should be president and someone should be vice president and the two guys at the top of each ticket really didn't see eye to eye on much, this presented a practical problem.

Specifically in this case it meant that at least one Democratic Republican elector had to remember not to vote for Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s running mate.  That way Jefferson would win, Burr would come in second, Adams would come in third, and all would be right with the Democratic Republican world.  But since nobody actually thought to remember this, Burr and Jefferson ended up tied.

That sent the election to the House of Representatives, in accordance with the Constitution’s requirements (which are, in fact, still in effect that way).

The outgoing House was dominated by the Federalists, who were exceedingly unhappy about having to choose between the two Democratic Republican winners (and yes, technically they could have chosen Adams, who came in third, but that kind of naked private interest was clearly not virtuous.  It would take until the 21st century for right wing fanatics to make that case in all seriousness as a strategy to deny re-election to Barack Obama in 2012).  Most of the Federalists saw Jefferson pretty much as the rhetoric had described him and were prepared to promote Burr to the presidency, though Alexander Hamilton – a principled man, if not exactly a politic one – frantically tried to convince them not to, since he regarded Burr as a scoundrel.

This is one of the things that Burr would later murder Hamilton for, so I suppose Hamilton had a point.

The vote dragged on for six days and thirty-six separate ballots.  The two biggest Democratic Republican states, Pennsylvania and Virginia, mobilized their militias and were ready to march on the newly established Federal City on the Potomac should Congress try anything they regarded as suspicious.  The new nation – less than two decades removed from the formal end of the Revolution – stood on the brink of civil war.

And then a strange thing happened.

Congress – swayed by Hamilton – settled on Jefferson.  The militias stood down.  The tension eased.  And on March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the nation’s third president.

It was a mild spring day in the capital, somewhere in the mid-50sF.  Jefferson, seeking to make a political point, chose to walk from his boarding house to the Capitol dressed as a plain citizen.  He entered the Senate chamber and in his thin, high-pitched, barely audible voice, he delivered his inauguration address.

“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think,” he noted, “but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. … Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.  Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. … [E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.  We have called by different names brethren of the same principle.  We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

It was a call to come together, after the most vitriolic election in our nation’s history – to remember that we are all Americans, and that once the election was over it was incumbent upon us as Americans to accept the results and work together.

Adams, distraught over the death of his son a few months earlier and unhappy about leaving office, did not attend the inauguration, but he accepted the verdict of the election with at least some grace and no protest.  He understood that the peaceful transfer of power was crucial to the survival of the republic, and that for him – or indeed any candidate for higher office – to declare himself unwilling to accept the results of the election once they had been officially certified would be to launch the nation down a dark and bloody path.

The United States has had over two centuries of largely peaceful elections since then.  Sporadic violence at the polls – mostly driven by racial resentments – has not resulted in the repudiation of electoral results.  And when elections have been challenged – such as they might have been in 1960, when there were many credible accusations of fraud, and as they actually were in 2000, with the extraordinarily close and rather suspect results from Florida – the final verdict once all the dust settled has been accepted by the defeated party with remarkable grace in the name of the public good. 

We owe Richard Nixon and Al Gore a debt of gratitude for being willing to sacrifice their petty private interests in that way.  Each of them could have refused to accept the results, once finalized (by the Electoral College in Nixon’s case, and by the Supreme Court in Gore’s), and the bitter results of such intransigence might well have destroyed the republic.  Instead they chose country over interest, and the peaceful transfer of power over revolution.

Republics are fragile.

It is extremely disturbing, in this context, to hear the current GOP nominee’s refusal to accept the election results if they do not go his way.

This is a flat rejection of everything American politics has achieved in the last two and a half centuries.  It is a crass willingness to place petty private interests above the good of the nation as a whole.  It is a dangerous resort to the tactics of dictators and power-hungry whores, a childish and narcissistic foot-stomping episode from someone increasingly out of touch with the reality of the situation around him, and it has no place in American politics.

I worry about what this will do to the more deluded of his supporters, who are already threatening to disrupt the election and worse.  It is dangerous to play to the fanatics, for they are by definition unstable and prone to violence.  Anytime you hear the phrase "Second Amendment solution" you know you are in the presence of dangerous idiots.

You do see a belated recognition among the more sane GOP leaders that this is both un-American and something they need to respond to forcefully, and good for them.  This is their candidate.  This is the guy representing their party – and make no mistake, he does represent that party, sad though that may be to both the non-insane members of it and the rest of us.  They need to own him and rein him in.  I hope they are not too late.

If Americans could accept the results of 1800, you’d think we can accept the results of 2016.

I hope I am not wrong about that.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Down at the Barn

Bristol the barn cat has gone to his great reward.

He was never much of a barn cat, not really.  He came to us maybe three years ago, someone’s unwanted pet.  Our friend who owns the barn agreed to let him stay there and work for his keep.  It wasn’t a good fit.

It’s hard to be a barn cat when you’re a long-haired feline, for one thing.  I’m not sure why he never figured out how to groom himself in the three years he lived in that barn, but there were several times he got so bad we had to take a clippers to him and get the worst of the snarls taken care of.  He looked bedraggled in all seasons and weathers, particularly in contrast to the other barn cats who would show up for a while and then move on and looked, well, cat-like the whole time.  Bristol looked like an old mop.

And he was never much of a hunter.  I’m not sure I ever saw him catch anything, and I don’t know if he would have known what to do with anything if he had caught it.  So we fed him.  Our friend always had dry food for him.  He got some of the leftovers we’d bring for the chickens, especially if they involved meat.  Sometimes we’d get cans of cat food, which he just loved.  Two weeks ago I set aside a thick slice of turkey for him, which I think he enjoyed.  Last month we came into possession of maybe two dozen quarts of buttermilk, and he always got his cut of that.  The chickens enjoyed it too.

But no matter what we fed him, he was thin.  Really thin.  Sometimes we’d give him worm medicine and that helped, but not the last time.  I’m guessing he had some kind of liver or stomach cancer at the end.  Even his meow – normally the raspy buzz of a two-pack-a-day smoker – changed in the last week before he died.

When he first came to the barn he stayed up in the hay mow for weeks, coming down only to hiss at us.  But over time he got to be more friendly, and eventually he’d come bounding up to you whenever you pulled into the graveled drive leading up to the barn.  He liked to be scratched behind his ears, as most cats do.

He was a dim-witted animal, one who always had to be explicitly directed toward whatever food you put down for him and was always half a step away from running directly under the car tires, but a sweet one once you got to know him.

It's a quieter place now, the barn.  Fair winds and following seas, Bristol.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Welcome to America

Lauren has been taking Chinese as her foreign language for the past couple of years down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.  She chose this on her own, actually, which I thought was a brave decision.  And it’s nice that they even offer it down at MCGMS – it certainly wasn’t an option in my middle school.

As part of this, she was given the opportunity to host a Chinese exchange student this weekend. 

Apparently a whole bunch of them are here for a couple of weeks, shadowing students at a couple of schools here in Our Little Town and generally getting a sense of life here in this country.  Honestly, they could have timed this better and done it after the presidential election nonsense has calmed down a bit, but on the other hand there’s not much they could have done to get the concentrated essence of MURCA faster than be here now.  So I guess it’s a wash.

Regardless, we volunteered and ended up with Xia.

We’re pretty sure that’s her family name, since the Chinese put that first and the given name second rather than the other way around like Westerners do, but that’s what she told us to call her.  It’s pronounced more or less “TsyAH” only you have to do with the proper tone the way the Chinese do, and Lauren spent the better part of the weekend telling us we weren’t doing it right, which is a distinct possibility. 

At any rate, she was a very nice young lady, reserved in the way that Chinese culture tends to see as a virtue (as opposed to Americans, who start at Loud and go up from there), and fluent enough in English to make herself understood.  She was willing to answer to whatever approximation of her name we could muster, and that was nice.

Seriously – how do you go from Chinese (one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn) to English (another one) or back?  I have no idea.  I’m impressed by anyone who tries it.

We picked her up at MCGMS on Friday afternoon and got her situated at home before heading straight back out to chickens.  Because that’s what you do, of course.

She liked the chickens.  She got to hang out with Whitney, our Rosecomb bantam hen, and then Lauren introduced her to the barn kittens.

That night the two of them went to the MCGMS sock hop, where by all accounts they enjoyed themselves.  Lauren was quite perplexed by the concept of a sock hop (“Did they really do that back in the day?”  “Yes, my child.”) but a good time was had by all.

Saturday morning we introduced Xia to her first bagel, and then went to the local farmer’s market, where we also introduced Xia to the fact that Americans spend most of their free time eating and the rest of it searching for things to eat.  But when that includes minidonuts, hot chocolate, and cheese curds, well, you have to hand it to us.  We got it going on.

We also went back to the chickens.  You have to do the chickens every day.  Chickens are very demanding that way.

Saturday was also the day for Uncle Dave and Aunt Karen’s annual pre-Halloween bash – an overnight festival of food and fire, with a haunted trail and a bonfire.  We try to go every year, and this year it just happened to coincide with Xia’s visit.  It’s in Michigan, but if there is one thing more American than the search for food it is the road trip.  Often you can combine them, which is just about peak MURCAN. 

So we packed half our house into the van, stuffed Lauren and Xia into the back, and headed off.

Tabitha stayed home this year.  She decided to go to the Homecoming dance with some friends, and while this meant we wouldn’t get any photos of the occasion, well, so be it.   She had a great time, and everyone made it home safely.

We got to Michigan with no troubles, and as soon as the car stopped moving Lauren jumped out, dragged Xia with her, and headed off into the swarm of kids that always runs around the place.  Dave and Karen’s cabin is way, way out in the middle of nowhere as far as this city boy is concerned – it is literally on a swamp (excuse me: “wetland”) – so there is no harm in letting them run.  Americans prize self-reliance as a virtue in children, so we let them go.  And they enveloped the newcomer as if she were an old friend.  We’re a good culture that way, most of the time. 

For their part, the adults mostly sit, talk, eat, and drink, and there’s nothing wrong with that as far as I can see.  There is in fact a haunted trail that winds its way through the wetland, because of course there is.  They put a lot of time into it, and by all accounts it is a grand thing.

It was nice to see everyone again.  We’ve been doing this for a long time now, and you get to know people even if you only see them once a year. 

The highlight for me is always the bonfire.  They build it up to monstrous proportions and then let it rip – nothing is going to burn that wasn’t meant to (vide supra, viz. “wetland”) so all bets are off when they set it up.

Afterward there were firecrackers, though Kim and I left halfway through for our hotel a town or so away, since we are old and no longer much for tent camping.  Road trip, food, fireworks, and burning things – seriously, we think we did a good job of showing her the US.

In theory the girls slept in the cabin.  In practice they spent most of the night talking in the way that teenagers will.  Lauren did assure me that it was still dark when they finally fell asleep.  Mostly.  I’m guessing they’ll sleep well tonight.

It was a fairly uneventful drive back, as Kim and I were the only ones awake for much of it.  We took one last swing through the chickens once we got home, and then took Xia back to the hotel to be reunited with her group.

Welcome to America, Xia.  It’s a big, loud, often insane place, but warm-hearted and mostly friendly.  Come back and visit us soon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Drop

The books have landed.

This summer was a long parade of home projects, most of which required significant moving about of stuff in the upstairs part of the house.  The old carpeting in our bedroom that was there when we moved into the place two decades ago was replaced.  Lauren’s room was repainted, and with that as inspiration so was Tabitha’s.  It was an unsettling summer that way, but now we’re mostly back into our places and the house looks nice.

Whenever you have a project or series of projects like that, it’s a nice opportunity to sort through all the stuff you’ve had to move and see whether you really want to move it back or whether it needs to be moved on somewhere else.  As part of that process we ended up with a giant box of books left over, even after we had sorted through and taken the ones we thought friends or family might like and the ones we felt were worth saving for sentimental reasons.

It was quite a box.

But what can you do with a box of books these days?  The girls are long since too old to be donating stuff to the old Montessori where they were in daycare – the kids there wouldn’t be up to that level.  Trying to sell them at a garage sale is a lost cause, as I can attest from previous experience.  And the used book store down the street ended its brief flicker of life more than a year ago.

I spent the better part of half an hour on the phone with the local hospital this weekend.

I figured that there are always kids in the children’s ward who are bored out of their minds and might appreciate a good book.  Cell phone batteries run out of power, after all.  And books are good for occupying minds that would otherwise head off in random directions, especially when faced with long hospital stays.

Everyone I spoke with at the hospital thought it was a lovely idea for me to bring this box of books over as a donation but none of them felt authorized to actually approve of the idea, so they would forward me on to the next person who would hear me out and then the process would repeat.  It’s surprisingly hard to give stuff away these days.

Eventually someone said sure, just bring them on by.

It’s been a busy week, but today I finally got a chance to do that.  Let me tell you, a box of books is a heavy thing to haul across a parking lot.  You wouldn’t think paper would be heavy, but then I find that it helps to think of books as finely sliced lumber.

The folks at the door were happy to see me but had no idea whether this was something they could approve, so there was another round of the weekend’s activities – this time live – but at some point someone must have said it was fine.  Rather than schlep the box up to the children’s ward by hand the person at the door smartly commandeered a wheelchair and I put the box in the seat.  Away they went, with any luck to brighten up some kid’s otherwise lousy day.

I like the idea that these books are moving on to somewhere where they might make someone's day a little nicer.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wedding Stories

All my docents are getting married.

I used to run a museum.  It was a great place, and you should go there sometime.  I spent five years there as the executive director, and then continued to give tours for years after that.  I haven’t given a tour in a while now, but Tabitha has upheld the family honor and taken over that role.  She’s been a docent for two years.  The place kind of gets in your blood.

I left the museum just about the time that Facebook was starting to become popular outside of its original college-student audience, and when some of my former docents discovered that their old boss was on Facebook they friended me and I was happy to accept.  They were good kids.

Now they’re good adults.

We’ve kept in touch over the years.  We’ve shared invitations, cartoons, political jokes, historical discussions and reminiscences (for a while I had an impressive if honorary title in a Facebook group devoted solely to alumni of the museum, which was a neat thing to have), and even had lunch once or twice.

One of the things that adults tend to do, given time and opportunity, is get married. 

I like weddings, really I do.  They’re happy events where people can come together and be good to each other for a while.  They remind us that there is love in this world and that sometimes it is enough.

Nic got married this summer, in a lovely service in one of the historic buildings here in Our Little Town.  It was right above the music store, which doesn’t do the place justice – if you like 19th-century spaces you’d have liked this one.  I’m pretty sure it was a lyceum originally, and it was a great place to have a wedding.

Unfortunately that weekend was one of those increasingly common times when my life insisted on collapsing inward on me – not for anything serious, but just enough to make me frantic with all of the things that needed to get done.  And my camera battery died.  Seriously, it was just one of those days. 

I had to skip out on the reception, but I did make it to the wedding itself.

Rituals are important, and it matters that you show up for people.  It was important to me to be there when Nic and Jesse got married, and I was.  I didn’t get to go to the party afterward, which was sad, but I was there for the ceremony.  And I did get one kind of okay picture of them walking out together, which made me happy even if Nic’s eyes are closed.  A lot of marriage is knowing when to keep your eyes closed and hoping your spouse does the same for you, I suppose.

I wish Nic and Jesse a long and happy life together.

Today it was Cathy’s turn.

The service was in a church up in Madison, and it was also lovely – full of music from friends and relatives of the happy couple, and the priest did a nice job of making his points without beating us over the head with them.  I appreciate that.  It was a fine thing all around, and I got to be there when it mattered.

And wonder of wonders, my world remained uncollapsed so we got to go to the reception too.  Kim and I had a grand time – there were many inside jokes about the museum, as is only proper – and we enjoyed talking with the folks who ended up sitting at our table.  The food was good too.  Win all around, I say.

And I wish Cathy and Matt a long and happy life together as well.

Next up is Lauren, whose wedding is tentatively planned for not too long from now, really, even if it seems far away.  It comes up fast.

It’s nice that they invite their old boss to these things.  I’m glad that I’m still part of their lives, and that I get to see them so happy.