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If you’re going to defend this terrible holdover, defend it for the single reason, the monstrous reason, some delegates demanded it and others acquiesced.
It is documented in the original words of the founders as recorded by those who were there.
Matt Christiansen writes and records prolifically. I find him entertaining as hell. He is less an historian than a conservative provocateur, but he does represent much of today’s conservative thought. Here he defends the electoral college:
Pure democracy is not universally good. It lends itself to mob rule. It lends itself to tyranny of the majority. It rejects compromise and can silence minority interests. The Constitutional framers wrote critically of pure democracy. James Madison wrote:
In a pure democracy, a common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, [and] (sic) the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.
I don’t know why conservatives pick on poor James Madison to misrepresent so flagrantly, but they have been doing that since the late 1800s. Madison was not arguing in favor of a non-representative electoral system of choosing the President. In fact, he argued during the Constitutional Convention in favor of proportional representation at every level of the new republic. He was even against a Senate that would be based on the same number of votes for every state.
He was specifically opposed to an electoral system that was weighted against the majority of voters.
Although Mr. Christiansen does not say so, he is quoting from what we now know as The Federalist Papers, Madison’s Federalist 10. Madison is not arguing against a democratic republic in which all voters are represented equally. He is not arguing in favor of the electoral college as it exists now. He is arguing against the notion that government by legislature should be abandoned altogether in favor of town-hall type gatherings of all citizens who show up.
You know: pure democracy.
Seems a little impractical for a national government. But it was sometimes offered as the ideal governmental model. So he argued against a system of direct votes by all voters on all laws. That was because … how did that go? …
… have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.
Madison was in favor of representative government rather than direct government by assembly of whatever citizens showed up to vote on everything. Instead, he wanted citizens to elect representatives.
He was against factionalism. He was afraid of different economic interests ganging up on each other: textile firms opposing little craftsman type shops, or agricultural landowners being attacked by manufacturers. And he was especially afraid of religious persecution: Baptists outlawing Presbyterians, that sort of thing. For myself, I would have been okay with a national religion, as long as it was Methodist. After the last General Conference, I’m not even really sure about that.
That’s why he argued for a Bill of Rights.
Matt Christiansen does not concentrate only on James Madison. He brings in Alexander Hamilton. So did Hamilton really oppose proportional representation? Let’s check it out, shall we?
Mr. Hamilton was speaking to the New York Ratifying Convention in 1788. They were talking about how many representatives there ought to be. Hamilton said it did not matter as long as citizens were represented equally.
Some poor slob had mindlessly parroted that old saw about abolishing legislatures and letting all citizens vote all the time, all year around, on everything. That’s why good old Alexander Hamilton used that exact term pure democracy as he pretty much destroyed the fellow’s argument.
Here is how he began:
It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this.
And that is where Mr. Christiansen picks it up.
Alexander Hamilton said:
The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.
Yup he did say that. He just didn’t say it the way you say he said it, Mr. Christiansen.
In a similar vein, John Adams is quoted in a pessimistic warning about the fate of past democracies. Problem is Adams was not speaking about how to choose a President.
You get the idea.
So why do conservatives conflate “pure democracy” with proportional representation in a democratic republic, as if they were the same thing?
It is tempting to regard it as a clever sleight of hand. When arguments for safeguarding liberty, as in the Bill of Rights, are presented as arguments against representative government, or when a case for proportional representation is distorted into an argument against it, it may seem reasonable to ascribe it to simple dishonesty.
It is not always so simple. Matt Christiansen’s polemic against representative government closely aligns with what many of us were taught in American classrooms through the 1950s and 60s. It can be traced back to the dominant scholastic culture after the Civil War. Research takes a long time to filter into textbooks, and misinformation can take a long, long time to bleach out.
That original historical research by a small group of historians at Columbia University was led by Professor Archibald Dunning. Plainly put, it seems to have been the patriotic trend in those times to interpret American history a little differently than reality. Let’s all pull together, let’s put the brutality of slavery behind us, let’s regard divisive ideas like equality as vengeance against the conquered South.
Above all, let’s look at the original debates as something a little more noble than they might have been.
Not all conservatives are so sensitive today. The former governor of Maine, Paul LePage, had a few words about a proposal that we move away from the electoral college.
Minorities are gonna well, actually what would happen if they do what they say they’re going to do, white people will not have anything to say.
It’s only going to be the minorities that will elect.
Well that’s … refreshingly blunt.
It’s a racial fear that goes with every advance in basic rights.
And LePage does have a sort of permutation of the original constitutional debate that Matt Christiansen overlooks. That oversight is understandable. Textbooks that were used to instruct my generation, and some that came after, sort of skipped over it.
There were notes taken during the original Constitutional Convention in 1787. Madison himself kept a careful account. During the debate on how to elect the President, there was only one mention of small states vs large states. Elbridge Gerry raised the point briefly. That’s the Elbridge Gerry for whom gerrymandering was later named. His point about small states was ignored and the issue was never mentioned again.
There was debate, to be sure, about how to choose a President. Slaveholders did not want a national leader making decisions that might end slavery.
So they had demands. One was that there be an system of electors chosen by states. Another was that each state be given two votes in addition to proportional representation.
The third was the killer. They wanted the number of slaves counted in while deciding how many votes each state would have. So, if half the population of a state was owned by the other half, that state would suddenly have twice as many electors as they otherwise would get. They eventually compromised that down, counting only 3/5 of the slaves.
Slavery was pretty much the only issue in how to choose a President. Nothing about the tyranny of the majority. Nothing about mob rule. Nothing about factionalism. Very little about small states and large.
It was about how to preserve slavery.
James Madison was explicit. He finally went along with what we now call the Electoral College. He said the racist element of protecting slavery was the only way he could see to get slaveholders to agree to the establishment of a national government.
Matt Christiansen and other conservatives do raise an additional point. They challenge the integrity of those who do not like the electoral college. We are just sore losers.
You lost the game, so you complain about the rules. And that’s mostly why I’m annoyed. I don’t buy these complaints as principled. I don’t think they’d be happening if their candidate won. I think these are sour grapes.
And we can see his point. Questions about voting rights have always been motivated by politics.
Those college kids who traveled the South in the 1960s registering people to vote, and who ended up buried up in earthen dams, the youngsters advocating for voting rights who were used to decorate trees, those whose bodies eventually were found in swamps in bayou country, those who were never found at all, were all just risking their lives for political advantage. Their struggle for equality should be forgotten by the rest of us, and would be except for politics.
I think we can do better. We don’t need to challenge the integrity of those who still think the electoral system was invented to prevent mob rule, or the tyranny of the majority, or to protect small states.
Some are trapped by the same educational moray in which many of us were taught.
They are guilty only of ignorance.
Others are entranced by what we now know to be original Constitutional intent.
White people will not have anything to say. It’s only going to be the minorities that will elect.
Many thanks to our friend and partner Burr Deming of FairandUnbalanced for this article.