Every four years our political intellectuals kick off the presidential campaign season by putting forward proposals to reform the system by which Americans choose their leaders. The will of the people has been frustrated by all this elaborate machinery of voter registration, party primaries, and media hype, so they say, and those few who have some dim recollection of American history can point to the occasions on which a President’s election was clouded by doubt: John Quincy Adams, whose victory over Andrew Jackson was engineered by Henry Clay in the House of Representatives; Rutherford B. Hayes, who only secured election by cutting certain deals, most notoriously with the Wade Hampton forces in South Carolina. Most recent and most hushed-up is the dubious election of John F. Kennedy, whose victory depended upon the key states of Illinois and Texas, delivered to him on a platter by the masters of machine polities, Richard Daley and Lyndon Johnson. A less patriotic man than Mr. Nixon might have plunged the United States into civil strife by protesting the results—Julius Caesar staged a coup d’etat with less justification.
But the ease that is most often brought up as an indictment of the system is the relatively benign example of Benjamin Harrison, who lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote by a narrow margin. This proves, we are told in civics classes and on CNN talk shows, the essential unfairness of the electoral college. The principles of true democracy arc trivialized and even contraverted by this outmoded constitutional impediment to the will of the people as expressed by the majority.
The grand illusion of modern times is that there are technical solutions to moral and political problems. If only we could find some device, some new system, we could escape the trammels of sin, ignorance, and sloth. The framers did their best to design a process of installing an honorable and independent man as the nation’s chief executive, but their method was redesigned by the party fixers and managers who always rise to the top in a system with pretensions to democracy.
As the system works today, voters are allowed to choose a slate of statewide presidential electors and that slate winning a majority, no matter how slim, will command the entire electoral strength of the state. If 51 percent of California’s voters who happen to turn out in November pick Mr. Clinton, then the votes of the other 49 percent will, perforce, be thrown into the balance, and Clinton will receive all of California’s electoral votes.
This general ticket system is not prescribed by the Constitution, which says only (Article II, Section I) that:
Each State shall appoint, in such 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.
The 12th Amendment, drawn up to reform the selection of the Vice-President, does not materially alter this process.
The framers did not regard their handiwork as the inspired creation of demigods but as a jury-rigged device patched together to meet the objections that had been raised to every other method of selection. Selection by the Congress, it was argued, would make the President a creature of the Congress, and term-limitation—which might in principle render his office more independent—might also deprive the nation of a valuable leader. They also feared that congressional appointment might lead to consolidation of national power at the expense of the states.
Selection by the state legislatures would obviate this danger, but it would also reduce the chief executive to a creature of the states. Direct popular election was clearly impossible, if only because the size of the country made it impossible for the average man to form an idea of a candidate’s capacities. In George Mason’s memorable line, “It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper character for chief Magistrate to the people as it would to refer a trial of colours to a blind man.” In any system, it was feared, local patriotism would predominate, and each of the 13 states would select a native son.
The system ultimately adopted seemed to answer all the objections. Electors, chosen for the nonce could have little enduring influence over the political processes of the nation. The integrity of the states was preserved in two ways. In the first place, the mode of choosing electors was left up to the states, and in the second, electoral strength was based not only on population—as was the case in the House of Representatives—but even the smallest states were guaranteed the two extra votes based on their representation in the Senate. As a result, the electoral college represents, as Forrest McDonald observes, neither the people nor the states but the people in the states.
If a candidate failed to gain a majority of electors, the choice would be handed over to the House of Representatives. In the days before organized political parties, it was assumed that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reach the needed majority consensus, and Col. Mason predicted that the choice would be left up to the Congress “19 out of 20 times.”
In the debates that followed the Philadelphia Convention, the electoral college received broad, if lukewarm, acceptance. Hamilton noted (Federalist No. 68) that it was the only aspect of the Constitution that had “escaped without severe censure.” Hamilton praised this method of indirect election as less likely to lead to the tumult and disorder that would arise during a popular contest at the national level. He thought that while “talents for low intrigue, the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to first honors in a single state,” only “characters preeminent for ability and virtue” would win the widespread support of electors in the various states.
Lord Bryce notes the complacency of the framers toward the electoral college, which, nonetheless, “utterly belied their expectations.” Bryce makes the shrewd observation that despite her best efforts America “reproduced the English system of executive government by a party majority” but in a more extreme form, because at least in England the titular head “stands in isolated dignity outside party politics.”
The framers’ most serious mistake lay in their apparent desire to elevate the presidency above the political arena. The electors were not to be important public officials, with their own agenda and commitments, but somewhat ordinary men chosen out of the community for the occasion. There was no stipulation on how the states might go about making their selection. Among the bewildering variety of methods that were adopted, three general types were prominent: in many cases state legislatures were given the job, and in South Carolina this method lasted down to 1868; on some occasions a state was divided into districts, each of which had a vote; but the method that eventually triumphed—over the objections of virtually every honest politician who reflected on the process—was the general ticket system in use today.
The pivotal year for the emergence of the general ticket method as a near-universal norm (as Lucius Wilmerding notes) was 1836. The same year marked the elevation of master pol Martin Van Buren to the presidency. More than anyone, perhaps. Van Buren deserves the credit for creating the modern American party system, by which I do not mean the shifting factional alliances of the first three or four decades of our history, but the disciplined machinery that commands loyalties without convictions and can be relied upon to manufacture a substantial vote for any candidate, no matter how improbable, so long as he receives the party’s endorsement.
Van Buren was the nemesis of John C. Calhoun, who looked with undisguised horror on the development of the Democratic Party. In 1842, in his magisterial speech on the veto power, Calhoun had defended the office of the President against Henry Clay’s proposal to reduce the override vote from two thirds to a simple majority. His argument rested on the peculiar federal arrangements that made the President the representative of both the states and the people. He concluded with a warning against the demagogic notion of a popular mandate for radical change. The limitation on the veto power was, he said, a symptom of a “fatal tendency” toward substituting majority rule for the Constitution. The election of General Harrison had been used as a pretext for “forcing through a whole system of measures of the most threatening and alarming character . . . on the ground that they were all decided in the election . . . thus attempting to substitute the will of the majority of the people in the choice of a Chief Magistrate, as the legislative authority of the Union, in lieu of the beautiful and profound system established by the Constitution.”
In 1846 Calhoun wrote an open letter on “the mode of appointing electors” in response to a proposal to convert South Carolina to the general ticket system. It is worthwhile considering Calhoun’s remarks for two reasons: first, because he handily demolishes all the best arguments now employed against the electoral college; and second, because he anticipated the rise of the vicious political system that has given us 150 years of increasingly corrupt and ineffectual leadership in the White House.
The proponents of popular election of electors (in particular, of the general ticket) insisted that since “all power belongs to the people . . . they should exercise it directly without the intervention of any intermediate agency. . . . ” But, argued Calhoun, the real effect of the proposed change “so far from giving the power to the people . . . would be the most effectual way that could be devised of . . . transferring it to party managers and cliques.”
The cornerstone of Calhoun’s objection was his observation that “where many are to select many, especially over a large extent of country, it does not, in fact, constitute an election but a mere delusion, undeserving the name.” It is impossible, he said, “for the great body of voters to be guided by their individual knowledge in selecting the candidates, either from personal acquaintance or reputation.”
Calhoun, in making this argument, hearkens back to Hamilton’s objection to a national popularity contest, and he concluded that where the result of such voting was not mere accident it would be due to cabal:
A few prominent and influential individuals would enter into a secret concert to control the election. . . . The next [step] would be for others to enter into like concert to defeat them; and finally there would grow out of this state of things two parties, with all the usual party machinery of caucus, conventions, cliques, and managers to control the election. The whole would be put into active operation every four years, on the approach of the presidential election, and each party would make out a full ticket by what would be called a state convention, and every voter, whether he approve of it or not, would have to vote for one or the other, or to throw away his vote on a ticket formed without concert.
Calhoun’s final objection derived from his theory of concurrent majorities. South Carolina had labored to produce a constitution that could reconcile the conflict between the state’s major sections. While a mere numerical majority could oppress a weaker section, South Carolina had arrived at a means of fairly representing the various interests of the state, to the prejudice of none, and it was this method—as represented by the state legislature—that should be used in selecting presidential electors.
The party system, in Calhoun’s view, was in the process of replacing the Constitution, and the principal devices were the general ticket, which gave the state party machines the ability to deliver all the state’s electoral votes and the lavish system of executive patronage that rewarded the state machines. “The Presidential election is no longer a struggle for great principles,” he told the Senate in 1846, “but only a great struggle as to who shall have the spoils of office. Look at the machinery. A convention nominates the President—in which, not infrequently, many of the representatives of the States join in a general understanding to divide the offices amongst themselves and their friends. . . . as soon as the Government becomes the mere creature of seekers of office, your free institutions are at an end.”
Even if the framers had been able to anticipate the rise of the party system, it is not at all clear that they could have bound the states to a uniform method of choosing electors. In the debate over electoral qualifications in the election of representatives to the House, John Dickinson and Gouverneur Morris argued convincingly that the franchise should be restricted to freeholders, and, among the objections made by Franklin and John Rutledge, the most telling was: “The right of suffrage was a tender point, and strongly guarded by the state constitutions. . . . The states are the best judges of the circumstances and temper of their own people.”
It was up to the states, then, to determine the qualifications for electors—both presidential and congressional. No constitutional institution so embodied the confederal principle as the Senate, whose members represented the states not according to size or population but as equal constituents of the union. To make this point even more graphic, the senators were to be elected not directly by the people but by the state legislatures. The discussion of the election of senators sometimes took the form of a debate between (successful) advocates of states’ rights and the partisans of centralized authority, and Sherman argued—quite correctly—that direct election of senators was tantamount to the annihilation of state governments.
However, the overriding concern—as expressed by John Dickinson in particular—was the quality of the men who would sit in the American House of Lords, and the authors of the Federalist dilate on the advantages to be derived from a “temperate and respectable body of citizens” who might “cheek the misguided career” of popular passions. This council of wise and substantial gentlemen could not be elected directly by people who would have no real knowledge of the candidates’ characters, and the choice was left to an intermediate body, elected by the people who knew them and who in turn could be expected to know the most eminent men in the state.
The framers’ concern with the character of the nation’s highest governors made them reluctant to trust the general populace, not so much because the generality of people are stupid and unlettered—although that seems to have been the opinion of the South Carolinians—as because the vast extent of the individual states and the even vaster extent of the entire union precluded the possibility of the voters having any face-to-face contact with the men who would hold the offices of President, senator, and Supreme Court Justice.
The size of the overgrown infant republic was a matter of concern to many thoughtful Americans of the time. They remembered Montesquieu’s injunction that republican government could only work in small nations, smaller even than the larger states of the union. Hamilton, addressing this point in Federalist No. 9, points out that Montesquieu himself had offered confederalism as the solution to the problem of size and insists upon the truly federal nature of the proposed Constitution: “The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves them in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power.” This is the archcentralist, Hamilton, talking even before the passage of the 10th Amendment!
The question of size was not invented by Montesquieu; it goes back to discussions of ancient philosophers reflecting upon the experiences of Greek city-states. The most systematic analysis is provided by Aristotle in the seventh book of the Politics, where he argues that it is not mere size but “dynamis”—efficacy or quality—that makes a polis great, and this depends not on the number of men but on the number of solid citizens. How strong was a large state, if it were filled with aliens, slaves, and base men pursuing nothing but their own private gain? A certain size was necessary, if a city was going to be able to provide for its own necessities, but if it were too large, the citizens would not be able to assign political offices on the basis of an individual’s merit, because they would not have direct knowledge of his character. In large communities, he warned, even aliens will usurp the rights of citizens.
Our concept of the political has been molded all too well by Aristotle, who took it for granted that the members of a political community did, or at least could, know each other. As Peter Laslett observes, “the whole of Greek political thought was conditioned by the fact that the polis was a political society which was also a face-to-face society.” A modern state, he argues, is by contrast a “territorial society,” which—if it is to reach collective decisions—”must discover from within itself . . . a group of critical size which can act, and act continuously, as a face-to-face society: which is capable, that is, of proceeding by means of conversation between its members, permitting mutual response in terms of the whole personalities of those who compose it.”
The House of Commons, the Royal Family, the U. S. Senate, and until recently the Supreme Soviet, are all examples of face-to-face societies that are able to make collective determinations that, in principle, represent the will of millions of people. Laslett is aware that such representation has worked best when it was personal and religious, citing “the sacramental character of Medieval European Kingship,” and he concedes that a mystical notion of the body politic is more difficult to sustain in “the so-called rational political organization of the contemporary world.”
Laslett, if I am reading him correctly, sought the answer to his dilemma in political psychology, but the problem of modern states is not simply that we, as citizens, do not necessarily identify very strongly with those little cliques that lay down the law as that to do so would be a very serious mistake. It is not psychological alienation that is the problem but political alienation. To return to the example of American politics, no one, for all practical purposes, knows either the President or his senators; very few of us have even shaken hands with our congressman, and yet we are regularly called upon to choose from column A or column B the set of Tweedledums or Tweedledees that collectively hold something like absolute power over our lives. What little personal liberty we have left is the result of competing jurisdictions. Is this, I often wonder, why we so often elect a Republican President and a Democratic Congress? If the jackals are kept busy fighting each other, perhaps they will not be able to devour the entire corpse of the Constitution.
We are, most of us, laboring under a fundamental delusion about the nature of the system set up by the Founders of the republic. The Constitution was not designed to set up a regime of majority rule that empowered the people collectively to rule the nation. On the contrary, the fundamental point was to allow states, communities, businesses, families, and individuals to pursue their interests without interference—benign or malevolent—from higher powers pretending to know what is best for us. The great safeguard in this system was the division of powers, not just between the branches of the federal government but between the states and the nation. All of the outmoded or superseded eccentricities of the Constitution were designed with this object in mind.
But of equal importance was the Constitution’s provision for a series of face-to-face societies that would serve as buffers between the small-scale communities of family and village and the resplendent power of central government. Before the Civil War, it was no trouble for a politically minded farmer or shopkeeper to know his congressmen, his state legislators, and the gentlemen who wished to be presidential electors. By reputation, he knew which had been honest in their profession, honorable in their private life, attentive to their legislative duties. In small American towns, we still can form a fair idea of the qualities of the aldermen and school board members—not that it does us much good, since regulators and judges can overturn any decision made by local government—and I am continually being surprised by how much political dirt the Rockford natives seem to know, although little of it is ever reported in the newspapers.
But the tide of progressive reform throughout this century has been, to repeat Calhoun’s warning, to “substitute the will of the majority” for “the beautiful and profound system established by the Constitution.” The 17th Amendment (passed in 1913) established the popular election of senators; the federal courts have stripped the states of their right to apportion their legislatures on any basis but numbers, thus tossing overboard the rural ballast in the farm states and making them the prey of government contractors, urban degenerates, and courthouse politicians. The final symbolic step will be the elimination of the electoral college, whose spectral existence depends entirely on its usefulness to the corrupt Democrat-Republican party.
The task is probably impossible, but it is worth considering what steps we could take that would regress us to something like the constitutional order established by our ancestors. The simplest measures would include: repeal of the 17th Amendment; elimination, state by state, of the general ticket; smaller and more numerous congressional districts based on real communities as opposed to the gerrymandered amoebas concocted by the parties; and reapportionment of the state legislatures to represent, in a fair and balanced manner, the diversity of interests and communities that exist in the states.
Although they hardly go far enough, these would be productive steps toward restoration of republican government, but when I brought them up recently to a well-informed conservative, he dismissed them as too radical and unnecessary. If indirect elections were designed to insure that important political choices were being made by an informed electorate, we have newspapers and “that thing,” he said, pointing to the combination television and VCR.
Here in a nutshell is the problem, the confusion between real knowledge and the various knowledge-substitutes—usually called information or news—that are the basis on which our informed electorate makes its decisions. Set aside the obvious objection that most people are not reading the New York Times or watching C-Span but arc getting most of their information from Gannet papers that read like newspapers put out by special-ed students or from the network news-entertainment shows that air during the breakfast and dinner hours. Suppose they read the Times or even a real newspaper from London, Frankfurt, or Zurich, unless the reader already has some experience of politics and a coherent world view, he is simply getting an information-massage designed to produce “opinions” without substance. Newspapers are like poetry in translation or—worse—literary criticism. They are conversations about things that a small group of men has decided are important, and the difference between political reality and “news” is the difference between a honeymoon and the dirty jokes told by the best man once the couple has left the reception.
If, as it is said, the political is always personal, then the only citizens in a republic arc those who have some say in making decisions that affect their lives, hi a negative sense, political liberty consists of all the restrictions on what government may do to us, but in a positive sense our civil liberties arc concerned with our ability to make real choices based on direct knowledge and personal experience. I am not “empowered” (to use the cant term) by a government that gives me the right to vote for politicians who create agencies that intrude into my neighbor’s business, because my power consists in my ability to act creatively and productively within my own sphere, my household and my shop and my neighborhood.
It is possible to reduce much of what I am saying to a simple and clear principle. The larger the extent of a republic, the broader the jurisdiction of a sovereign, then the more intermediate agencies must there be to insure face-to-face contact between electors and officeholders. The federal principle, of rather limited importance in a tribal village or a city-state, must be elaborated to the nth degree, as states outgrow the narrow boundaries of neighborhood and province. In a republic, one should never have to vote for any candidate one has not met. As it is, we go into the voting booth and with our eyes closed we try to pin the tail on the donkey or the elephant.
If fewer and fewer Americans are exercising their franchise, it is partly because they realize that their votes will change nothing, but the nonvoters may also be wise enough to know, like Socrates, what they do not know, namely politics and politicians. A picture gallery, says Shaw, is a dull place for a blind man, and many American citizens who follow national elections arc learning to rely more on their sense of smell.
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