Wessex and Aquitaine, Arizona and Pennsylvania. All were, once upon a time, regions that had a distinct political identity, genuine states in which one could be a citizen or a subject. The first two survive only in the would-be romantic kitsch peddled by tourist boards; the others still survive as real states, but not for lack of attempts to reduce them to mere geographical expressions. Ever since the New Deal, American elites have often shared the attitudes that prompt naive European visitors to ask so often, “Why does America allow the states so much power?” It gets increasingly difficult to explain—either to Americans or Europeans—the fundamental fact that the states created the nation, under a constitutional document that lays down precise limits beyond which the federal government should not venture.
After so many nagging attacks on federalism, the latest has erupted over the institution of the Electoral College—ironically, as a direct consequence of the 2000 presidential election, which represented probably the best advertisement the college method could have had. Precisely because of the college system, it was easy to limit to only four or so states the damage caused by flagrant electoral corruption, fraudulent voting, and the mass destruction of authentic ballots. Even if a city or region goes totally out of control, permitting the mass creation of bogus voters, the gains that can be made by such devious means are confined to only a few states where corruption can be identified and electoral votes can be disputed. In a national system, by contrast, there would be an obvious temptation to “run up the score” in favored areas, and some have long expertise in this. Ending the Electoral College would place a premium on electoral manipulation unparalleled since the notorious machines that operated in Texas and Kansas City in the 1940’s. The only difference is that, this time around, bogus votes could not easily be challenged unless one was prepared to face crippling charges of racist bias, of seeking to disfranchise the poor. And last year’s experiences in Florida showed that state and local electoral officials have no shame whatsoever in permitting (and promoting) the most outrageous electoral fraud.
The system, in short, worked awfully well in 2000. So well, in fact, that we should not be surprised that it provoked immediate calls for its abolition from those who stand to benefit most from the uncontrolled manufacture of urban votes. There was a delightful moment when the New York Times reported one particular attack under the headline “Hilary Clinton Calls for Abolition of Electoral System.” I initially took this to be a startlingly frank appeal for the elimination of representative government as such, except insofar as one was indirectly represented by means of corporate interest blocs based on race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual preference—but of course, that epochmaking social innovation will probably not be implemented for another decade or two.
The case against the Electoral College is pathetically weak. Before the 2000 debacle, only two presidential elections (1824 and 1876) probably resulted in the college defeating “the will of the people” as expressed in popular ballots. That is a striking record of convergence, especially since the American system was never intended to be based on popular democracy. If readers will excuse a statement of the obvious, the U.S. president was to be elected by the states, not by the people. This emphasis was, and remains, a highly desirable mechanism for ensuring that the interests of smaller states are not trampled by their more populous neighbors. That concern has proved all the more significant since the booming “large states” of one generation often prove to be the defenseless midgets of the next. Defending the interests of the weak today might well mean securing one’s own interests in decades to come. That is federalism, and it has worked well.
The real scandal of 2000 was not that the “people’s will” was stymied, but rather that so many Americans demonstrated such a stunning ignorance of how the system worked, and more important, why it was set up that way. Unless that situation changes, unless people can understand that the states are not just an antiquarian survival but the pivotal element of the constitutional system, we can say goodbye to federalism and accept an untrammeled unitary megastate. And by that point, Arizona and Pennsylvania will have precisely as much political substance as, well, Wessex or Aquitaine.
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