Remembering that other important college…
The Electoral College, that is
Since Donald Trump was named the President-Elect, there have been outbursts on social media decrying the nature of the election. How could a candidate who has insulted and threatened millions with his behavior win a plurality of voters and secure the highest office in the country?
Except he didn’t exactly win free and clear. Trump only scraped 46 percent of the popular vote to Clinton’s 48 percent — a seemingly thin margin that actually works out to about 2.4 million more votes than Trump .
This has led many — primarily young liberals — to both decry the electoral process and attempt to mobilize in order to persuade the Electoral College to align themselves with the will of the majority and place Clinton in office instead of Trump. As most educated Americans know, the popular vote amounts to mostly window dressing when it comes to deciding the next commander-in-chief. And our constitutional framers wanted it that way.
The Founding Fathers believed that too much democracy would endanger the stability of the republic, and that people could easily be swayed by false facts and selfish interests rather than a concern for the public good (sound familiar?).
They also wisely despised tyranny and the unchecked rule of federal authority, and sought to limit the powers of the government through what some might call undemocratic means.
Justices to the Supreme Court are nominated by the President, not the people; Senators were elected by state legislatures until the 17th amendment gave that power to the voters themselves; and most infamously, the actual decision-making of who is to be president was left in the hands of electors, who all comprise a vaguely defined Electoral College.
These are but some of the checks-and-balances that underly the workings of American government.
Especially in our modern era, there have been tsunamis of criticism leveled at the Electoral College. It has been called archaic, a relic of a time when street lamps didn’t exist, much less the Internet. It has been labeled undemocratic and, to an extent, it is. It acts, in theory, independent of the populace and makes decisions for the nation as a whole.
In most circumstances, this structure wouldn’t be a problem. Typically, the Electoral College picks the candidate who received the most popular votes. There have been just a few instances otherwise, the most recent instance being the 2008 election in which Al Gore won the popular vote only to lose the presidency to George W. Bush. That election was decided by the Supreme Court, arguably the least democratic institution in the federal government.
Donald Trump’s ascendance needs to be scrutinized, which means American democracy itself must also be placed under the microscope — including the Electoral College.
The Electoral College’s purpose is to temper the will of the people and be gatekeepers of the Oval Office. It’s an elitist structure, but one meant to preserve the Constitution and the liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Donald Trump has upended all the rules of normal politics, and if electors vote independent of their state’s populace, it could set a dangerous precedent.
More so than ever before, what the Electoral College decides on December 19 will reveal and shake the limitations of American democracy and of our belief in our centuries-old institutions.
In 1814, 25 years after the adoption of the Constitution and shortly after Washington, D.C. was burned by the British, John Adams wrote to a friend in Virginia. “Democracy never lasts long,” he said. “It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
By ensuring that republican sentiment guided the mechanisms of government, — like the Electoral College — the Framers intended to give American democracy an extended lifespan in an age of monarchies, revolutions and social turbulence. In effect, they attempted to safeguard the experiment embarked upon in 1776 and reaffirmed that it was not a futile one. The result has been a country built upon the oldest living constitution still in effect, strengthened by its familiarity to its people and its basic principles if not by its actual democratic elements.
The election of Donald Trump is a scenario the Framers feared would happen — an unqualified, loud-mouthed populist harnessing the rage of the people to test the strength of the Constitution. It remains to be seen if the electors will remember their intended role as guardians of the republic or follow the established route and elect Mr. Trump into office.
Either way, the United States is about to suffer a barrage of blows to its very foundation throughout the next four years (and hopefully no longer).