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Fetishizing Democracy
Posted by: Dale Franks on Sunday, March 05, 2006

Hendrick Hertzberg, writing in The New Yorker, uncovers a not-very-secret conspiracy to subvert the Electoral College for Presidential elections.
The promoters of the Campaign for a National Popular Vote, as they’re calling themselves, have come up with an elegant finesse. Instead of trying to change the Constitution, they propose to apply it, one bit in particular: Article II, Section 1, which instructs each state to “appoint” its Presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Here’s how the plan would work. One by one, legislature by legislature, state law by state law, individual states would pledge themselves to an interstate compact under which they would agree to award their electoral votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote. The compact would take effect only when enough states had joined it to elect a President—that is, enough to cast a majority of the five hundred and thirty-eight electoral votes. (Theoretically, as few as eleven states could do the trick.) And then, presto! All of a sudden, the people of all fifty states plus the District of Columbia are empowered to elect their President the same way they elect their governors, mayors, senators, and congressmen. We still have the Electoral College, with its colorful eighteenth-century rituals, but it can no longer do any damage. It becomes a tourist attraction, like the British monarchy.
Mr. Hertzberg thinks that this is a wonderful idea. The Electoral College, you see, is a threat to our democratic order.

I'm not really all that concerned with our democratic order, mainly because I think it's too democratic as it is. Like the Framers of the Constitution, I distrust democracy, even while believing that the ultimate sovereignty—and hence the legitimacy—of any government resides in the citizenry, not the political class.

The Framers when faced with these opposing propositions created a Republic that represented both the people, and the states. The House of Representatives was directly elected, thus ensuring that the people's representatives had to consent to any law. Senators were chosen by the state legislatures, thus ensuring that state governments had their own represesentatives who could be depended upon to preserve the power of the states from encroachments by the Federal government. The president was elected by a slate of electors, who were chosen in the manner directed by the state legislatures, thus ensuring that the Executive was independent of the legislature.

One of the greatest mistakes ever made was the direct election of Senators. Once the Senate became the creature of the electorate, they were vulnerable to political pressure to increase Federal power at state expense, and state governments lost their only brake on Federal power.

Democracy, as I've repeatedly said, is a wonderful method for determining what the people want, but it offers no guarantee that what the people want is the right thing. Democracy essentially means that, if 50% plus one person wants my house, or my livelihood, perhaps because I 'profited unfairly in the 1980s", then they can take it, and divide it among themselves. 50%+ can take my life, ignore my rights, and whatever else they want to do. If "the people want it" is the sole measure of political legitimacy, then there is no fixed measure of legitimacy at all.

The purpose of our original scheme of government was to restrain democracy, balancing the people's sovereignty with checks on their power. The people had to consent to the laws under which they were governed, but they were also prevented from unilaterally imposing their will on the legislature. That scheme has been overthrown, and so I would argue that our problem is not that the government of the United States isn't democratic enough, but rather that it is too democratic by far. The Electoral College is the last vestige of state representation in our form of government.

(Some libertarians, of course, raise the distrust of democracy in to a matter of high principle, by refusing to vote at all. "Voting," they say, "is merely giving consent to a system that takes away my rights! I'll never compromise my principles by participating is such a charade!" Well, maybe so, but it also ensures the election of people who are prone to take away your rights, rather than people that will defend them. This is the very name "self-defeating".

These same people often say that they'd fight to defend their rights. Huh. Let's see if I get this straight: You won't try and defend your rights by voting once every two years, but when jackbooted government thugs drop by with submachine guns, you're gonna pull out a rifle and make a courageous final stand. Go on, pull the other one.

Oh, and by the way, if voting isn't allowed, then how do you propose government leaders, even in the minimalist state, be selected? Do the citizens of the libertarian state have no say in their own government? Or are you waiting for the day when all men become angels, and the state just withers away? If so, good luck with that. But, I guess you and the commies will have a lot to talk about while you're waiting.)

Mr. Hertzberg is also miffed that presidential campaigns spend all their time and money in the purple states, ignoring the solidly red or blue states. That's true, but, so what? It already costs huge amounts of money just to campaign in those states. The amounts necessary to campaign aggressively in all 50 states would be staggering. Who will be paying for that? There's only one answer, of course. Make the government, i.e., the taxpayers, pay for political campaigns. That's really the ultimate in Campaign Finance Reform, isn't it? Make all contributions illegal. And, incidentally, give equal amounts of money to all the parties—well, not all the parties, of course, just the two main ones, because there's no reason to get radical about it—irrespective of their ability to attract money by proposing policies that attract donors. Which, also, by the way, means that you will be donating money to political candidates you oppose. But, we have to make it fair, right?

On the other hand, I suppose I'd be willing to trade direct election of the President for a return to the election of US Senators by state legislatures.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Somewhere between the 2000 election cat-call: "Count every vote (but only in Democratic counties)!" and this movement to bypass the Electoral College, the value of a rural "vote" in America is under attack.

Which brings me to my beef: this is just one more example of urban America dragging our nation down. Like a mother Robin, our entire country is being harangued into stuffing ever more money into our cities’ gaping maws. And now, if New York’s Senators get their Electoral College Over-ride, Fly-Over America’s voters will have to pay with its voting power.

The constituency for the progressive, big-government agenda lurks in our cities. Urbanization concocts too many of our nation’s social pathologies (multiculturalism, welfarism), devalues important traditions such as offering hospitality to strangers, provides a packed susceptible population for the spread of pathogens, and serves as vulnerable targets to terrorists. Cities become loci of expensive needi-ness.

(Did you all notice the $11 Billion all of us just paid to New York City? Rural Americans are currently being asked to finance security upgrades to public-transit systems in New England cities that we wouldn’t ever voluntarily set foot in. Is it too much to ask weathly New Yorkers to pay to protect their own urban municipal services? )

I think information technologies can help to dissolve our cities. The need to aggregate in packed cities is abated by modern telecom. Everyone should install a wireless card, pack up your laptop and the kids, buy 10 acres in, say, beautiful Eastern Oregon, and let’s all reboot.

My suspicion is that, fishing a Schumer or a Clinton out of their urban "fish-bowl" environment and plonking them in a spacious, uncrowded fish-tank would rock their world. Both would probably quit politics and become real-estate agents, or go quietly insane for lack of urban intrigue and loquacious gossip.
Written By: Steve
URL: http://
These proposals only seem to start floating around when the rabble refuse to vote for the proper candidates (ie: left), ever notice that?
Written By: shark
URL: http://
Yeah, Shark. I did notice.
Funny, huh?
Written By: Steve
URL: http://
Dale, your comment about democracy not guaranteeing that what the people want is the right thing reminds me of a quote by T.H. White: Democracy is the sneaking suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.

Someone came to my door a few months ago, asking me to sign a petition for a ballot measure that would ban smoking in all bars and restaurants. I told him that, as a prospectve restaurant owner, I as not interested in such a petition, and that it was up to me and my customers whether I allowed smoking in my establishment. "Don’t you think this should be put up to a vote?" the signature-gatherer asked.

"No, I don’t think my property rights should ever be put up to a vote."

The signature-gatherer harumphed and stormed off, much to my satisfaction.
Written By: Steverino
One of the greatest mistakes ever made was the direct election of Senators.
Indeed. Only surpassed by the creation of the national income tax.
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
Money taxed from the service and mining and manufacturing workers, is spent supporting inefficient agriculture. $175 billion in big government welfare. Try to take any money away from this block of money grubbing bludgers and they will scream blue murder. They do not constitute 50% + 1 of everybody, but you are still donating to them.

Whichever group has power will use that power to advance themselves. The beauty of an involving democracy is that it requires that the group in power is as big and unwieldy and paranoid and self-defeating as possible. It is very hard to get 50% + 1 of a large population to agree on anything. All other systems rely on smaller groups holding power that are more cohesive and "get things done".

My general preference is unwieldy democratic government, because I believe economies function inspite of the best intentions of government.

(Mind you if I can get the government to agree with my ideals and serve my needs that is even better - screw everybody else.)
Written By: Unaha-closp
URL: http://
One of the greatest mistakes ever made was the direct election of Senators. Once the Senate became the creature of the electorate, they were vulnerable to political pressure to increase Federal power at state expense, and state governments lost their only brake on Federal power.
I’d be more inclined to agree with this argument, except it has little basis in reality. As ineffective as it may seem at times, the Senate is really the only worthwhile body of our two houses of congress. If anything is ’broken’, it is most certainly the House of Representatives.

I’m also a proponent of transitioning from the electoral college based system to a popular vote for the election of the President. The question is, is the President meant to represent the people of the United States or meant to represent a coalition of 50 states? I think it is fairly obvious that in this day in age, the reality is the former rather than the latter. The electoral college is simply an antiquated system.

As for avenues to reform, I’m not sure that the proposed ’workaround’ is really the most effective one. It seems to me that if we desired to implement a popular vote without the neccesary constitutional amendment to do so, the most effective way would be to simply split a states electoral vote by the proportion of the vote of its people. Such a system is in place in Maine and Nebraska, and there was an initiative to do so in Colorado before the 2004 election which did not pass. If any ’workaround’ would be appropriate, that would be the one to choose in my opinion.

I would also point out that there are other reasons for favoring a popular-vote or a workaround such as the one I mentioned: It makes third-parties much more competitive and offers more relevance and exposure. As it stands, with the winner-takes-all system, a party has to win a majority in a state in order to be relevant whatsoever. Imagine if the Libertarian party (or some other third party) started winning a few electoral votes in a couple of states?

Written By: Rosensteel
URL: http://
These proposals only seem to start floating around when the rabble refuse to vote for the proper candidates (ie: left), ever notice that?
I don’t understand this argument. When those among the left began to support a direct-vote system after the 2000 election, this claim may have made sense. Afterall Al Gore would have won in that election if the decision was made based on the popular vote. So between 2000-2004, I understood why conservatives disliked the concept.

After 2004, though, I fail to understand the argument. Bush won the popular vote by a margin of several million votes. He would have won even under a popular-vote system.

In fact, I would think that conservatives would generally be in favor of such a thing. It must be rather disillusioning to be a Republican in California, New York, New Jersey, or Illinois, knowing that your vote will never amount to anything. Likewise for a Democrat living in the south or any of the various Red States. As it is, your vote only really ’counts’ if you happen to live in one of a handful of important swing-states.

I will agree on one-thing though. Democrats seem to only care about ’counting every vote’ a few months before an election, and a few months after they lost an election. Beyond making it a political stumping issue, they don’t truly seem to care that much. Which I consider a shame, because the system is certainly far from perfect. Unfortunately, nobody is going to care so long as it appears to be nothing more than a reason to complain every election season.
Written By: Rosensteel
URL: http://
Afterall Al Gore would have won in that election if the decision was made based on the popular vote.
You can’t project a winner under a different set of rule than the contest was run under. Different rules require different strategies. Had it been a popular vote election the campaigns would have been very different and the results also.
Written By: Jay Evans
URL: http://
Plus Gore won by what? 500,000 votes? thats like .005% of the total votes, well within any margin of error.

And I think you’re right about democracy. The path to tyranny has two doors. I’ve also recently been attracted to the idea that the direct election of senator was a bad idea. One problem I see though is getting state legislatures to actually elect a senator. If you think you’ve seen obstuctionism Texas, we actually had our democratic legislatures hide out in hotels in new meixco and oklahoma, over a redistricting vote.
Written By: Chris
URL: http://
Plus Gore won by what? 500,000 votes? thats like .005% of the total votes, well within any margin of error
There is no margin of error in an election.
Written By: Unaha-closp
URL: http://

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