Abolish the Electoral College? Think about it.


Thanks to my friend Kyle Granger in Innsbruck, AUSTRIA, with whom I spent the post-election (at an ungodly hour for him), who posted Alex Pareene’s piece on Google+. It occurs to me that many Europeans (and not a few Americans, such as Alex) wonder why the US does not simply adopt a parliamentary system and abolish the electoral college. Wouldn’t that solve everything? Well, no. And here’s why.

Let’s reflect critically both on the original and on the contemporary opponents of the electoral college. For the original opponents, the electoral college represented just one additional way to insulate decision-making, the process of governing, from politics. Were the process of governing more sensitive to politics, the individual interests of voters — of citizens — would express itself in policy. Just to be clear what they meant by this, citizens overwhelmingly opposed a common currency; they overwhelmingly opposed the authority of the federal government to tax wealth; they opposed extra-local rules governing commerce, trade, business, and transportation. In this south, this opposition to the electoral college translated into fierce, militant support for the institution of slavery, and equally fierce, militant support for local militias, easily and quickly mustered not simply to put down local slave revolts, but also (and more tellingly) to prevent federal troops from entering their communities to enforce republican institutions, including the abolition of slavery.

The earliest defenders of the electoral college, by contrast, feared that the vast majority of Americans, if given an opportunity, would seize the land and wealth and wreck the economic institutions of the young republic. In their view, stable economic institutions and the steady accumulation of wealth would be jeopardized if the poor and uneducated were permitted to directly express their interests politically and institutionally. But defenders of the electoral college also feared that direct democracy would be too easy for oligarchs — such as southern and northern land owners — to manipulate. No private interest, large or small, wants to be regulated, so they reasoned. Defenders of the electoral college believed it would simply be too easy for oligarchs to conceal their own self-interest under the banner of “liberty.”

Now to today. Europeans frequently make the, in my view, huge mistake of feeling that their parliamentary political institutions are separable from their social institutions; or that in some way the former generated the latter. This ignores history. Since Europe’s political institutions took shape only after the industrial revolution was well underway, these institutions already contained within themselves an implicit (and often an explicit) social franchise alongside the more traditional political franchise. That is to say, when Europe’s political institutions took shape, their framers recognized that empowering the industrial working class would only work politically if this industrial working class were also empowered by education, health, housing, and social security. Oddly, this Sonderweg (other road to democracy) is often pilloried both by the left and the right; by the left because they argue that it bought off the working class; by the right because they argue that it instituted cradle-to-grave paternalism.

However, it could be argued that this was an elegant solution to a problem that the US has never successfully broached, much less resolved. The framers of the US Constitution severely restricted the political franchise because they believed that republican institutions could not survive direct democracy. By the 1820s all states had expanded voting to include all classes of white men. The result was the very demagoguery that the framers most feared. Already by the 1820s every political race (i.e., every race for the House, not the Senate) was bought and paid for by the highest bidder; a direct and immediate cause not only of the slaughter of tens of thousands of native Americans, but also of the expansion of slavery into the southwest. Which is to say, because political enfranchisement in the US was not accompanied by social enfranchisement it led to a politically and socially illiterate electorate, easily manipulated by the US oligarchy.

Europeans frequently feel that all that the US needs to do is adopt a European-style parliamentary system, and all will be well.

But let us pause and reflect on why big business might be among the most powerful forces pushing for the elimination of the electoral college. Where might Mitt Romney have spent his war chest had, for example, California’s electoral votes been proportional to its popular vote? We in California saw next to zero presidential advertisements this year.

Yes. Direct democracy is good, but it is only good to the extent that voters enjoy the social and economic franchise that would free them from the power exercised by the oligarchs. Put differently, Europeans, evidently forgetful of 1922 and 1932, seem to feel that democracy in and of itself is emancipatory. They seem to feel that the vote brings with it the education, liberty, and leisure required to exercise political power responsibly. And they forget that, in Europe, because the social and economic franchise accompanied the political franchise, European voters are far better equipped to resist the powers of their own oligarchs.

So, just ask yourself. Would you really rather be paying attention to California, Washington, and Oregon next election? Really?

If you want to learn more about the peculiarity of US political institutions, navigate to Amazon.com and purchase Joseph Lough’s Commonwealth: or Why Democrats are Republicans and Why Republicans are Neither.