A Return to “a Republic, not a Democracy”
Walter Williams wades into the ever-popular Why We Are a Republic, Not a Democracy discussion as a defense of the Electoral College:
Hillary Clinton blamed the Electoral College for her stunning defeat in the 2016 presidential election in her latest memoirs, “What Happened.”
Some have claimed that the Electoral College is one of the most dangerous institutions in American politics.
Why? They say the Electoral College system, as opposed to a simple majority vote, distorts the one-person, one-vote principle of democracy because electoral votes are not distributed according to population.
To back up their claim, they point out that the Electoral College gives, for example, Wyoming citizens disproportionate weight in a presidential election.
Put another way, Wyoming, a state with a population of about 600,000, has one member in the House of Representatives and two members in the U.S. Senate, which gives the citizens of Wyoming three electoral votes, or one electoral vote per 200,000 people.
California, our most populous state, has more than 39 million people and 55 electoral votes, or approximately one vote per 715,000 people.
Comparatively, individuals in Wyoming have nearly four times the power in the Electoral College as Californians.
I quote the long passage because I find it remarkable that he correctly identifies a core problem with the EC, which is the fact that it does not treat American equally, but provides no actual defense of the practice. The closet he comes is this:
Many people whine that using the Electoral College instead of the popular vote and majority rule is undemocratic. I’d say that they are absolutely right. Not deciding who will be the president by majority rule is not democracy.
But the Founding Fathers went to great lengths to ensure that we were a republic and not a democracy. In fact, the word democracy does not appear in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or any other of our founding documents.
Setting aside the denigration of legitimate debate as whining, he simply agrees this is isn’t a democratic process and provides not argument whatsoever as to why this is acceptable, or what benefit it brings. Instead, he just quotes Founders who used the word “democracy” in a negative way.
All if this ignores that the early writings of the Founders (especially Adams) often used the word “democracy” in a way commensurate with the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used to mean either rule by the poor or what one might describe as “mobacracy” when using the term “democracy.” When they used the word “republic” they usually meant either Aristotle’s notion of a regime that adequately balanced the rich and poor and allowed the middle class to rule, or they were extolling a romantic version of the Roman Republic. At a minimum they meant government without a monarch or aristocracy. Further, Madison was quite clear, if one takes the time to really look, what he meant in the democracy v. republic debate in Federalist 10, 14, and 39 (as I discussed a while ago here). Madison used the term “republic” to refer to a representative system (i.e., what we call “democracy” in modern language).
Williams’ column is almost entirely an appeal to the cult of Founders which more of less assumes that if the Founders did it, it must be good and wise for all time. There are, of course, multiple problems with that approach.
First, as I have repeatedly noted, if you are going to argue about institutions from the POV of what the Founders wanted, you have to deal with the fact that Electoral College never worked as intended, as I noted in these two posts:
Those two posts focus on Federalist 66 and 68. The short version is that Hamilton foresaw a deliberative element to the role of the electors (instead, they are partisan messengers) and he assumed that the House of Representatives would often selected President (this has happened twice*).
Second, he does not deal with the fact that the CA v. WY disparity is by several orders of magnitude higher than the VA v. DE disparity when the Founders wrote the Constitution. There has to be some justification for treating citizens differently, as well as an upper limit that is acceptable. Virginia’s population in 1790 was 12.7 time larger than Delaware’s. California is 68.2 times larger than Wyoming.
Beyond the numbers, the reality is that the EC was part of a set of political compromises intended to get buy-in from the original thirteen states into the Constitution. It was not grand theory or design.
Third, just because the Framers said or believed something, doesn’t mean it should be endorsed ad infinitum. Two obvious examples: the Framers did not believe women should have the right to vote (and many did not believe that the unpropertied should either) and the US Constitution enshrined several concessions to slavery. As such, mindless acceptance of the views and preferences of the Founders is not a very good argument. Indeed, if one is going to make an argument that minority preferences should trump majority preferences, then one has to go beyond what amounts to “because the Founders.”
One argument that has no power, I would note, is that lack of the usage of certain words in the founding documents. There are a lot of words not used, but so what? The Constitution mentions, off the top of my head, neither political parties nor filibusters, but their absence does not mean our system of government isn’t profoundly affected by both.
I find that most people who state that they favor a decision-rule (not a fundamental right, but a process for making a decision) that privileges the minority usually do so because they are in that minority and therefore pick a rule that favors their own position. Or, more insidiously, because they really don’t want a system of government that takes seriously the proposition that all are created equal, but rather believe that some class of persons (whether it be race, class, or something else) deserves more power than others.
The closest Williams comes to an argument is this:
The Founders expressed contempt for the tyranny of majority rule, and throughout our Constitution, they placed impediments to that tyranny.
All well and good, and I would not argue otherwise as a general proposition (although this position tends to romanticize the political calculations of the conventioneers). However, simply saying that majority tyranny can be a problem is not an argument for minority privileging decision rules. Indeed, in simple terms, the only thing worse than tyranny of the majority is tyranny of the minority, if we are going to speak about species of tyranny.
Tyranny of the majority is actually a straw man at the heart of this “republic, not a democracy” meme because it creates a false, and deeply untrue, dichotomy between the terms, as well as assuming that any “democracy” is just crude majoritarianism wherein the mass can simply vote away the rights of the minority. The reality is that majority tyranny can be thwarted through a variety of means, a key one being the recognition of a hierarchy of values.
For example, the entire movement to desegregate the schools was a movement based in the notion that minority rights ought to trump majority policy preferences. But this was not because of some arbitrary assertion. It was based in the notion that some rights are to be valued more than others, i.e., that the inherent value of human beings to be treated equally under the law supersedes the ability of one group to take away the rights of a less numerous group.
Really, the entire basis of the five freedoms in the First Amendment (freedom of speech, press, worship, and assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances) are all strictures enshrined in our highest law to protect minorities from majorities.
That is how a democracy protects against tyranny of the majority (and some version of this is true across the democratic world). And, ironically, by giving a certain amount of power to the unelected branch of government, the limited ability to judge whether the fundamental rights of all citizens are being damaged by decisions made by elected officials.
There is no sound basis in stating that the EC creates some specific protection against majority tyranny by granting disproportionate power to different citizens.** There is no reason to assume that a minority-elected president would do a better job of protecting liberty than a majority-elected president. Indeed, the main reason to prefer the EC over a popular vote system is, quite frankly, either simply worship of the Cult of the Founders or pure power-politics (it favors one party over the other).***
*The two cases are 1800 and 1824. And, really, the 1800 Jefferson/Burr selection was the result of mistake by the Framers that made it possible for the candidates who were technically on the same ticket (i.e., president/vice president) to be tied for the presidency. That fact alone underscores the imperfection of the EC’s design (one that had to be fixed via amendment). The only real instance of the House having to select the president as a result of no EC majority was 1824. I would underscore the rarity of this process, and how long ago it last happened.
I will say that the Jefferson/Burr election was the basis of an inaccurate (in terms of historic and institutional details), but awesome, song in Hamilton, so it has that going for it. After, it would nice to have Hamilton on your side.
**I find all of the pro-EC arguments wanting, but especially in terms of protection of tyranny. To note some of the prominent pro arguments: it does not lead to candidates paying more attention to small states (rather, it makes them pay attention to swing states) and there are myriad ways to deal with recount challenges in close elections that does not requite the EC (heck, if Mexico can manage the razor-thin 2006 contest, the US can figure out a way to deal with recounts–our problems are mostly the result of ancient voting technology and extreme decentralization).
***The pure political reality of the situation is that as long as the institution favors one party over the other, there will be no political will to reform the system. Regardless of whether one likes it or not, the Republicans have benefited from an popular/electoral vote inversion for two out of five cycles (2000 and 2016). I cannot see a political movement to make a change if one party sees an advantage in maintaining the institutional status quo.