Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Here’s Every Defense of the Electoral College — and Why They’re All Wrong

leave a comment »

Eric Levitz writes in New York:

Human beings evolved to deceive themselves, so as to better deceive each other. This is because we are social animals who spent our formative years living in tight-knit, tribal communities in which our prospects for survival were maximized by maintaining the approval of the collective — whileadvancing our own individual (and/or factional) interests. And one handy way to reconcile those competing objectives was to develop a talent for inventing ostensibly neutral rules that would, in practice, give you or your crew some distinct advantage in intragroup conflicts — along with arguments for why said rules were ethically necessary, irrespective of their substantive implications.

Over time, however, natural selection weeded out our most gullible ancestors. The surviving homo sapiens had a gift for recognizing the telltale signs of deceit. Soon, they could see that Short Gary’s left eyebrow twitched every time he explained that fairness required giving the tribe’s shortest member the largest slice of fish (as this was what the Founding Fishers had intended). Thus, the Short Garys of the world were killed and eaten. And eventually, their successors developed a more optimal means of camouflaging their own interests in arguments about procedural fairness: They became adept at convincing themselves that justice required whatever arbitrary principle would get them the biggest slice of fish — and thus, betrayed no signs of deceit when trying to convince others.

And this is how a bunch of supernaturally self-deluded apes came to inherit the Earth.

Or so my foggy memory of evolutionary psychology would suggest. And after sifting through a variety of conservative defenses of the Electoral College, it’s hard not to conclude that this account is basically right.

At a CNN town hall Monday night, Elizabeth Warren argued that America should elect presidents by a national popular vote. “We need to make sure that every vote counts. And you know, I want to push that right here in Mississippi. Because I think this is an important point,” the Democratic presidential candidate told a crowd in Jackson. “My view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”

An overwhelming majority of the American public agree. And yet, an overwhelming majority of GOP operatives, public intellectuals, and politicians do not.

The simplest explanation for this discrepancy is that professional Republicans believe (consciously or otherwise) that the existing election rules benefit their party. After all, the GOP has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. And since the Electoral College gives disproportionate influence to whiter, more rural states — and the GOP is becoming increasingly reliant on white, rural voters — the existing conservative coalition is poised to continue deriving a benefit from the status quo rules for cycles to come.

This puts conservative pontificators in the unenviable position of having to defend an archaic, undemocratic system that does not work as its authors intended, or as the American public desires, on the grounds that it is a uniquely fair and rational way of electing the nation’s most powerful officeholder.

Terrible arguments ensue. And these awful products of motivated reasoning are joined by the awful products of status quo bias (which leads some small number of liberals to defend the Electoral College) in a noxious stew of nonsensical arguments against allowing popular democracy to determine control of at least one branch of our government.

Fortunately, I (and everyone who agrees with me on this subject) have escaped the shackles of subjectivity, and know the objective truth about the Electoral College. And so, I can provide you, dear reader, with a rundown of some of the most prominent arguments for preserving that vile institution — and why all of them are wrong. Defenses of the Electoral College tend to fall into one of three broad categories, and so we’ll examine each genre in turn.

1. The Electoral College currently exists, therefore it is good.

(A) The founders thought superhard about this, and so we should defer to their judgement.

From Allen Guelzo and James Hulme’s Washington Post op-ed, “In Defense of the Electoral College”:

The Founders who sat in the 1787 Constitutional Convention lavished an extraordinary amount of argument on the electoral college, and it was by no means one-sided … The Founders also designed the operation of the electoral college with unusual care. The portion of Article 2, Section 1, describing the electoral college is longer and descends to more detail than any other single issue the Constitution addresses. More than the federal judiciary — more than the war powers — more than taxation and representation.

This isn’t the op-ed’s only argument. But the authors devote a solid 350 words of their short column to saying, essentially, “Look, our finest slaveholders already debated all this only a couple decades before the advent of the steam engine, so why reopen this can of worms?” And they are hardly alone in presenting “the founders said so” as a trump card.

The trouble with this argument is twofold. First, the founders were (mostly) a collection of land speculators who built their fortunes by ethnically cleansing Native Americans, and slavers who built theirs by participating in one of the greatest atrocities in world history. Most did not believe in popular democracy (as the vast majority of Americans do today). As political theorists, these dudes were so foresighted, they assumed that America would never have political parties.

None of this means that some of them weren’t brilliant, or that they didn’t build some institutions that are worth preserving. But it does mean we’re talking about incredibly flawed, extremely dead human beings, not philosopher kings appointed by God. Thus, there is no reason to reflexively defer to their judgement — which was itself the product of compromise between disparate interests, not Socratic dialogue on the ideal form of the state. Some founders favored the popular vote; others wanted to leverage their chattel into disproportionate political power.

Understandably, Hulme and Guelzo are eager to deny these grubby origins, writing:

Above all, the electoral college had nothing to do with slavery. Some historians have branded the electoral college this way because each state’s electoral votes are based on that “whole Number of Senators and Representatives” from each State, and in 1787 the number of those representatives was calculated on the basis of the infamous 3/5ths clause. But the electoral college merely reflected the numbers, not any bias about slavery (and in any case, the 3/5ths clause was not quite as proslavery a compromise as it seems, since Southern slaveholders wanted their slaves counted as 5/5ths for determining representation in Congress, and had to settle for a whittled-down fraction). [Emphasis mine.]

There are multiple issues with this defense. For one thing, some southern framers were quite forthright about the nature of their concerns. As Jamelle Bouie notes:

Hugh Williamson of North Carolina made this point explicit in his objection: Because there won’t always be “distinguished characters” with national recognition who could win a majority of votes, “the people will be sure to vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will be sure to succeed.” But this will not be Virginia, “since her slaves will have no suffrage.”

And even if this hadn’t been the case, Hulme and Guelzo’s argument would be nonsensical. If the framers had adopted a popular-vote system, then only the enfranchised would have influenced presidential elections — and thus, slavers wouldn’t have been able to leverage their human property into outsized political influence. This is not complicated. Furthermore, what, precisely, is “in any case, the 3/5ths compromise wasn’t that pro-slavery since the plantation owners wanted it to be 5/5ths” supposed to prove?

But the most fundamental problem with the idea that we should defer to framer’s judgement is this: Almost immediately after writing the rules for presidential elections into the Constitution, the leaders of our republic realized they’d made a mistake (which is why the 12th Amendment exists). Among other things, making the Electoral College runner-up the vice-president proved to be deeply problematic the moment political parties took hold. If we were actually committed to honoring the founders’ intentions, then Hillary Clinton would be Donald Trump’s vice-president today. This would surely make for a fine sitcom premise, but few would describe it as a rational way to run a White House.

(B) It would put us on a slippery slope to abolishing the Senate.

From Red Jahncke’s column in The Hill, “Think We Should Do Away With the Electoral College? Think Again.”

We are both a democracy and a federation of states. The Electoral College was designed specifically to prevent the tyranny of big states over small states, as was the U.S. Senate, which affords all states, large and small, equal representation. If we do away with the Electoral College, we might as well do away with the Senate.

Guelzo offers similar sentiments in another pro–Electoral College piece for National Affairs:

Abolishing the Electoral College now might satisfy an irritated yearning for direct democracy, but it would also mean dismantling federalism. After that, there would be no sense in having a Senate (which, after all, represents the interests of the states), and eventually, no sense in even having states, except as administrative departments of the central government.

The biggest problem with this slippery-slope argument is that it’s implausible: There is strong majoritarian support for abolishing the Electoral College, and a way to effectively nullify it without changing the Constitution (the National Popular Vote interstate compact). This is not the case for abolishing the Senate. .

But the more basic problem with this species of Electoral College defense is that it boils down to “federalism exists, therefore it ought to.” Why states shouldn’t exist as mere administrative departments of a central government (with some measure of local autonomy) goes largely unexamined. It is not as though our state lines were drawn for the purpose of giving centuries-old, indigenous ethnic groups the opportunity to exercise a modicum of self-determination. Rather, most state lines don’t even have a geological basis, and merely reflect the political interests of those in power when they were drawn. It is not as though Wyoming’s white majority has an ancient connection to its land, and a distinct culture that fundamentally divides them from the other peoples of the Mountain West. There is no reason to treat it as a semi-sovereign entity that must be indulged, lest it break from the union. We are not an infant republic anymore. A secession crisis is very low on our list of tail risks.

There may be some virtue in decentralizing power and creating opportunities for policy experimentation on the subnational level. But that does not require inflating Wyoming’s influence over presidential elections or congressional legislation.

By contrast, the case for not requiring all legislation to pass through an upper chamber that is wildly malapportioned — such that Wyoming residents get 66 times more say in the Senate than Californians do — is quite simple: In a democracy, individual citizens should have roughly equal representation in their governing institutions. Achieving perfect equality in this respect is impossible; but designing a more representative legislature than the U.S. Senate is not. In fact, every U.S. state has already done so. If abolishing the Electoral College will eventually destroy the Senate, that only makes the case for Warren’s proposal more compelling.

2. Abolishing the Electoral College would definitely have this bad effect, for reasons so logically sound I don’t need to provide evidence for them (even though other defenders of the Electoral College insist it would have the opposite effect, which would also be bad).

(A) It would give too little political power to white people. . .

Continue reading.

There’s much more and it’s worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2019 at 2:31 pm

Posted in Election, Government, Law

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.