We Are a Republic, Stupid!

I am seeing this more and more from the Trump fans who I meet in face-to-face encounters and online.  In the last month I have been told over and over again that America is a “republic” and not a “democracy.”

Of course we are a republic.  But we are also a democracy in the sense that the people play a role in electing their public officials.  We have become more and more democratic over the years.  The Electoral College, for example, largely votes according to the will of the people.  Unlike the original Constitution, the people now directly elect their United States Senators.  This was accomplished by the 17th Amendment in 1913.  Women (19th Amendment–1920) and African Americans (15th Amendment–1870 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965) can now vote.  There are no longer land qualifications for office.  And we could go on.

So why are so many Trump supporters chiding me and others for calling the United States a “democracy?”  Could it be because Trump did not win the popular vote?

And by the way, if people are so passionate about defending the idea that we are “republic” I would challenge them to consider the moral responsibility that citizens have in such a form of government.  According to the founders (and the Greeks and Romans before them), a republican citizen will regularly sacrifice his or her own self-interest for the greater good of the republic.  They would vote for what benefited the nation, even if that might work against their own particular interest.  Just a thought.

Setting the Record Straight on Trump’s Victory

On Sunday, Fox News aired Chris Wallace’s interview with Donald Trump.  Watch it here:

There is a lot we could say about this video, but I will just focus on some of the claims he makes about his victory on November 8, 2016.

Trump said:

[We had a] “massive landslide in the electoral college.”

[My win was one of the] “greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country.”

“We had one of the greatest victories of all time.”

Did Trump have a “massive landslide in the electoral college?”  Not really.  Actually, Trump’s electoral college victory (306-232 at the moment) ranks 46 out of 58 in terms of victory margin.

Was Trump’s win one of the “greatest” of all time?  Not really.  Only five American presidents won the electoral college but lost the popular vote.  This means that more Americans who voted in the November 2016 election chose another candidate over Donald Trump.

Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I am not trying to argue that Trump does not deserve to be POTUS.  If the Electoral College chooses him on December 19 he will be president. That is how the Constitution works.

What I am arguing is that Trump’s victory, if history is our guide, was not a “landslide” or a “great” victory.  If Trump believes that he won in a landslide he is deceiving himself. If this is his mindset as he starts to govern it will be virtually impossible for him to bring the nation together as he has proposed.  There are too many people out there who don’t like the guy or his policies.  And frankly, his “thank-you tour,” which seems like little more than an effort to pour salt in the wounds of his political opponents–is not helping.

More Historical Context on the Electoral College

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The work of historians in helping ordinary Americans make sense of the electoral college has been stellar.  We have already called attention to pieces by Kevin Gannon and Robert Tracy McKenzie.  Today I want to recommend Andrew Shankman‘s Historical News Network essay, “What Were the Founders Thinking When They Created the Electoral College?

Andy reminds us that if the original framers of the Constitution (and the Electoral College) had their way Donald Trump would be President and Hillary Clinton would be Vice President.

Here is a taste:

Created by the Constitution, the original Electoral College worked like this: each state appointed electors equal to its number of senators (2) plus representatives, apportioned at a ratio of 1 for every 30,000 residents. Each elector cast two votes for president and at least one of those votes had to be for someone outside the elector’s state. If someone received the most votes and a majority, he became president. The second highest vote-getter became vice president. If no one received a majority, the decision went to the House of Representatives, which could choose the president from among the top five vote-getters, and had to make the highest vote-getter vice president if they chose not to make him president. To us these original procedures may sound insane, this year they would make majority vote-getter Donald Trump president and Hillary Clinton vice president.

So, what were the Founders thinking? The Founders were inspired by the classical republics of Greece and Rome and believed they had collapsed when they stopped seeking the public good as their citizens divided into parties to pursue their own interests. For the Founders the public good emerged from a coherent set of values, and understanding how to achieve it required a deep knowledge of the classics, of natural law, common law, and the law of nations, and of the new science of political economy that arose during the Enlightenment. Above all, one had to possess disinterested virtue–putting aside personal interests for the sake of the public good. The Founders thought that most citizens were not capable of fully comprehending the public good. For the United States to succeed, the small group of great and talented men who could would have to guide them. Believing in a unifying singular public good, the Founders saw no value in political parties. Parties existed to promote competing interests, which was contrary to the public good. Citizens either embraced the public good or they behaved selfishly and badly.

Only by starting with these assumptions did the Electoral College make sense. After George Washington’s presidency, the Founders assumed their Electoral College would routinely place the decision of who would be president with the House of Representatives. They reasoned that the small group capable of comprehending the public good was evenly distributed geographically. A reasonable number of them would stand for election. Each would be equally qualified virtuous gentlemen. Without political parties to inflame passions and mobilize voters into a few large groups, only rarely would a candidate gain majority support in the Electoral College. The Electoral College would helpfully sort out five from the larger group of the equally qualified, but usually would do little more than that.

Yet almost immediately after ratification of the Constitution, reality obliterated the Founders’ plan….

Read the rest here.

McKenzie: The Electoral College Does Not Belong in Our World

federalist-68Over the course of the last couple of weeks I have read some excellent historical essays and op-eds on the electoral college. It is great to see historians stepping up to the plate.

Over at his blog “Faith and American History,” Wheaton College professor Tracy McKenzie argues that it is time to get rid of the electoral college.  Here is just a small taste of his post:

Americans in 2016 share few values in common with the Framers of the Constitution we claim to revere.  Generally, the Framers held to a world view that scholars term “republican” (no relation to the Republican Party): they held a skeptical view of human nature and maintained that the proper function of government office holders was to rule virtuously on behalf of the people’s welfare but not necessarily constrained by the people’s preferences in every matter.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have ascribed to a democratic worldview that rests on a positive view of humans as morally good and insists that the role of elected officials is to serve as a mouthpiece for majority preferences.

Not all of us will celebrate this repudiation of the values of the Framers.  I certainly don’t.  But this doesn’t change the fundamental reality: the electoral college doesn’t belong in our world.  It originated from a set of assumptions that the majority of Americans no longer affirm, and many would now roundly denounce.  It survives because of the difficulty of convincing both major parties, simultaneously, that neither stands to gain from its anachronistic presence.

Read the entire piece here.

The Electoral College is Here to Disabuse You of Your Democratic Naivete

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If you still have questions about the Electoral College I would encourage you to read Kevin Gannon‘s piece “Some Thoughts on the Electoral College.”

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to deny–impossible if you actually read the historical record–that the Electoral College was an attempt to avoid the democratic implications involved in creating an elected executive. It’s a particularly egregious antidemocratic kludge in a document full of antidemocratic kludges. Hell, James Madison proposed the system as a way around the “difficulty…of a serious nature” that southerners would encounter trying to protect their interests against a more populous tier of non-slaveholding states (see his speech onJuly 19). And the subsequent history of presidential elections has borne that out. If you have assumed that whoever gets the most votes wins the election, the Electoral College is here to disabuse you of your democratic naivete. There have been five presidential elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not become President by virtue of the Electoral College system, including this most recent election, where Hillary Clinton will not become president in spite of the fact that she won the popular vote by a larger margin than, for example, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon did in their electoral victories. And even though the three-fifths compromise no longer affects a state’s number of Electoral College votes, the legacy of slavery in terms of race-based voter disfranchisement still haunts the electoral process, in particular when those efforts in pivotal “swing states” like Wisconsin and North Carolina tip the Electoral College balance like they did in this canvass.

Read the entire piece here.

Americans Went to the Polls Yesterday and Chose the Nation’s First Female President

Hillary nominatedShe just didn’t get elected.

Trump secured more Electoral College votes and thus won the election.  (Technically, he needs to wait until the Electoral College votes on December 19, 2016.  By the way, there is such a thing as a “faithless elector“–just saying).

But it looks like Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote.

This has happened four other times in American history: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.

This is what I was talking about in Episode 13 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast when I said that it was actually the Founding Fathers who were the first politicians to “undermine our democracy.”

Or as my friend Paul Harvey put it: