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Tyranny & Treason

Some critiques of the electoral college miss the point

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

3 min read.
Kicking off the French Revolution with the Tennis Court Oath.
Tennis Court Oath, French Revolution

I recently read a Facebook post where a former coworker of mine declared that any Superdelegate or member of the Electoral College who “voted against the will of the people” should be charged with treason. Leaving aside the incredibly short list of Americans who have been convicted of treason (almost always for war crimes, or, you know, trying to end slavery), this strikes me as incredibly disingenuous.

How dare they do their Constitutionally-mandated job? That’s treason!

Well. Maybe that explains the 112th Congress.

People sometimes forget that the Electoral College exists for the same reason as the Senate: to give less populous states a meaningful voice, because they bring more to the table than just numbers. America was never intended to be a pure democracy, controlled by the masses and the popular vote. It is a representative republic. We wouldn’t have a country if our founders had allowed the popular vote to control the federal government; we barely got the states to agree to the Constitution, after the Articles of Confederation collapsed because the states had too much individual power. The Electoral College was a necessary compromise.

Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty. — Plato

A government run purely on a popular vote would disenfranchise large swaths of the country. Ethical majority rule requires minority protections, and that extends far beyond race. The social, economic and political divisions between rural America and the country’s urban areas are nasty enough without taking away what protections the part of the country that feeds us, provides us with our energy, handles our waste and is the a notable source of our military might.

New York may be a massive center of culture and population, but it needs Jersey to survive.  It might not be sexy, but the metropolitan area cannot provide its own food and sanitation and water… a fact the folks who live there often forget.

I wish I could believe that this sort of enlightened self-interest is why we handle our government this way, but of course partisan politics is what evolved us our current system, and it’s not going to go away any time soon.

Government rests, more than anything, on power, whether it is military, economic, geographic or social. We have at various points in history seen examples of all four: military dictatorships, feudalism, republics, communism, oligarchy are exemplars. They all have their pros and cons, but it is indisputable that there is more to power than numbers, and when looking at something as complex as the governance of America, power cannot be ignored in the name of idealism, if mob rule can be termed utopia.

I think there’s more to power than numbers of people, and that power can’t be ignored in an equation like this, though I think that the “money” side has become skewed. There’s potential for corruption in any system; media and money have just as much influence on the masses as they do on the political class.

Perhaps I am unusual in that I don’t believe in the moral ascendancy of democracy as such, but I’ve read the Federalist papers, and I spent a fair amount of time during law school familiarizing myself with the views of the founders. If our system of governance were intended to be based purely on the popular vote, if the will of the majority was the driving force of our laws, we would have pure democracy instead of the republic that Jefferson and Madison fought so hard to create despite Hamilton and Adams’ commitment to a strong federal government.

At no point did any of them try to give all the power directly to the people themselves. Instead, the founders created a system whereby there are checks on the mob; the same way that the mob provides a check upon kings and legislatures. They explicitly feared the tyranny of the majority.

It isn’t as though they didn’t have a popular vote back when they were coming up with this plan; Presidents have been losing the popular vote as far back as John Quincy Adams. It’s happened four times so far; there has certainly been time to alter the rules. States have that right,  you know.

It’s cold, pragmatic politics dictates the winner-take-all electoral apportionment... not some weird, outdated rule that nobody has dared try to change. Whether it’s “fair” is beside the point — fairness is a moving target. The dominant party of a state has the power to decide whether their electoral votes will be proportionately apportioned or all go toward a particular candidate, and in a two-party system, the dominant party can usually be sure that their state is going to vote for their candidate… and wants to get as many electoral votes as possible in their pocket. Why wouldn’t they?

The only way to change it would be with a grassroots political revolution in the style of Bernie Sanders — the very sort of thing establishment politics is inclined to stop.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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