Though it’s been the subject of debate for over two centuries, the Electoral College has recently become a polarizing topic in the American political arena. As 2020 looms, calls for its abolition have become a fashionable progressive shibboleth on college campuses like ours.
However, like many in-vogue political opinions, the desire to do away with this pillar of our electoral system stems from an evidently limited political understanding. Furthermore, the motivating factor underlying this renewed interest in dismantling the Electoral College is clearly partisan, arising largely as a knee-jerk desire to do away with an institution which is seen by many on the left as producing politically unfavorable results following the 2016 presidential election.
This, too, is an uninformed assumption. Those who advocate for a popular vote-based system because they are unhappy with recent political losses should be careful what they wish for. Assuming that Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory is indicative of majority support for her candidacy misses a fundamental aspect of presidential campaigns: their sole focus is winning a majority of the college’s electors. A popular vote-based campaign would be different from the ground up, and might very well not produce the results that Democrats hope for.
Beyond partisan silliness, however, a debate about democracy and the Electoral College has arisen out of this general dissatisfaction with the results of our last presidential election. Opponents of our current system point to the lack of popular support for President Donald Trump as evidence that the Electoral College is in existential tension with “true democracy.” We should address these lofty claims, at the very least so that their proponents might be relieved of their burdensome misconceptions.
Ours is not a purely democratic system. Technically speaking, we are a republic. Today’s progressives frequently misunderstand this point, but it is incredibly important. The Framers were enormously concerned with providing systemic safeguards against the “tyranny of the majority:” the tendency of a democratic majority to use their power against electoral minorities.
“[In pure democracies] there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual,” wrote James Madison. “Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
The innovative genius of our constitutional system lies in its ability to provide for representative government while still protecting individual rights and minority political groups. One need not look very hard for historical examples of the jaw-dropping inadequacies of direct democracies.
Most obviously, the stark contrast in outcomes between the American and French revolutions in the 18th century demonstrate the need for checks and balances against democratic majoritarian tyranny. Our Constitution’s Framers, understanding this, established a system which gave rise to the most prosperous, diverse, and pluralistic country in the history of the human race.
On the other hand, the French Jacobins, seeing unchecked majoritarian democracy as more “pure,” quickly became first-hand witnesses of the significant flaws in their philosophy of government: the revolution’s success was followed almost immediately by The Reign of Terror, one of the bloodiest instances of government-sponsored mass executions in history.
Many CC students who advocate for a majoritarian system are simply unaware of its historical failure. This is unfortunate, but easily correctable.
However, significantly more worrying is the vocal minority who are simply unconcerned with protecting electoral minorities. I have had multiple troubling conversations with students who see majoritarian dominance of our political system by the coastal electorate at the exclusion of the Midwest and the South as unobjectionable, or even desirable. This is fundamentally contrary to the American idea. If we are a society which values individual rights — and we should be — then we must reaffirm our commitment to crucial anti-majoritarian institutions such as the Electoral College. The very health of our republic depends on it.