by Paul Gottfried
In the December issue of The American Conservative, Gary L. Gregg defends the Electoral College as an integral part of the “Founders’ design.”
Gregg goes after the proponents of the National Popular Vote plan, a group accused of trying to nationalize presidential elections. He says they have carried out a “stealthy and disciplined state-by-state campaign” to undo a wise safeguard against hell breaking loose, and they have thus far won approval for their plan in eight states and the District with the aid of 2,100 presumably misguided state legislators. It’s not entirely clear what’s “stealthy” about a plan that lots of state legislatures are already earnestly debating.
Gregg has a thing for the now-threatened Twelfth Amendment, which was passed in 1804 to deal with the “problematic election” of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. This problem first erupted with the disputed election of John Adams in 1796. It was then that the original electoral plan in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution came under fire. Under this plan, electors from every state cast two votes for president, and the candidate with the second-highest total was awarded the vice-presidency. Under deadlocks, the election was turned over to the House. Rivals for the presidency—some of whom such as Adams and Jefferson hated each other’s guts—could and did hold the #1 and #2 spots in the executive branch. The Twelfth Amendment, which Gregg praises to the skies, awarded state electors only one vote and required the candidates for president and vice president to run separately. It arranged for a more expeditious settlement of deadlocks which had to be handed over to the House of Representatives for a final judgment. In time vice-presidential candidates ceased to run separately because the two national parties started running vice-presidential and presidential nominees on the same ticket.“It’s silly to pretend that the two-party monopoly has encased us in a permanent centrist cocoon between two evil extremes. We’ve obviously moved away from what used to be the center—mostly toward the left.”
Gregg maintains that the Electoral College provided for a balance between “competing values” at stake in creating the president’s office. The college is based on “recognition that the people and their communities are the ultimate source of power,” but it “encourages the president to be sufficiently independent so that he could act his part with vigor and resolve.”
Gregg’s defense doesn’t speak to me—or, as the Germans would put it, it “couldn’t lure a dog behind the oven heat.” The Amendment harkens back to another society, one which approached elections very differently than we do. In 1789 electors were selected by state legislatures in seven out of thirteen states. It was entirely up to the state assemblies to decide how the electors were picked. This remained the case until many decades after the founding. Until the federal government began taking control of the situation after the Civil War, voting usually excluded women, vagrants, and sometimes people of color.
Defending the Electoral College as it now functions is not the same as upholding the principle of ordered liberty as understood in 1789. Like Madison and Hamilton, one can certainly be for limited government, dual sovereignty, and balance of power without having to defend a system of organizing presidential elections that in no way addresses such modern problems as an overly centralized executive regime and two privileged national parties that monopolize presidential races.
Gregg imagines that the two-party monopoly leads to moderation, and he views the EC as a necessary means to avoid having “the most extreme elements of each party empowered.” Further: “Without the moderating system [furnished by the duopoly in American politics], the extremes of each party would be empowered to blackmail more prudent candidates.”
Indeed we should rejoice over these government-sponsored two parties. If we didn’t have a system that “exaggerates” each major party’s victory, we’d be in a real pickle: “Our politics would be moved out of the center,” a situation that, we are warned, would create chaos. Our elections would degenerate into a “Jamaican limbo dance,” with eccentric figures like Ross Perot popping up all over the presidential landscape. (I’ve no idea what a Jamaican limbo dance is, but I’m sure it’s something quite nasty.)
In Gregg’s nightmare scenario, absent the Electoral College our politics would be shifted from the center in ways that would radicalize “the Democratic Party, as the path to the presidency became one where smaller states and rural areas could be ignored with impunity.” Have I been looking at the wrong political landscape? Does President Obama represent the “center” that the Electoral College is keeping alive? The “center” has been moving leftward since I was a kid in the 1950s. It’s silly to pretend that the two-party monopoly has encased us in a permanent centrist cocoon between two evil extremes. We’ve obviously moved away from what used to be the center—mostly toward the left.
With its enforcement of political correctness and increasing government involvement in the workplace, our current “center” is a good deal less centrist than the one of my youth. I wouldn’t bring this up were it not for the fact that Gregg is a self-described conservative. He’s also revisiting positions that I’ve encountered in soi-disant conservative publications throughout my long adult life. The Straussian political theorist Martin Diamond, who spoke often before conservative groups, fell dead in the halls of the US Congress where he had gone in 1977 to urge retaining the EC.
None of this advocacy ever appealed to me as a critic of the duopoly. Gregg is correct that the EC helps sustain the two-party stranglehold, and this situation has rendered impossible a counter-movement from the old or libertarian right, which would have to operate outside the two-party system to succeed. Under the existing system an independent right could not push either of the two parties in its direction, even if both opportunistically adopted the usual campaign gibberish about keeping down taxes. Could one imagine the Dems or Reps getting rid of federal anti-discrimination agencies, minimum wages, the Department of Education, or a neo-Wilsonian foreign policy? I can’t conceive of any of these things happening in the present circumstances.
Only an “extremist” minority party running in a winner-take-all national election would be able to pressure the party hacks into the kind of deal-making that Gregg despises. Gregg asks whether Americans would “be satisfied if a president takes office after receiving only 40% of the national vote. How about 30% in a five-candidate race?” Personally, I’d be delighted. For once we’d have a president we may be able to control. Even better, he’d hesitate to blow up countries to bring them democracy and human rights or because Dick Cheney and FOX suggested he should.
I’ve no idea why Gregg sees the “nationalization” of elections as something we should try to prevent. He may be looking at the very recent past and no farther back. What stirs his juices has been going on since Reconstruction, starting with the Fifteenth Amendment granting federally protected voting rights to Negro Freemen. I also count at least three more amendments, namely Nineteen, Twenty-Four, and Twenty-Six, in which the federal government continued to have a hand in shaping or extending the franchise.
Is it still possible to speak of significant state control of elections after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965? Already extended with bipartisan support four times, most recently under George W. Bush, it established “covered jurisdictions” in Southern states. These targeted areas are kept under what has become permanent federal supervision in order to avoid even a hint of racial discrimination. This act came three years after an amendment was passed that placed the franchise even more fully under federal supervisors. This was Amendment Twenty-Three, which prohibited states from disqualifying voters for non-payment of poll taxes. Even if this method of winnowing voters was applied unfairly against blacks in some places, it might be asked why states and localities everywhere should be denied the right to apply it. Shouldn’t we in the states have the right to restrict voting to those who are willing to pay a paltry fee for the privilege? Obviously not!
One may be for or against the federal supervision of voting. One may also think that if states wanted to lower the voting age to eighteen or extend the vote to women, they could have easily done so without involving the federal government through the amendment process. But it is foolish in light of the last hundred and forty years’ events to pretend that the states have retained sovereign control over voting. They abandoned most of it long before the NVP’s advocates came on the scene.
Gregg’s brief is really about defending the status quo that one can see and hear every night on FOX, with its predictable dialogues between GOP and Democratic regulars. These people certainly don’t want to rock the two-party Pleasure Ship, and with good reason. They’re in no mood to take caviar and truffles out of their diets or, perhaps even more importantly, miss payments on their yachts. They are immensely interested in maintaining things as they are. Accordingly, they like to be portrayed as ruling or criticizing from the “center.” As long as the pols can hand out patronage and get a chance to occupy government posts, they’re happy as clams with the system. Hey, isn’t this liberal democracy? We don’t want to ruin it with a messier way of electing presidents. Or do we?