Thursday, March 10, 2016

Picking a U.S. President: Excessive and Insufficient Democracy

The Electoral College has never performed as intended. Instead of functioning as a buffer against "mob rule," the method of selecting the U.S. federal president has been at the mercy of the two major political parties. While they have made certain that their electors vote for the party candidate, the parties have lost control of the presidential-election process itself. The void given the demise of the Electoral College as a check-and-balance feature has enabled the process to deteriorate. Even as this is not good for democracy, the American electorate has refused to demand that the process be fixed. Both the failure of the Electoral College to function as intended and the related elongation of the presidential-campaign "season" indicate that the system, or process, has run amuck, yet even so, the voters of both parties don't seem to mind. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as per their letters in retirement, would be very concerned about such an electorate. The viability of the American republics, including the Union is at risk, these Founding Fathers would no doubt warn us.
That American voters would elect electors by state, and said electors would in turn then meet in their respective state capitols to caste votes for the candidates reflects the Convention's delegates' fear that the masses voting directly would be risky because people have difficulty resisting their immediate passions. Additionally, because the number of voters for the federal-level office was so large even when the U.S. initially had a population of 7 million, only a tiny fraction could have personal knowledge of the candidates--even just from seeing one in person.  Having a much smaller number of electors actually vote for the candidates would enhance the quality of the democracy, theoretically speaking, because those electors were few enough in number to actually meet the candidates in person. Additionally, the electors could have "inside information" not available through the media and thus to the American people generally. Put another way, the empire-scale of even the Union of thirteen republics renders direct representative democracy less than optimal. Other things equal, the larger the electoral district, the lower the direct contact between the electors and the candidates. The electors thus, as a group, have less information going into the decision.
That so many of the 310 million Americans in 2016 depended on the news media for information on the presidential candidates explains in part why the "primary season" took on the air of a circus. Debates on public policy easily succumbed to titillating personal barbs, including, unbelievably, the size of a candidate's hands and how much another candidate sweats!
The sheer length of the presidential-campaign "season" had also gone out of control. In 2015, Canada's official election season was extended to 11 weeks from its typical five or six weeks. "Many Canadians saw the extension as an excruciating marathon."[1] It is odd, therefore, that Americans put up with a campaign "season" that started during the Spring of 2015 and would not end until November of the following year! Most Canadians thought that the length of the presidential-election cycle had become truly absurd.[2]
American presidential-campaign "seasons" were not always so long. In 1960, John F. Kennedy did not announce his run until 11 months before the election. In 1972, however, Iowa moved its caucuses to the first month of the year, requiring candidates to begin campaigning well before then.[3]
Ironically, the excess democracy is compatible with insufficient democracy. Most notably, the longer the campaign "season," the shorter the period that elected representatives have to viably govern. Less time for governing makes it more difficult for the People's will to be enacted into legislation and executed in regulations.
Furthermore, even though having the various primary elections and caucuses spread out over months can entertain the masses week after week, that the "weaker" candidates can drop out of the process in the process means that voters in a state having a primary weeks or months into the season who want to vote for such a candidate are effectively disenfranchised. That Americans never stop to realize this point suggests to me that the gladiatorial excitement has taken on a life of its own. In effect, nominating party candidates becomes a reality television show even as (strangely) the American people are oblivious to the gradual slide. The reigning assumption in the status quo is that the process by which one candidate is made a federal president is not broken. For an assumption to be so utterly wrong and yet so widely (and unconsciously) ascribed to should cause us perhaps the most concern, for an electorate out of touch with itself is perhaps the most dangerous thing in a republic. Moreover, the presumption of not being able to be wrong renders such a people very vulnerable.
For a people to recognize and accept its own weaknesses and go on even to build procedural safeguards to check even democracy itself is what led to the Electoral College. It was meant to be a check on the excesses possible in an electorate--especially a big one. Doubtless, the device was an utter failure, but this does not mean that no alternatives to the status quo are possible.
In the federal convention, for instance, delegates considered having the governors elect the federal president. We could conceivably add even more possibilities, such as having the newly elected Congress meet in joint session to elect the president. Having elected representatives themselves select among candidates for a federal post is actually very consistent both historically and theoretically with ancient federalism (i.e., confederalism). In the E.U., another empire-level federal system, officials at the federal level select the presidents of the Commission and the European Council.
My basic point is that with such historical and comparative knowledge at hand, even a people wedded to the status quo can realize the brokenness of a system and go on to come up with alternatives. Sadly, viable fixes can be labeled as outlandish or impracticable to a People used to slow, incremental change. They miss the point that rearranging desk chairs on the Titanic falls short when a system has become fundamentally broken. As John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both wrote in their exchanges of letters in retirement, a viable republic requires an educated and virtuous citizenry.  

1. Daniel Victor, "The U.S. Election Is in Its Final 11 Weeks. Canadians Wonder, 'Why So Long?'," The New York Times, August 23, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.