Monday, November 21, 2016

The Electoral College and the Right to Own Pets!

In the wake of the contentious presidential election of 2016, many experts and most Americans probably agree, at least on this. Our great nation is deeply divided. 

Trump supporters feel liberals—sometimes referred to as “libtards” in their Facebook posts or in memes—want to take away their guns and burn their Bibles for fun. 

Trump foes (I happen to be one) wonder if he’ll hold the Second Amendment sacred while trashing the rest. Too many on us (but not me) believe all Trump supporters are racists, or as one Facebook post I saw put it recently: ignorant “knuckle draggers.”

As a liberal and one who taught American history for years, I hope both sides in the current debates are wrong. But I do believe we need to have a solid grasp on our history to make wise judgments in turbulent times. For starters, we need to be realistic about who the Founding Fathers were and clear-eyed in assessing what they did. And a huge percentage of what they did was wonderfully right. Their distrust of concentrated power in any guise, from democratic to oligarchic, led them to strive for a careful balance of power in three equal branches, legislative, judicial and executive.

Speaking of branches, according to a 2014 article in the Washington Post, did you realize only 36% of Americans can name those three branches.

In any case, if you support Mr. Trump and hate the liberal media, and you believe the Post leans in the direction of Stalin, you might prefer a story from the Washington Times, a paper Sean Hannity might safely read while seated on the can. In 2015 the Times reported that 12% of Americans believed the Bill of Rights guaranteed the right to own pets. Reporters also noted that 32% of Americans could not name any of the branches of government.

Not one. 

Ordinary citizen giving it his or her best try: “The three branches? Uh…chocolate, vanilla and Beyonce?”

Luckily, we’re all safe because of the Founding Fathers. Or so the simplistic argument goes. Conservatives, in particular, make it sound as if the Founders got every comma and clause in the U.S. Constitution just right. And that means any change since 1787 brings us one giant leap nearer tyranny.

Right-wing love for those who wrote the U. S. Constitution has risen to fresh heights again, now that it appears Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote in 2016. Well, not to worry, because if Clinton does it won't matter at all. The Founding Fathers made sure the Electoral College would be there to save us all.

Also our pets!

I can say much for certain. I know some of what I say is only my opinion. On Facebook, however, several conservative friends sent me the same link to a video about how the Electoral College works. I guess they thought I needed to know or it might make me feel somehow better.

Well: I already knew. 

It is true that the Founding Fathers had a healthy distrust for democracy. During the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry put the problems a new nation faced bluntly: “The ills we experience flow from an excess of democracy. The people do not want [lack] virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” 

Edmund Randolph agreed, noting, “that in tracing these evils to their origin every man [here] had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.” 

So we need an Electoral College. Right?

Let’s stop and think a moment. Let’s look at what the Founding Fathers knew and a bit of what they didn’t. We know they never imagined women voting. According to the latest figures, Mrs. Clinton took the women’s vote by 12%. Trump took the men’s vote by a similar margin. In other words, if we had only listened to the Founding Fathers in every respect, women could spend the next four years blaming husbands and brothers and male in-laws for all the problems that occur.

Of course the Founding Fathers didn’t allow African-Americans to vote. (They were more likely to own them.) You may recall, if you had an excellent history teacher, that they agreed to count five African-Americans as three white persons in dividing up seats in the brand new House of Representatives.

Admit it, now. Think how interesting this would have made watching Fox News this past Election Night. Can’t you see Megyn Kelly explaining: “Well, in Florida, Hillary Clinton has a lead among African-American voters of 500,000, but in counting, these equal only 300,000 white votes.”

Don't forget the Founders thought it was a good idea to keep poor white men from voting, as well.

I’m getting to the Electoral College; but first, a little more background. And for this, I do not consult some lame internet source, but turn to Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison, himself.

The Founding Fathers—at least Madison and a handful of others—first met in convention on May 14, 1787. There weren’t enough delegates to open for business. So they voted to delay. No representatives from Rhode Island ever showed up.

Once debate began, the Founding Fathers quickly agreed, “We really, really need  an Electoral College!”

Ha, ha. 

Not a chance.

Instead, Roger Sherman, representing Connecticut, wanted an “executive” (that’s the president for those who can’t tell) “to be appointed by and accountable to the Legislature only, which was the depository of the supreme will of Society.”

Randolph, speaking for Virginia, was clear. He didn’t want one executive. He said we should elect three.

James Wilson, from Pennsylvania, noted correctly (and keep this in mind for today) that in all the states executives were elected by the people—and he supported that plan in choosing a national executive. In his opinion, the president should be elected every three years and be eligible to run again.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, from South Carolina, insisted that the office of president should be filled every seven years. Naturally, he added, a president should not be allowed to stand for reelection.

So it was, on June 1, 1787, that the Founding Fathers, voting by states, approved a seven-year presidential term, with no chance of reelection, by a 5-4-1 vote. (Massachusetts delegates were divided.)

The following day, they agreed again on a method for choosing the executive. Gerry expressed doubts about allowing the legislative branch of any new government to choose the president. Then again, “He was not clear that the people ought to act directly...being too little informed of personal characters in large districts, and liable to deceptions.” It was time for the Founding Fathers to do some founding!

Wilson’s idea, to let the people elect the president directly, was put to a vote. By an 8-2 margin, that idea went down.

Madison’s notes continue: “On the question for electing the Executive by the national Legislature for the term of seven years it was agreed to Massts ay. Cont ay. N. Y. ay. Pena no. Del ay. Maryd no. Va ay. N. C. ay. S. C. ay. Geo ay.” 


At first, there was no idea for an Electoral College at all.

This idea, pedaled so furiously now that somehow we must cling to this outdated mechanism, this Electoral College, because the Founding Fathers said so, that we won’t be safe if we don’t, is pure political nonsense. 

Oh, democracy is terrible! The people will be duped.

Was this true in 1980 or 1984 when Ronald Reagan was elected and reelected by large popular majorities?

Did we need an Electoral College in 1984, when President Reagan turned back a challenge by Walter Mondale, winning 58.8% of the popular vote? (Reagan won 525 electoral votes; poor Mondale 13).

On the Republican side, George W. Bush won the popular vote in 2004. And all was well. Nixon won twice, clobbering George McGovern, 61-38% in 1972. Eisenhower won twice. Hoover won and Coolidge and Harding. 

Abraham Lincoln did too.

Ah, but conservatives quickly insist (whenever their side doesn’t win, as in 2000, or now, in all likelihood, in 2016), “Oh, thank god for the Founding Fathers, who, in their wisdom, created an Electoral College!”

You can buy that stupid argument if you like; but it doesn’t make it any less stupid to claim that the Founding Fathers always got everything right, or that what made sense to them more than 200 years ago has to make sense now. In any case, I’ve had my say for today and I feel a little better. 

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to exercise my constitutional rights and take my dog for a nice walk.

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