I have received many sadly provincial queries from abroad, mainly from Europe, on what in the world is the Electoral College. "It is a joke, non?" writes Pierre, while Udo from ( I think ) Germany wonders at this strange artifact. A Basque correspondent from Spain, in contrast, thinks this could be a lovely idea there. Since I once wrote an award winning paper on the genesis of the College in, uh, college, here is a PhD level introduction to this custom, which may be one of the few things keeping the US from sliding into good old fashioned ethnic tyranny and, in its militarist and regulatory death throes, destroying the world.
The genesis of the US Constitution is not widely understood. It began as a bachelor level thesis by Madison and articles by Monroe, who surveyed every past Republic in history in the search for what went wrong with them. It is fair to say that if you read the Constitution with Polybius and Gibbon in hand, every phrase represents a solution to some structural problem that Did The Ancients In. These and similar theses were widely discussed and the outlines of what was to be done were clear long before 1776. The American revolution was a youth movement in important ways. In those days young people were of legal age at 9 and gradually assumed responsibilities under the eyes of family and clan; arguably one problem today is people are not accustomed to making independent decisions during a very crucial formative period. The ancients were widely read, and for those of more auditory ways of learning dramatic public readings were a common entertainment.
They were not like either the youth or allegedly mature citizens of today. a sure indication of the soft slavery of our times is that a 90 year old cannot due what was legal to his 9 year old forebear, innocuous though it might be. Indeed, it has been said that one of the greatest protections of Liberty left in the US is that there are so many laws the government is often paralyzed and smart defense lawyers find a way. That would have been seen not as political maturity but stupidity by a 14 year old husband in 1770. A not untypical 21 year old had for many years been working, participating in public discussion, defending his family with an infantry weapon, raising a family since 12, and independently reading far and wide for guidance. These were people who understood what real leadership was about and it had nothing to do with decisions on every thing by a near majority or a distant minority. They could make their decisions, thanks, and had no intention of letting dissolute oldsters in London suddenly tell them they could not. So teenagers wrote constitutional proposals like young Libertarians today starting internet companies. Letters of simple young teenage farmers seem to read like the essays of widely-read men of maturity because that is what they were, compared with the infantilized society of today. Jefferson himself was barely 30 when war broke out. And a constitutional survey that perfected well known errors of the past was welcome, and the starting point of the Constitutional discussions post-revolution.
Sure, there are heavy additions from scrutiny of the Iroquois Confederacy and the Republics of Venice and San Marino their view was comprehensive but the Ancient World was the most instructive record. Beyond following the structural principles of Aristotle and grounding the Common Law in his admirer Cicero, that is a good part of the document, but it is the result of a critical survey nonetheless. I believe it is a common error of politically motivated scholars to say the Constitution was influenced by Montesquieu or Locke or whomever, let alone George Washington's real estate plans for the State of Franklin, as if that is all there was to it. It is true that the influence of the quasi-confederacy of the then vigorous and tolerant Spanish Empire, which scholars now tell us tripled its income by removing tariffs, is sadly neglected. The example of Vermont is invisible in US textbooks, but it was critical, and many similar factors. I am aware of all this. Such views are all true. And they are all false. The Constitution is actually and primarily the result of a totally new scientific effort, the first critical survey of comparative political systems since Aristotle. It stands not on its precursors but its results. It must be understood as such.
A PHOTOGRAPHIC NEGATIVE
Nonetheless, one may read as I suggest and it is quite instructive. The President and the Vice-President are the two consuls of Rome and kings of Sparta made systematic. The federative structure is a photographic negative of Rome's tragic error of trying to run a putative confederation from a federated capital. One thing that has always bothered me is we have allowed the States to be too big: they were a manageable at the beginning with an average 250,000 population; returning to that ratio and allowing people of very different lifestyles to turn some of them into cultural areas, with polygamists here, and Buddhists there, and seculars over here, might increase, not diminish understanding and preserve true multiculturalism as people worked out their destinies like Amish living peaceably next to those who believe that buttons are OK. That seems to have been the original idea, derived again from Greece and the colony system. the Senate is not the senate at all, but the Imperial council of "comes" or friends of the First Citizen ("Princeps") or Emperor and from which the words county and count are derived but put under control and public review.
The tribunician power the ability to veto and re-evaluate a government action on a case-by-case basis was connected to the jury system, the circuit breaker to prevent roughshod abuses and keep the legislature an advisory body. The idea of the legislature as not a compulsory law-making but advisory law-discovering body is increasingly a standard Libertarian concept. It is well- rooted in history but stunning to people accustomed to our dictatorial legislatures who decree details for everything.
These meditations explain the sometimes odd sounding rhetoric of the Founding Fathers : calling the Vice-President a prince (the princeps headed the senate and Comes, thus neatly separating this dangerous power from the president) or seemingly contradictory descriptions of our Republic as a federated Empire. In fact, the government as a whole was intended not so much as make decisions but dither around in circles until things cooled down and people worked things out privately. As Jefferson pointed out, the real Constitution is the Bill of Rights, the remaining mechanisms if followed will allow juries to function and protect it ( the rights bill). In the early years of the Old Republic, most work was really done by grand juries, which would meet, hear ideas and complaints, and develop consensus. The real test of legislation was whether juries supported it.
It is said that when a delegation of worried Jews went to George Washington for re-assurance that the Revolution would not turn into some sort of pogrom, he agreed with them that the Constitution and laws were, not some compromise or any of the things we are told today, but a work of engineering on a bedrock principle informed by vast historical study, to be run by not the worst, but the balanced, actions of the people. "It is," he said, "A machine for preserving rights." The Electoral College is, as the political philosopher Liz Paterson so aptly described, part of that machine. What sort of mentality fixes an annoying noise in a car by removing nearby parts without understanding a thing about engines? What sort of mentality believes that for a given design, governing feedback mechanisms are optional? These are not happy analogies with mechanics: these are the realization that systems have principles of design, a cybernetic logic ignored at peril. Camshafts and fuel flow regulators are not put there because of gender, race, sex, or class predilections; or someone motivated by greed wishes to limit somebody. An understanding of a mechanism for a reality is at work.
The Constitution, in a very significant sense, is not a mechanism for making decisions but preventing them. Jefferson described it as strictly a compact of foreign defense and guarantor of a republican form of government to the States in the most minimal way. Its government officials were there to inspire or solve problems, not command ignorantly the ignorant.The Founding Fathers had heard all the arguments. They wanted a democratic form, but did not want majority rule, not because they were against majorities, but because they were against rule. The man in a majority today was in a minority tomorrow. The British parliament had become the inevitable result: a minority ruling in the name of a minority. With Thomas Paine, they were well aware that society seemed to get along quite well without government.
The colonies, unlike most of the Empire, were considered integral to Britain. its root fact is that in the revolution, what was technically happening is that of the land with of the British population the colonies was separating from the of the territory with of the population. They did not want to create that degree of interference for their descendants.
The root fact today in the US is the similar imbalance of taxes East and West of the Mississippi. This would have been viewed as utterly predictable by the Founders given the tampering with the Constitution and the rise of the three things they dreaded most: a permanent central military, income and other taxes, and a perpetual debt of an expanding government. We are taught these are random events, phenomena to be studied by government social scientists with quarter-million salaries, something the Founders did not foresee.but the Constitution is not a random collection of laws by greed crazed slave owners. it is indeed a very non-random machine, designed by those who set in motion the cure for the ills of the day and in fact well foresaw ours.
A MASSIVE SURVEY FOR BETTER DESIGN
It is a real additional error, then, to assume there is anything very random in the Constitution, or to follow the fashion of today of attributing their concerns and data to the times in which they lived alone. Scholars err who try and make quick comparisons without understanding the functions of those bodies as the real standard of comparison.
So where is the Roman Senate in this scheme? It is the Electoral College. The Senate was originally an advisory body that set the military command, usually by candidates set before the people's assembly, whether as consul or emergency commander or dictator. They were selected by the tribal divisions according to their individual customs. Their power was supposed to be in their prestige as individuals. And that is the Electoral College as originally conceived. A Senate to suppress factions and develop national leaders by prestige. That is what happened in the early years.
Since the President had very limited power to begin with, that looked like a very sound arrangement, not a post, but an honor. thus when people spoke then of the Presidency as an honor they meant something very different from today a respected person of vigorous political instincts who could get things done by persuasion and arbitration, which by the way was the original function of the Imperator a special general of diplomatic skill or sometimes a "consular" or former consul who could win battles by diplomatic skill and calm situation by sagacious action. they desired that the Electoral College, according to the customs of the States, select a list of such persons, who would then be awarded the honor by the House, then more close to the people than today.
Thus the from the slate of the wisest or at least weighty, the people would select the most popular and thus politically viable. They had input at the beginning and end of the process, not during, that was the point. The Presidency was a Senatorial Honor set forth by specific cultural standards that would preserve the States independency and encourage people of talent from obscure communities to step forth.
In essence, most Americans at the time of the Revolution would no more consider that the President should be elected by popular vote than a Nobel Prize winner. If you understand nothing else, realize that. It was an honor. Honorable prestige does not arise from a quick beauty contest over whisky but sober and repeated public evaluation of a career and temperament in a general atmosphere that such things are priorities. The Nobel Prizes, true, select not the wisest but at least a fairly wise scientist who has the added ability of working with the establishment. In this they are both as institutions quite comparable. That is additionally the honor-driven mindset you want, after all, for a National leader, as close to a philosopher king as practicable, and in turn held in check from crazy adventures by the one power that cannot be bought socially the most prestigious men in the country, the Electoral College. The only alternative to honor is this: not dis-honor, but vanity.
It is indicative of this mindset that actively and openly seeking the presidency was considered conclusive proof that one was unworthy for the post. One was there not to accumulate power but derail it. The president's worked with their Senates, and the rest of the time were supposed to be symbols and exemplars of humble character and unity of the Federation, at least ideally.
It was the temper of the times that John Quincy Adams was almost impeached when he made the terrible mistake, when praised at a public speech, of instead of simply smiling non-committally, actually getting up, and making a speech. Here is what he did: he got up, said "Thank you," and sat down. This in his time was a scandal. And I would suggest this: rightly so. It was utterly dishonorable to so solicit praise in the highest of honors was the view, and for weeks people debated where such unseemly loquaciousness might lead. One paper warned that if this were overlooked, chattering Presidents with vast retinues would soon be travelling the countryside making speeches promising the impossible, and in fulfilling improper expectations they thus created, expanding their power in many small steps. Such views were, however, thought alarmist after the outcry. What esquire or person of repute would do such things?
I refer the reader to the latest issue of Esquire, with its interesting cover of a fame-mad President Clinton, esquire.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Unfortunately, party politics came. Parties are not bad per se, but as minor parties have discovered in the US, the major parties rewrote the books so that they control much of the process, not the people, and this system of privilege where the cunning rise on the backs of the uninformed and the disadvantaged is drilled into the heads of the young in government schools as being "democracy" or worse, actual republican checks and balances.
But in politics, if we look behind the rhetoric, the devil is in the details. Minor parties are not only are considered legally to be dangerous factions at the sufferance of major parties by Supreme Court decision in States such as Florida, but the deeper question is hidden from the public of why parties are officially recognized at all? In many States, for example, write in votes simply are not counted thus for all we know someone else has the majority of the popular vote it just is not counted. Why not none of the above as a standard candidate?
The criticisms are naturally endless, my point is simply that the more one studies the details, the more the distance between rhetoric and reality is obvious. Nonetheless, the Electoral College is still there in rusty remnants, as a brake, which is why many politicians would love to see it go. This would allow rule of the country by the more easily controlled urban populations such as in the DC-Boston megalopolis.
The abolition of the Electoral College would be the abolition of our true, federative Senate. It would return us to a Rome ruling the world by looking into its navel. And that block to absolute power is not all that alarms those who would sink the last sorry remnants of the structural protections to the Bill of Rights into the memory hole. While it exists, some crazy bunch just might whip up enough of the people to try it in its original form, selecting honorable men to preside over do-nothing legislatures while communities worked out their problems, horrors.
It is not concern for popular vote that concerns them. No. Not where an estimated 5% of the vote is fraudulent and laws are designed to make it systematically so, so fraud is difficult to document and root out. No, not where States have legions of the dead voting for dead candidates in what looks like a theme for George Romero's next gruesome film epic: Dawn of the Voting Dead.
HOW IT WORKS TODAY
Try as they might, here is the reality. The Electoral College weights the vote to protect smaller States and dissident areas. It subtly encourages dissidence, since in times of Groupthink crisis it is , as the Founders so loved to say, the stone that was first rejected by the builders that shall prove the cornerstone. This is a real non-provincial sensitivity of the Founders that current multiculturalists and confused bureaucracies trying to balance interests could learn from. So Americans do not directly elect the President but the Electoral College, who then select him. In times of serious disagreement the College may simply send the most popular contenders for selection to the House of Representatives, which is encharged with impeaching Presidents and watching the money, and thus in charge of Presidential quality control to begin with, and the branch most near to the people. In the event of an attempt at dictatorship, the Electoral College is arguably not actually required to even select a Presidential candidate, thus paralyzing the Federal Government and immediately returning government functions to the States and local militias and juries..
While due to constitutional changes the electorate has more influence, or more precisely, political parties that claim to represent them do, the system is designed to protect the President from public pressure, the country from popular hysteria and the people from majority dictatorship and oppression of minorities as occurred in Europe previous to W.W.II. It does so by preventing the countryside and small States which are the majority of States from being overwhelmed by large States with large urban centers, or the capital as now happens in many countries.
No rule from Paris here. More: by preserving the small States a venue of escape is provided to discontented populations being strangled by runaway governments in larger States, also.
The rest of the world is moving backwards seeking the same result, attempting to back-engineer by legislation what was done as a structural principle. Quite simply, there is a right way and a wrong way to do these things, and the Electoral College is the right way, a tool that accomplishes manifold jobs with economic elegance. . European countries attempt the same result less elegantly with proportional reserves, tacit social compacts and ethnic privileges, symbolic fights over what language will be taught in the kindergartens or tariffs imposed on currants, and safe elective or appointive seats for various ethnic groups, parties and regional areas.These are subject to constant re-adjustment, unfortunately; but the Electoral College, being grounded in the land, set in the Constitution so only of the States can abolish it, and protected by the State legislatures, is much less so.
It is very unlikely Gore actually even has the popular majority as we are daily told . The corruption of the Democratic vote in urban centers, with people voting 10 times and entire cemeteries coming back from the dead is legendary. In Florida small parties are actively fighting gross attempts to seize their votes and attribute them to the majors, not reported or under-reported in the Press. Where is loving concern for popular expression there? A limited President sees minority totals as expressions of concern and harbingers of the future that he listens to; one scrambling like a starveling for each vote sees them, not as the voice of approaching problems, but an annoyance set upon him by the inexplicable disciplines of dead white great grandpas with an eye to preserving the family trust fund against a few remarkably stupid generations.
Finally, foreign observers and Americans should remember the US is still a federation, not a nation, despite rhetoric to the contrary. This Federation seeks and should seek to preserve the political and cultural differences of its members.
So, befuddled foreign readers, summarize what is happening this way and you will never be confused about the US political dynamic, no matter what the government paid and credentialed press pundits and pseudo-intellectuals tell you::If the European micro-country San Marino united with Germany or France, it is doubtful it would do so without similar protections such as the Electoral College. Such protections, in fact, would prove more attractive the more, not the less, Germans there were of one opinion.
People in one side of San Marino don't even agree with those on the other side on many issues. But they can agree on one thing:
When politicians among the Germans or the French complain that San Marino does not follow the mode in Berlin or Paris and defies the majority, it is not the charms of San Marino they love, or the valuable viewpoints and contributions of that oldest of republics that they are trying to preserve..
And you must wonder, gentle readers of any country, at the motives of the politicians who compelled you into their schools for 12 long years, but somehow neglected to interest you in these things and gull you with simplistic social solutions based on eliminating greed, offensive speech to the majority or eccentric habits of some inconvenient social minority that yet so inspired the self-taught and home-tutored teenagers Madison and Monroe, a science of a machine, much-neglected since.
November 15, 2000
Michael Gilson De Lemos, known as MG (articles at www.gilson.uni.cc), is Coordinator of the Libertarian International Organization. He believes with Jefferson that, along with Gibbon, Cicero and Tacitus should be read by all grade-schoolers. In Latin.