Saturday, April 01, 2017

The Electoral College Enigma – Part II

A substantial part of the enigma surrounding the Electoral College is that despite the fact that a majority of the public would prefer its abolishment, it still exists.  In fact, since the first Gallup poll (1948) was taken on this subject, over the years on average, two thirds indicated that a direct popular vote was preferred.  If that’s the case, why is it that little has been done to allow the Electoral College to continue?

If you learned that over the last 229 years since the implementation of the Constitution there were, let’s say 70 attempts to abolish a particular amendment, you probably might believe that to be normal.  However, if you were told that there had been 700 attempts to abolish that same amendment you probably would not believe it at all.  Well, believe it!  Over the history of our country, there have been at least 700 proposed amendments to modify or abolish the Electoral College––more than any other subject of Constitutional reform.

Article 11, subsequently amended by Article 12 of our Constitution established the Electoral College to mandate how the President of the United States will be selected.  Those two amendments had created the Electoral College, and that institution has been a consistent subject of heated contention and controversy ever since.

The Political Party Surprise

The Founding Fathers probably never anticipated this type of a negative drumbeat reaction to what they considered as a reasonable compromise to one of the most important decisions made at the Constitutional Convention––the format to elect the president. However, despite the mythical, almost sacred belief by some that the decisions of the Founders are unequivocal and irrefutable, mistakes were made. Perhaps one of the most far reaching was their failure to recognize the rise of the political party, and the impact that has had on the way the Electoral College has actually evolved.  

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, “When the Constitution was written in 1787, the founders thought of political parties as ‘factions,’ acting only for their own selfish interests rather than the public good. The Founders saw instances in history when factions resorted to assassination and civil war if they failed to get their way.  The writers of the Constitution believed that political parties would play no formal role in the new government. The Constitution made no mention of them.”

Even in electing the president, the founders assumed the absence of political parties. The Constitution established an Electoral College, which called for a small number of electors—elected or appointed in the states— to meet, deliberate, and choose the best person for president. So what happened to change the Founders’ attitude toward political parties, since it was the Founders themselves who actually gave birth to the American political version we know today?

The Founders’ Naivety

Here is how the excellent website Shmoop describes the dramatic turnaround. “The Founders were republicans. No, not John McCain Republicans; they were philosophical republicans (with a small "r"). This meant they believed that successful representative governments required the subordination of individual personal interests to the welfare of the community. They believed that the political process was all about identifying the common good.

It was not about competition and disagreement; politics was a process in which rational voters and officials calmly sorted out what best served the entire community. The end result was not one camp of winners and another of losers, but the entire electorate united behind a common vision.”  It turns out that was a pretty naïve, idealistic, and unrealistic concept.

Shmoop continues, “As good republicans, the founders believed that parties (or factions) threatened this rational, collaborative process. If the political community broke into small groups committed to their own narrow interests, the search for the common good would be compromised. Politics would disintegrate into battles between conflicting visions, and elections would generate division rather than consensus.”  [They were right on this one.]

Reality Recognized

But within a decade of the Constitution's ratification, political parties had emerged. “Some of the Founding Fathers originally most concerned about these ‘factions’ had actually helped to bring them about. George Washington lamented that political party wrangling ‘agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.’  And Thomas Jefferson, always good for a pithy line, swore ‘if I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.’  But as president, Washington pursued economic and foreign policies that alienated a huge part of the electorate. And in 1793, Thomas Jefferson, alienated by Washington’s policies and his animus toward Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton, resigned his seat in Washington's cabinet to lead the opposition to the administration—a move that led directly to the formation of the first American political parties.

“As the Founders discovered, to their dismay, the simple fact was that consensus was impossible to maintain. People simply disagreed about things. Reasonable people held conflicting visions of the common good. Politics was about conflict and division; and elections did produce winners and losers. And as politicians moved toward a more realistic understanding of politics, they discovered that some sort of political organization would [perhaps] facilitate—not destroy—the political process.”

Jefferson vs. Hamilton

Two months ago, in February of this year, the Time magazine organization published an explanation of how two of the most vociferous objectors to the concept of political parties, found themselves in positions that forced them to totally abandon that position and actually create the two political party position we know today.  This occurred because each had a totally different vision of what the new country should be.

When George Washington became president in 1789 he appointed Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary, and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State.  Time writes, “Informed by his upbringing in agrarian Virginia, he [Jefferson] dreamed of a society of property-owning farmers who controlled their destiny. While a manufacturing economy was driven by avarice, a republic resting on the yeoman farmer would keep ‘alive that sacred fire’ of personal liberty and virtue.”

Hamilton, of course, had risen meteorically in the world of urban commerce. Naturally, he believed that a flourishing merchant economy would sow opportunities for all. Further, it would produce a philanthropic, knowledgeable and enterprising people. Jefferson once equated cities with “great sores,” but in Hamilton’s eyes they were focal points of societal health, providing a foundation for wealth creation, consumerism, the arts, innovation and enlightenment. A clash between the two Founding Fathers was inevitable.

While serving for Washington, who abhorred the thought of political parties, Hamilton actually started the Federalist Party in 1891 to promote his philosophy of government

The economic program instituted by the Treasury secretary triggered Jefferson’s suspicions, but it wasn’t until he learned what Hamilton had preached at the Constitutional Convention that he put together the whole puzzle. He saw as dangerous Hamilton’s push to strengthen the central government and presidency.

“As a result, on December 31, 1793, concerned about Alexander Hamilton's ideas about government and Washington's proclamation of neutrality in the French Revolution, Thomas Jefferson resigned from his position as Secretary of State.  He then responded by organizing the Democratic––Republican Party. [This is not the current Republican Party established in 1854]. Jefferson also hired Philip Freneau, a gifted writer with a penchant for satire, to run an opposition newspaper, the National Gazette.  And he denounced Hamilton to Washington, reporting that his rival had praised Britain’s government while calling the Constitution a “shilly shally thing” destined to be replaced by something better. Washington, though, was unmoved; he believed in his former aide and the economic path he had set, one that would leave the country “prosperous & happy.”

The Two Party System Evolves

Wikipedia describes how deeply the two “Factions” dissented. “Both parties originated in national politics, but soon expanded their efforts to gain supporters and voters in every state. The Federalists appealed to the business community, the Republicans to the planters and farmers. By 1796 politics in every state was nearly monopolized by the two parties, with party newspapers and caucuses becoming especially effective tools to mobilize voters.

“The Federalists promoted the financial system of Treasury Secretary Hamilton, which emphasized federal assumption of state debts, a tariff to pay off those debts, a national bank to facilitate financing, and encouragement of banking and manufacturing. The Republicans, based in the plantation South, opposed a strong executive power, were hostile to a standing army and navy, demanded a strict reading of the Constitutional powers of the federal government, and strongly opposed the Hamilton financial program.

“Perhaps even more important was foreign policy, where the Federalists favored Britain because of its political stability and its close ties to American trade, while the Republicans admired the French and the French Revolution. Jefferson was especially fearful that British aristocratic influences would undermine republicanism.”  (And you thought that today’s political parties could not get along with each other.)

The when, how, and why political parties were created is little known or remembered by the general public.  That this evolution occurred despite the initial strong anathema toward the concept by every one of the “founders” was perhaps merely their final recognition that political differences were an historical reality, and would always be so.  Regardless, the intrusion of this new instrumentality has had a destructive influence on the entire electoral process—notably on the original Electoral College itself.  More details next month––plus, a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College may not be necessary.


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