A slight change of pace, I just want to write a quick post on United States’ history, spurred on by this article, but fuelled by an all too common refrain.
The Electoral College
“The Electoral College, designed to protect America from the election of a self-interested demagogue as its leader”
I’m sure we’ve all heard some reiteration of this point. The problem is, this isn’t what the electoral college was “designed” to do.
The United States was born out of compromise. There was no homogeneous “founding fathers” who got to write their ideal constitution.
James Madison argued for an executive chosen by the National Legislature, one group argued that states should have a hand in the process, and another group argued that it should be a direct election. Some argued that State Legislatures should pick, while James Wilson said an electoral college should be formed through sortition of the house of reps. Some Founding Fathers wanted an elected monarch! One suggestion was that every person vote for three people, with two needing to be from a different state.
The idea that the Electoral College served a particular purpose is flawed. In fact, many of the Founding Fathers seemed happy with the idea that it didn’t serve a purpose at all: George Mason observed casually that the selection would be made in the House nineteen times in twenty due to lack of majorities, and no one seriously disputed this point. Dickinson argued for direct election because the general people were the “best and purest source” of legitimacy. Gouveneur Morris supported an Electoral College against the “cabal” of the legislature, and saw this as closer to direct election than what some of his compatriots were suggesting. The weird tie breaking function of the house was, according to Madison, to “break the aristocratic influence of the senate.” There was no homogeneous purpose or understanding of the electoral college.
The vital aspect of the Electoral College was that it got the Convention over the hurdle and protected everybody’s interests. The future was left to cope with the problem of what to do with this Rube Goldberg mechanism.
In short, the Framers did not in their wisdom endow the United States with a College of Cardinals — the Electoral College was neither an exercise in applied Platonism nor an experiment in indirect government based on elitist distrust of the masses. It was merely a jerryrigged improvisation which has subsequently been endowed with a high theoretical content. When an elector in Oklahoma in 1960 refused to cast his vote for Nixon (naming Byrd and Goldwater instead) on the ground that the Founding Fathers intended him to exercise his great independent wisdom, he was indulging in historic fantasy. If one were to indulge in counter-fantasy, he would be tempted to suggest that the Fathers would be startled to find the College still in operation — and perhaps even dismayed at their descendants’ lack of judgement or inventiveness.
Business Insider gives a similar picture of the Senate
The supposedly passion-cooling US Senate — intended by the founders to protect the interests of small states such as Delaware and Rhode Island and to act as the “adults in the room” legislatively — has instead become a factional redoubt controlled by 53 senators elected by only 43.6% of the votes cast in Senate elections.
This is due in part to the unanticipated (by the founders) growth in the number of low population states in the US.
This is also inaccurate, and Alexander Hamilton explicitly recognised that the Senate may cause issues due to population differences:
The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Delaware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. It may happen that this majority of States is a small minority of the people of America; and two thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded, upon the credit of artificial distinctions and syllogistic subtleties, to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third. The larger States would after a while revolt from the idea of receiving the law from the smaller.
James Madison was similarly cool on the Senate, noting it was a product of compromise, not high political theory:
The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise… not of theory, but “of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.’’ … A government founded on principles more consonant to the wishes of the larger States, is not likely to be obtained from the smaller States. The only option, then… must be to embrace the lesser evil.
We can infer that George Washington would have preferred a senate proportional to population, due to his hand in the Virginia Plan which put forward that very notion.
Gouvernor Morris and Robert Morris were stridently against the state-centric Senate:
the large States should unite in firmly refusing the small States an equal vote, as unreasonable, and as enabling the small States to negative every good system of Government, which must in the nature of things, be founded on a violation of that equality.
James Wilson said:
The general government is not an assemblage of states, but of individuals, for certain political purposes; it is not meant for the states, but for the individuals composing them. The individuals, therefore, not the states, ought to be represented.
So why did the United States get the Senate it got? After literally weeks of debate and deadlock, smaller states threatened to break the union if they did not get what they wanted. Gunning Bedford shocked the Convention when he said:
the large States dared not dissolve the confederation [which gave equal votes to the states]… if they do, the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honour and good faith, who will take them by hand and do them justice
Gouvernor Morris responded by threatening civil war:
This Country must be united. If persuasion does not unite it, the sword will… The stronger party will then make traitors of the weaker, and the Gallows and Halter will finish the work of the sword
Tensions were evidently high. Massachusetts, having just experienced the Shay Rebellion, decided to help end the impasse and the potential instability and swapped to support the two-senators-per-state formulation. North Carolina similarly swapped votes, likely because it won concessions on slavery.
Rufus King’s reaction was “mortification”.
This vote [to have equal state representation in the senate] was taken, and to my mortification, by the vote of Massachusetts, lost on the 14th of July
So when the article asks: “Was this really what the founders had in mind?”
There are two ways to look at it. In some ways, yes. Gunning Bedford had political power and he wanted to secure that power for himself and his state: justice, fairness and good governance be damned.
In other ways, clearly not — Hamilton, especially, thought non-proportional representation was terrible. The current senate is not something he ever had in mind. The fallacy getting made here is the idea that the Founding Fathers thought the Government system they built was good rather than good enough to get many diverging interests onboard.