Eleven members of the gaggle comprising the Democratic presidential primary field are on record in favor of abolishing the electoral college.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet says it’s “antiquated.” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand calls it a “distorted system.” Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee labels it an “artifact of the 13 colonies.” For California’s Marianne Williamson it represents “a risk to our democracy.”
None of those people who would be president have even cracked 1 percent in 2020 polling to date, so their tough talk on the issue may merely be an attempt to grab a headline.
But some real contenders support the idea of dumping the electoral college for a direct presidential election, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts).
Basing opposition to any time-tested 232-year-old method on short-term discontent appears foolish at best. It calls into doubt the fitness to pass one of those civics exams that regularly remind us how ignorant We the People are about our form of government.
Barely one in five Americans can name James Madison as the “father of our Constitution.” Narrowed to college-graduated respondents, the number rises only slightly to 28 percent. Madison was instrumental not only in drafting the Constitution in convention at Philadelphia, but also securing its ratification as one of the authors of The Federalist Papers.
If it seems appalling that so few recognize Madison’s role in the founding, consider the tinier number who might be able to properly identify Publius, the pseudonym Madison and cohorts John Jay and Alexander Hamilton used in writing the Federalist essays.
Then consider the infinitesimal minority of Americans who know the name of Gabriel de Mably.
Thomas Jefferson was in Paris on diplomatic duty during the time the constitutional convention was being orchestrated, but sent two trunkloads of books to Madison to review in preparation (true to form, he itemized the list and cost in a letter). Many of the works of de Mably, an 18th century philosopher with expertise in Roman history, were included in the shipment–and repeatedly referenced in the founders’ voluminous correspondence.
Rare are the Americans today who can accurately place the Roman Republic or the Athenian Democracy on a timeline; the founders studied writings and histories on each extensively. Their collective examination and analysis of ancient democracies is what shaped their wisdom and decisions involving the creation of a representative republic, and the method of electing its president.
“Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob,” Madison wrote to help explain the recurring constitutional theme of cooling destructive populist passions with deliberative decision-making.
Admittedly, it’s tough for any modern-day politician of either party to not appear dunce-like against the exceptional brilliance and education of the luminous minds that influenced the nation’s constitutional framing.
But before opinions on ditching the electoral college can carry real weight, critics need to study up on lessons from classical civilizations. Once enlightened on the subject as the erudite founders were, Democrats might well arrive at the same conclusions and find new affection for the electoral college.
Because they don’t want to come to those conclusions, Sanders and Warren, et al., don’t really want to bother with the information, facts and knowledge that produced them in the founders’ minds.
John Adams spent the last 25 years of his life writing essays, books and thousands of letters in which he discussed political theory, government, the nature of men and the American experiment at length.
One of his famously quoted epistles is a colossal correspondence from 1814 to John Taylor, in which Adams eviscerates popular democracy as being “more bloody” while it lasts than aristocracy or monarchy.
“Remember, democracy never lasts long,” he wrote. “It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Adams argued that the genius of the American Constitution is its mixing of the three primary forms of government to achieve restraining checks and balances, each in proper measure according to its role: a more democratic House, a more aristocratic Senate, a president with executive power, and an independent judiciary.
The letter exceeds 28,000 words, and is replete with prodigious examples of Adams’ amassed intellectual acuity over 79 years of life. For instance, in defending his own predilection toward natural aristocracy, he used quotes about beauty from Plato, Theophrastus, Diogenes, Carneades, Theocritus and Bion.
Having never read any except Plato from that list myself, all valuable knowledge from the others is lost on me. By sharing, Adams slightly elevated my understanding, and pricked my curiosity.
The overarching point is that there’s nothing simple about the ideas behind the electoral college, and it’s a dishonest public disservice to voice simplistic reasons for dissolving it.
If anything continually leaps from the leading founders’ writings in harmony, it’s their warning that there can never be liberty without learning. Education is to the republic what responsibility is to rights.
What those who flippantly dismiss the electoral college have forgotten (if they ever knew it to begin with) is that the founders’ purpose in forming the Constitution was never to deliver democracy—it was to protect us from it.