Defending the Electoral College, Part 3: When a Majority Doesn’t Work
by Steve Farrell
George Chapman observed, in 1605, “Young men think old men are fools.” And so do progressives.
As the Constitutional debate over the future of the Electoral College has found renewed vigor in our day, there certainly is no shortage of youthful, progressive, cocksure “experts” exuding but one message: The Founders were narrow, provincial men who took no thought for tomorrow – while we, the elite class of the latter days are a better educated, more forward-looking group of Universalists, who are so much the wiser.
But wisdom doesn’t work that way. Wisdom slows down, takes a deep breath, looks back into history and humbly searches the moral and political memory banks of those “old men” for a few valuable lessons. Wisdom knows that if one fails to learn from history, one will ultimately fail.
It was respect for the wisdom of the senior class that inspired the Founders to wear white wigs, because back then, generally older meant wiser.
Where is that humility, patience and respect for tradition today? In a “crisis,” moderns prefer to arrogantly and impulsively do whatever it takes and get it over with, regardless of the principles compromised, regardless of the long-term risks, regardless of how they trample upon the graves of their forefathers.
Consider election 2000. One side believed in essence, if we lose the electoral college count, fair and square, let’s insure victory next time by reinventing the counting process, reinventing the Constitution, converting a Republic into a democracy, and call the move progressive, and our opponents reaction, backwards.’
On the other hand, many of those on the side who benefited by the electoral college, when confronted with tough questions like “why not one person one vote?” are too often inclined not to take the time to rummage through dusty old books in search of ageless answers, but to cave in, in order to fit in.
One person, one vote, one national tally sounds like a good rule, but if we listen to the voices of the past, we might just learn that flat-out majority rule is not the best rule. After all, absolute reliance upon the wisdom of majorities without the balance and checks of other considerations, can get us into big trouble. De Tocqueville wrote in 1832: “If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event will arise from the unlimited tyranny of the majority.”
Lincoln echoed the same: “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Moderns don’t seem to understand that liberty brings with it those kinds of risks, and that to decrease the risks, the Founders put together something more complex than majority rule, a republic.
John Marshal, chief justice of the Supreme Court between 1801 and 1805, explained: “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.” An over-reliance on majority opinion can bring injustice, stupidity and eventual suicide.
By majority vote, ancient Israel rejected a free system of judges, for kings.
By a majority (unanimous) vote, Christ was convicted and sentenced to death.
By majority vote, Greek city-states came and passed away in violent, short-lived fits of passion.
By majority vote, Rome changed from a free republic to a brutal empire.
By majority vote, the British House of Commons soundly rejected Thomas Jefferson’s proposal to abolish slavery in colonial Virginia.
By majority vote, the British House of Commons passed the Stamp Tax, and other oppressive measures, which led to the War of Independence.
By majority vote, the Continental Congress forced Jefferson to remove from the Declaration of Independence a passage calling for the abolition of the British tradition of slavery in the United States.
By majority vote, the Sedition Act of 1798 passed, restricting liberty of speech and the press.
By majority vote, in the early and mid 1800’s, the institution of slavery continued and spread to new states as they joined the Union.
By majority vote (of Southern States), the South seceded, state by state, initiating a civil war, the bloodiest war in U.S. history and the beginning of the end for states’ rights.
By super majorities, Congress and the states passed the 17th Amendment in 1913, rejecting America’s most important check against socialism and federal domination of the states – the election of U.S. Senators by state legislatures – in favor of the direct election of the Senate by the people. Within a decade socialism was introduced in America.
Ever since, by majority vote Americans have adopted one socialist measure after another, until the majority have come to believe that the federal government has the right to forcibly redistribute wealth and control nearly every economic, educational, and social activity in this nation, moving us toward the diametric opposite of the inspired system our Founders gave us.
Sometimes, by majority vote, compelling evidence against murderers and others is thrown by the wayside by juries, in favor of racial, political, social, and religious causes or issues which have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the accused, resulting in innocent men going into prison or bankruptcy, and guilty men being set free and made, on the backs of others, rich.
By majority vote, a president of the United States, guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice was acquitted, because a feigned majority (represented in opinion polls) told these Senators that a conviction would hurt their reelection chances, and so they refused to examine the evidence, making a mockery of the American belief in equality before the law, setting a precedent for later presidents that they are above the law.
Finally, This big city/state majority feels that it matters not that the opposing presidential candidate in the year 2000 won the support of 2,434 counties, compared to its candidate’s 677 counties; that the opposing candidate won the approval of the people who live in over 2.4 million square miles of U.S. territory as compared with its candidate’s half a million miles, that the opposing candidate won 60 percent of the states, compared to its candidates 40 percent, and that the opposing candidate captured the virtual representation of 143 million Americans v. its candidate’s 127 million (virtual representation meaning the Electoral College rule gives the winner in each state the electoral backing of the entire population of the state, including those who failed to vote).
The majority makes mistakes, sometimes dreadful ones. To help prevent this, other factors need to come into play which often halt the mistakes of a misinformed, emotionally driven, self-centered majority. Things like unalienable rights, constitutional checks, division of powers, state rights, alternative or appellate court hearings (upon appeal) – things our founders thought of, but sometimes, we forget or ignore or endeavor to do away with.
Here are some examples the Founders put in our system to check pure majority rule.
Appellate courts of state and federal judges (with no jury involved) reverse the decision of people’s courts of original jurisdiction.
Civil convictions can be used as a back-up to hold accountable those who fooled the majority of the jury on capital charges, and this because more liberal rules of evidence apply. The O.J. Simpson provides an example.
A President’s veto checks the majority will expressed in congressional bills.
Supreme Courts declare unconstitutional laws approved by majorities of both Houses of Congress.
Congress and the President can pass legislation to reverse the majority decision of the Supreme Court, or to limit its jurisdiction.
Constitutional amendments override Constitutional laws previously approved by supermajorities of the people.
Amendments are won, not by simple majorities, but by a tough and time consuming house by house, state-by-state process, in search of new supermajorities.
The Bill of Rights overrules laws which violate those rights.
Presidents issue pardons (as do Governors) which overthrow the majority votes of juries, the affirmations of appeals courts, and prevent civil court action from taking place in the interest of preserving the peace, or reversing a possible injustice.
State legislatures (like in Vermont) create laws which reject a law approved by the national will in Washington. All of which points to one thing, obtaining a sense of the majority will is important; but the majority will is not the word of God (as some claim), because in far too many cases, it is about as far from that word as one can go. We all know this is true. So who are we trying to kid by insisting upon pure democracy?
Our government is a republic, and republics, though imperfect, are careful about making laws and initiating change. They explore the law from a variety of angles, rather than just the one angle of the majority. If anything, what is needed is to shore up and restore our Republican features, not throw them out or tear them down.
American statesmen John C. Calhoun warned: “People do not understand liberty or majorities. The will of a majority is the will of a rabble. Progressive democracy is incompatible with liberty. Those who study after this fashion are yet in the hornbook, the ABC of governments. Democracy is leveling–this is inconsistent with true liberty. Anarchy is more to be dreaded than despotic power. It is the worst tyranny. The best government is that which draws least from the people, and is scarcely felt, except to execute.”
Some of our worst mistakes as a nation, and by other nations have been made by majority vote. It is only by considering the rights and interests of a broad sweep of our nation that we hope to avoid making such errors again. That is why we have a Republic, and why we have such features as the electoral college.
The tendency of moderns to arrogantly and impulsively do whatever it takes to win, to move on, to avoid having to draw upon the past and think about it, is as great a danger as a free people can face.
Yes, “Young men think old men are fools.” but there’s more to Chapman’s quote: “Old men know that young men are fools.” Perhaps, with a little bit of wisdom, a little bit of listening and learning, a little bit of patience and a little bit of faith, some of those young progressives might find out why this is so.
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.