The current tumult in American politics has given extra attention to the methodology of our selection of representatives. We are, after all, a representative democracy. Those that state that we are a republic and not a democracy are making the same mistake as those that think socialism and democracy as mutually exclusive ideas; a republic is any government that takes its legitimacy from the consent of the people, as opposed to divine legitimacy or legitimacy from the sword. Democracy is the method of assuring this legitimacy, and representative democracy was chosen by the Founders instead of direct democracy because of the logistical impossibility of bringing all citizens across America together to make a collective decision.
The system that the Founders constructed for the United States of America was a compromise between different states with different priorities and different concerns in the interest of making the largest bulwark possible against invasion. To placate the states with smaller populations, every state government regardless of population could send two representatives to the Senate, which held superiority above the House. While Senators were chosen by politicians, House Representatives were determined by state population and selected by direct citizen voting.
In the interest of forming a more perfect union and giving the citizens of the United States more say in influencing the government, the 17th Amendment was passed. This enabled Senators to be directly selected by the people, instead of through the intermediary of the state legislatures. This was not an insult or a rejection of the Founder’s principles; it was an affirmation of it. The Founders knew they were not omniscient; they did draft the Articles of Confederation, after all. The entire purpose of amendments are to provide a method of updating the Constitution to settle issues unforeseen by the Founders, the most vital being the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.
Another facet of the Founder’s compromise, one which has gotten considerable attention as of late, is the electoral college. As chief executive of the United States of America, the President represents every avenue of legitimacy. As the United States is a federal republic and not a unitary republic, consent of the states was just as vital as the consent of the people in the early days of the United States. As such, the electoral college was a way to merge the legitimacy of states and people by assigning electors based on the total number of congressional representatives.
This inherently gave states with smaller population an advantage, as the least populated state automatically had at least three representatives - two Senators and a guaranteed House Representative. This advantage became more acute in 1929 when the House was arbitrarily capped at 435 members, suppressing the influence that more populated states would have in the House.
Nearly 90 years later, the disproportionate influence this has given the citizens of states like Wyoming and Idaho much more say in federal affairs than the citizens of Texas and New York. Supporters of the status quo say this is in alignment with the Founder’s compromise for America, but as we have already established the Founder’s vision inherently accounts for their fallibility.
Another angle of argument for supporters of the status quo is that the current system prevents the heartland states from being overwhelmed politically by the coastal states. This idea inherently makes the liberties of states more important than the liberties of people. We had a little disagreement over this idea called the American Civil War where the individual’s right to not be enslaved clashed with the state’s right to enslave. The side representing individual right’s won out, so why do we still hold equal status of states in a higher regard than the equal status of citizens?
A supporter of the status quo might then say that the President should not be determined by the “coastal elites” of New York, California, and Florida. Why not? What makes the citizens of New York inherently less capable of choosing the President than the citizens of Idaho? What makes Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio a better setting for a political showdown? What is the basis for making political minorities in states feel powerless at the voting booth? We decided that having Senators chosen by the people was preferable to having them chosen by intermediaries; why would it be unreasonable to do the same with the President? A President determined by popular vote would empower far more citizens than it would disempower purely by virtue of demolishing the concept of “safe states” in Presidential elections.
Furthermore, it is laughable to insinuate that the citizens of New York, California and Florida qualify as “coastal elites” when every citizen has less political influence than their inland counterpart. It’s also vastly overestimating the wealth of the average person living in these states - why should someone have their influence as a citizen diminished because they live in the same state as a few obscenely wealthy people? If someone has inferior political influence than the person they subsidize, they are not an elite. The person they are subsidizing is the elite.
We must remember what is important in a republic. If an election does not genuinely reflect the will of the people, then the foundation of legitimacy for that republic is undermined. The status quo brings to mind an excerpt from George Orwell’s Animal Farm;
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
It may be that supporters of the status quo genuinely believe that it is the optimal method of governance. But there are those that support the status quo purely because it supports their political position. This is a short-sighted and cynical attitude to have, and it does the United States no favors. It is a selfish rejection of democratic integrity and republican values. If you support the electoral college because it helps your side, you are no patriot. You are a polemic.