The Electoral College: A sign of deeper problems in American democracy

The Critic Who Counts

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Something about Vice President Joe Biden’s snarky smirks in his debate against Paul Ryan tells me he wouldn’t work too well with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And something about Mitt Romney’s twist of the hokey and the debonair tells me he wouldn’t appreciate Biden’s quaint quirkiness.

There’s been more than a little speculation about the potential results of the upcoming presidential election. Some say it’s possible Romney could win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College, failing to reach the White House, much as Al Gore did in 2000. Others wonder about the possibility of an electoral tie, in which the Republican House of Representatives would inevitably elect Romney for the presidency and the Democratic Senate would choose Joe Biden as Vice President.

Which begs the question — why is the outdated and esoteric Electoral College still in existence in the first place?  No other modern democracy elects high-ranking officials the way Americans do today — an indirect “election” that convolutes the results of the popular vote and adds potential for tragic misinterpretation of public opinion.

I’ve argued for distancing government from the direct voice of the people in the past, including my proposition that California ditch its initiative and referendum system. Time magazine columnist and CNN political analyst Fareed Zakaria argues bravely for the “undemocratization” of American politics by removing burdensome and overly abundant gauges of public opinion from everyday decision-making in his 2004 treatise, The Future of Freedom. I couldn’t agree more. But the Electoral College smells of deception and feels like theft. American politicians continue to act as if the president is popularly elected when instead he is appointed by a questionable assembly of party loyalists and political elites.

If Mitt Romney or Barack Obama wins the forthcoming election without the popular vote on his side, the American people will inevitably sit tight and allow the government to march onward just as they did in 2000. In reality, the tremors of justice in this country aren’t any stronger than the United States’ natural tendency toward social order and complacency.

The Electoral College isn’t the root of the problem facing America’s political future, of course. Rather, the institution is a symbol of the hard times American democracy is experiencing. The Electoral College is just another reminder that there is an entrenched economic, social and political elite trying to win one more presidential election in this country. And if all goes as planned, the elites are a lock for the White House in 2012.

The reason middle-class conservatives are so dispassionate about Romney and that everyday liberals are so disappointed in President Obama is that both candidates, or at least their campaigns, appear to be members of the old-guard elite. One is a wealthy Massachusetts pseudo-intellectual flip-flopper, while the other is a well-connected, politically calculating Chicago community organizer who puts on a show of being a Washington, D.C., outsider. Both candidates have chattered incessantly about this year being a perfect choice between two competing ideologies, but their ideologies are insignificant. Both Obama and Romney were built by the same machine of elite connections, excessive wealth and East Coast hierarchy. As the President has said himself, albeit in a joking fashion: “We … both have degrees from Harvard. I have one, he has two.”

In 2008, four of Obama’s top campaign contributors were major Wall Street investment banks — including the infamous Goldman Sachs with gifts of more than $1 million. And Romney hasn’t fared much better in becoming financially independent of Wall Street hacks — every one of his top six campaign contributors thus far in 2012 is a major financial institution, according to the campaign watchdog opensecrets.org. Obama can report a somewhat significant decline in Wall Street funding for his 2012 campaign, but considering Romney’s Bain Capital background and Obama’s continued anti-Wall Street rhetoric in this election cycle, it takes little imagination to conclude why. It’s not that Obama doesn’t want the money — it’s that Wall Street’s found a new puppet to play with.

In this day and age, American elites aren’t captains of industry. They might own or manage some of the largest companies in the United States and in the world, but they didn’t create them from the ground up. No, modern American elites are much less altruistic than the innovators of America’s past. They live on the ingenuity of others, diving in at just the right time to cash out. It’s Americans with exorbitant wealth, flaunting their unearned megabucks and directing the politics of this “democratic” nation from behind the scenes — call them the “New Millionaires,” and they aren’t Warren Buffett.

In the end, super PACs and special interests, New Millionaires and investment bankers, East Coast family dynasties and legacy admissions are just as undemocratic as the Electoral College. They add to the lie that the voice of the people in American politics is ultimately sovereign, when in fact that voice has become just another tool for political entrepreneurship.

And regardless of the ebb and flow of popular opinion, this struggling democracy will march on.

Image Source: pb-n-james via Creative Commons

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected]