Federalist #68. The founders intended this.

Janine Giordano Drake

I'm shocked. You may be too.

I wrote a review essay on Mennonite and evangelical silence, and complicity, with anti-union regimes.  But, I can't finish it right now.

All I can think about right now is how Donald Trump won the US presidency. How did the South elect a descendant of Eastern European immigrants, a robberbaron, a New Yorker, an impolite rake?

How did the rustbelt Midwest elect an industrial tycoon, an arch-capitalist, a friend of Vladimir Putin?

How did the formerly communitarian kingdom of Utah elect a man who drinks, carouses, and extorts?

Yesterday, I lined up to vote at the county fairgrounds in my post-industrial city in Montana. Dozens of elderly Native Americans stood in line ahead of me, voter identity cards in hand. Two African American veterans stood behind me, voter identity cards in hand.  A tall man in a business suit and a red tie walked in confidently. Neither he nor I had our voter identity cards, but we didn't get hassled. While I remembered the power of my white privilege, I was also moved by fact that so many of us  showed up at the polls, even as we knew how likely it was that Montana was going to Donald Trump. Those men in suits, I thought, had as many votes as the tribal elders who passed me by.

And then I woke up this morning.

I saw that Hillary Clinton won roughly 152,000 more votes than Donald Trump.

But, Trump took the electoral college.

And then I remembered that this is what the founders intended. This is what Alexander Hamilton intended.

Look at Federalist #68.

Like the whole thrust of the Federalist Papers, this essay in defense of the Electoral College articulates why it is so important to withhold power from the masses.

Hamilton defends our convoluted system wherein states, rather than people, elect the president. He defends a system which requires white, men with property to vote for more statesmanlike white men with property who will themselves cast votes for the president. He defends a system wherein a clear majority from the populace at large seems unlikely and even dangerous. (He presupposes that there are no political parties to organize a clear majority in electoral votes.) He talks of the importance of a "majority" of electoral votes, not a majority of votes.  As Hamilton puts it,
But as a majority of the [electoral] votes might not always happen to centre in one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive, it is provided that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select out of the candidates who shall have the five highest number of votes, the man who in their opinion may be best qualified for the office.
It is safe to say that Alexander Hamilton--that lover of industry, banking, and personal glory--hoped that the unwashed masses would not determine the outcome of presidential elections. He didn't even make any room in the Federalist papers to consider that a majority of votes could center on anything other than a man.

We like to celebrate the myth that our Constitutional framers wanted to build a republic which empowered poor people to be equal, before the law, to the rich. Our history textbooks proclaimed this hogwash since Woodrow Wilson's administration. For, in the First World War, in the Second World War, and in the Cold War, the United States had to come up with a good reason for intervening into the affairs of sovereign nations. The idea that we are the "arsenal of democracy" helped rationalize our foreign policy--our quest to acquire colonies, and/or economic spheres of influence, around the world. But, though these textbooks made some of us feel better about our country for a few generations, they didn't change the Constitution. They didn't change the past. They didn't change the fact that the people do not elect the president in the United States.

I've been teaching Ed Baptist's book in my US survey class, and I'm reminded how thinly the federalist principle held together the nation in the early years of the republic. The Constitution provides that the states, not the people, help govern the nation. The Progressive era offered a little bit of change to this, but the fundamentals of our 1780 compromises are still intact. The rural states and the former slave states continue to determine our nation's future.


Cara Burnidge said…
Janine: Thank you for your post and your effort to help us all analyze the election results. I also think American democracy is best understood when placed in a global context, but I want to push back against this idea that a Constitutional myth as a product of rationalizing interventionism. I'd argue that interventionism (in domestic or foreign endeavors) is a product of American notions of democracy that preclude women, people of color, and poor people from being "the people" or presuppose inferiority in their humanity. This would mean WWI isn't a grand shift on behalf of a new interventionist aim, but a grand extension of an already present interventionist model.
You make a really good point, Cara. I see World War I as an era which started the history textbook craze for "America is the arsenal of democracy" but of course you are right that this myth came out of the central myth of American democracy (which always excluded women and people of color and the poor).

To me, WW1 is a flashpoint in the history of American democracy because it began the systematic, government-sponsored effort to get everyone on board (including African Americans and immigrants) with the attitude that America has always been the arsenal of democracy. It was an era where citizenship was becoming more widespread, so educating the poor into believing these myths became more important. Previously, so many immigrants and African Americans who had no real options to attend public schools or to vote. But, with the twentieth century came government-sponsored textbooks in US History (for schools and the citizenship process). In the twentieth century, government officials sought to systematically disabuse the poor of the messages they received from their communities about the degree to which American "democracy" was ever really functional. To me, the twentieth century gave that Constitutional "democracy" myth a whole new life.
Anonymous said…
neat historical points and personal/experiential reflections, thanks Janine

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