The Little Arts Of Popularity

So, the Electoral College is a thing now.

I mean, it's been a thing since the US Constitution was written, but for basically that entire time, it has been a ceremonial step, one whose outcome was predetermined, a ceremony so uninteresting that most of us probably forgot that it existed from the moment we completed our high school civics exam. Only now, with citizens desperately seeking a way for Donald Trump to not become the next President, are we paying attention to this procedure as a potential out, a re-do on a divisive election whose outcome seems to have been influenced by a foreign power.

What's interesting to me is whether this use of the Electoral College would be a bug in our system, or a feature. To get a sense of what the Electoral College was intended for, I suggest reading Federalist No. 68, written by today's hottest Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton.

I could seriously quote pretty much all of it, but here's a few highlights:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

The Electoral College was always intended to be a deliberative body, one that derives its authority from the people, but that also may exercise judgement, instead of being a ceremonial pass-through.

Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.

That's...pretty much what's happening right now.

Hamilton goes on to talk about how Electors should be best positioned to exercise independence, since they could not be people who already hold government positions, but instead are those specially selected for this purpose and no other. They are also set up to meet in groups in each state, rather than in one mass meeting, to keep them from influencing each other and to temper the effects of herding and groupthink.

The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.

Hamilton certainly could not have predicted the widespread impact of Twitter, but I think his larger point stands, in that a certain kind of person may be able to win a direct election, but it takes a different set of talents to win the assent of an indirectly selected body of electors, who presumably will be more informed and less swayed by intemperate passions and fake news.

So, to recap: Exercising deliberative judgement. Guarding against the influence of a foreign power. Tempering the impact of popularity vs. actual qualifications. If ever there was a time for the Electoral College to be more than a ceremonial exercise, and to actually live up to its original intended purpose, now would be the time.

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