After last Tuesday’s disaster, the dismay and fury and fear are palpable. President Donald Trump – how strange it seems to write that, to think it! – has the potential to wreak havoc on every dimension of national life: our social fabric, economic future, diplomatic respect, legal order, military capability. We cannot afford four more years of denialism on climate change. The implications of a thin-skinned narcissist with his finger on the nuclear button are terrifying.
The responses from thoughtful people have run from analysis of how we got here to passionate and bitter protest to outright rejection of the reality – “not my president.” One idea making the rounds is that the Electoral College ought to nullify the result: that “faithless electors” should legally hand the election to Hillary Clinton. It’s hard to even describe what a bad idea this is. Allow me to try.
The argument seems to be that the Electoral College is an anachronism, conceived by the Founders for the dubious purposes of blunting both regional domination and raw democratic expression, and that it’s time for it to go. Since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote – possibly by a substantial margin – the Electors should be lobbied to do the right thing in abandoning both purposes, and defer to her majority. Then we get rid of the College in future.
First: the College is not an anachronism and it serves a very important purpose, regardless of whether we like the way any particular election turns out. Without the College, presidential elections would be determined by a very few population centers, with much of our thinly-distributed population outside of those centers left without any vote that matters at all. And I don’t mean not matter in the sense that the foregone conclusion of a poll in Alabama or California doesn’t matter under the Electoral College system. Presidential candidates can take those states’ votes for granted, but they still need those votes. In a popular vote system, candidates would not need votes outside of major cities; voters who lived elsewhere would have no voice. And if there’s one thing certain in politics, it is that no resources flow to the voiceless. If you are completely comfortable with America’s hinterland and the people of rural areas, working class suburbs, and struggling small towns being left to rot, ignored by any powers wielded by the President (that is to say, even more than at present), then let’s abolish the Electoral College.
As to the demand for nullification: I assume that if Donald Trump had won the popular vote and fallen short in the Electoral College, everyone who is now marching for direct democracy, to demand that the election be given to Hillary Clinton because she won the popular vote, would then be marching to demand that it be given to Trump? No? In that case you can certainly justify the demand for nullification on the grounds that this is an existential emergency, for the country and for the world (although abolishing democratic norms – and democracy is more than majority rule - in the name of preserving them is always a dicey proposition.) But you cannot claim to be acting out of any devotion to democratic principle. And this has consequences.
I am certainly on board with the argument of existential threat. Trump is that. However, the fact – the absolutely certain fact – is that nullification couldn’t possibly work. By the final electoral vote tally, 37 electors, people chosen and rewarded for their party loyalty, would have to be flipped. Then the Republican-controlled Congress would have to affirm the College vote. And even if the Republicans inexplicably did this, do you suppose a President Hillary Clinton, brought to power in this fashion, could govern? Congress would simply walk out, until the well-justified armed rebellion in the streets put its members back in the Capitol. To propose nullification is to play into the hands of all of those who believe that Trump is a heroic warrior fighting the entitlement of a perfidious Democratic elite. Changing the agreed rules of the game after the game has been played is otherwise known as “cheating,” and to advocate this is to tar the opposition to Trump as cheaters who seek power with no regard for the rules. There is nothing we could do – nothing – that would be of greater help to Trump politically, that would put him in a stronger position to push through his agenda.
Short of an armed uprising in the Democratic camp, something which is not going to happen (and it would be hard to feel sanguine about either the potential for success or the net benefits of such a thing) Donald Trump is going to be the 45th President of the United States of America. The sooner we acknowledge that reality, the sooner we can get to work on the downfall of Trumpism.
The first place to start is an honest analysis of why we lost. And it’s more complicated than the resurgent appeal of white supremacism, although that was a factor. To counter that simple explanation, let’s remember that, by the inexorable logic of math and demographics, many of the white people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who voted for Trump this year had voted for Obama in 2008; and many of them voted for him again in 2012. They are not necessarily lost to reason, or to decency.
It really does matter that Democratic elites have not been listening to or serving the interests of working people for a long time. We can collectively deny that; but if we do, we’ll continue to lose elections. And we will certainly lose future elections if we tell the people of the Midwest, whose votes we will need in future to build any plausible center-left coalition, that we can nullify their votes when we don’t agree with their choices.
I have been convinced for some time that the party that won the White House this year would be doomed, although the parties would be doomed for different reasons. I may be wrong about that; I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in politics lately. If I am right, Trump’s victory represents a possibility and an opportunity in a time of great danger.
One thing we have on our side, unwittingly and paradoxically, is Trump himself. His weaknesses suggest a Napoleonic reality, where Trump is Napoleon, the Presidency is Russia, and Trump’s own incompetence, narcissism, and deeply corrupt background are winter.
Everything depends on whether Trump will destroy the Republican Party or the country more quickly. This is hardly a cheerful gamble. It’s a thin optimism, but optimism nonetheless. There is much to talk about and much to do. Starting with abandoning the delusion of electoral nullification.