The electoral college, like our appendix, is a holdover from another time. Though its original function — elite selection of the president — has atrophied, the college, like the appendix, can be dangerous to the body politic when inflamed.
Almost from the start the college, meant to forestall demagoguery and mobocracy, lost its real purpose as our politics leaned more and more to popular election of leaders.
Consider this. In the election of 1800, the electors, there to choose the meritorious and keep the office from the hands of unworthies, nominated both Thomas Jefferson and Aron Burr for president. The college, as then written, made no distinction between the presidential and vice presidential candidate.
Burr, a man many considered a political adventurer, later killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later yet was tried for treason. Seems he might have been plotting to detach some western territories from the U.S. to make a new political entity based in New Orleans.
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Jefferson had been governor of revolutionary Virginia, ambassador to royalist France, secretary of state and vice president. He also just happened to write “All men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.”
There was a choice? Would the electorate at-large have done worse?
In 1824, this elite process selected John Quincy Adams, a man with an impeccable pedigree, for president over that rough soldier, Andrew Jackson. Jackson had more popular votes but was short of the “magic” number of electors.
As we all know, Jackson and the unwashed who voted for him got revenge four years later with a popular landslide that put him well beyond the elite embrace of the electoral college.
In the election of 1876, our elites gave us an unholy deal between a handful of southern presidential electors and the Republican Party, a sellout that condemned the African-American population of the former Confederacy to a hundred years of political solitude and Jim Crow.
In return, the nation got Rutherford B Hayes in the White House.
In our own times the college, with a less than gentle assist from the Supreme Court, another elite body, gifted us with George W. Bush along with his Iraq war and ballooning deficits — bonuses both.
Now, in its most recent manifestation, the elite college, like a dealer playing with the house deck, deals the presidency to a populist demagogue who lost the popular vote by close to three million votes.
This, mind you, from a body that was meant to trump demagoguery with cool reason.
There might be a rough kind of civic justice in all this if the electors always chose the candidate with the platform designed in heaven, the one best suited to meet the nation’s needs, including those of a suffering blue collar constituency.
But the signs so far are not encouraging.
The college has given us hollow boasting, self-centered whining, an exaggerated sense of injury — nothing particularly elite about any of those — along with a cabinet of money worshipers and government deniers.
This is a deal made in heaven?
Even if it were, a slim majority of we, the people, did not want it. Is the electoral college so much wiser?
So, a puzzled nation turns its eyes to you, oh electoral college, and asks, really, isn’t it time you left that fancy school of yours and got a real job?
Will Sutter of Lexington is a retired foreign service official and novelist.