Kanye West claims he’s running for president now.
Whether or not you take that candidacy seriously, it’s another example of a person with a substantial celebrity who claims to want the White House. And as the frequency of these celebrity presidential runs goes up, through the power of celebrity platforms in the internet age, so does evidence in favor of the Electoral College.
It’s trendy among many segments of the left to argue against the wisdom of the Electoral College. They follow a pretty typical line of attack against the Founder’s vision: that the Electoral College is anti-democratic, and leads to elections where the “majority of votes” don’t get their way.
It’s not just the fringe left that believes this, though. You can find everyone from the mainstream wonks of the liberal Brookings Institute to the outer edges of the Democratic Party where Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reside. There’s a presumption lurking behind all the arguments that the majority winner is presumptively the best candidate.
Of course, how someone defines the majority is difficult. The only true majority is 50% plus one. We’ve had plenty of presidents, regarded as popular, who never achieved 50% of the vote.
Bill Clinton never hit 50%; the closest he came was in 1996, when he received a little over 49% of the vote. In 1992, Clinton got 43% of the vote, good for the fourth-worst percentage held by a White House winner in all of U.S. history.
The second worst performance in overall vote percentage is also the most noteworthy. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln only received 39.65% of the popular vote.
Lincoln got much more than that in his second election. But it’s still significant that the man widely regarded, along with Washington, as the greatest of all American presidents, couldn’t win many popular votes in his first election.
Obviously, party splits and the Civil War era’s polarization contributed to Lincoln’s numbers, but that’s not much different from any other time. It’s certainly no different than our current age. Does the left reject Donald Trump’s presidency only over the notion that he lost the popular vote? Of course not! They’d reject him if he won both the popular vote and the Electoral College. The popular vote confers no more legitimacy on a person than the Electoral College.
But so much of the bellyaching over the Electoral College and national popular vote has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the system, anyway. It’s about who is winning and losing elections. Was Bill Clinton any less of a president because of the popular vote? Was Lincoln? Of course not. They won the system set up; the same is true of Trump or any future president.
When setting up the electoral system for the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton argued in the Federalist Papers that for the founding generation, the threat of foreign infiltration loomed largely. The American system relied on free and open elections, among a menagerie of people from different nations and colonies.
As Hamilton said in Federalist 68:
Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.
Although democracy perceived as a good check on executives and politicians, democracy itself required checks. The Founders were well-read in history and knew the problems that political philosophers from Socrates to Montesquieu saw with the fundamental regimes of democratic, aristocratic, and monarchial rule. Each system existed in every government, and all nations were capable of degenerating into the worst forms of their government, whether that was mob rule, oligarchy, or tyranny.
The Electoral College is the check on pure democratic rule. It ensures that all states in the Union are included in the election process; no president ever gets elected by just a few regions of the country. As Hamilton put it:
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.
Some of these checks, over time, have been broken by the progressive movement, which, like its present-day name-bearers, is more interested in seizing power than democratic legitimacy. But even with that, the checks remain. If you want to be president, you have to campaign in places that represent the middle of the country, too — not just the profoundly partisan contours of the most one-sided states.
And that, by itself, makes the Electoral College worth it. The irony of Trump is that he didn’t get elected as a far-right conservative. The public perceived him as a moderate.
His conduct may be extreme, but his overall policy desires are not. And if celebrities like Kanye West are going to try and thread the same needle, they’ll have to develop an appeal beyond their home states.
The Founders’ continuing impact remains profoundly needed. And that’s worth celebrating beyond July 4th.