Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Mourning in America – Part I: The Framers’ Worst Nightmare

Two days before the national election, President Obama spoke to a crowd in Kissimmee, 25 miles south of here. The crowd reflected an Osceola County which over the past two decades has become a minority-majority population in which no single ethnic group is the majority. 

It’s a sneak preview of what Florida will look like by the next census and the country as a whole by mid-century. Osceola County is a cultural petri dish of sorts in which the three major minorities have had to learn how to work together to build a multicultural society with varying levels of success. 

The last President of America urged the crowd to vote the following Tuesday with this admonition: “[This election] is about the character of this country. Who are we? What do we stand for?” The election could not have been stated in starker terms. 

The election itself had come down to two largely caricaturized candidates. Philosopher Cornell West would describe it as a choice between a neoliberal technocrat and a neo-fascist narcissist.

Slightly left of center was Hillary Clinton, first woman nominee of a major political party, who was widely seen as a deceptive policy wonk far too cozy with Wall Street and the defense industry for many on the Democratic left. That group included myself who had hoped in vain to “Feel the Bern” with the failed attempt to nominate Bernie Sanders. 

 On the far right (because American political culture has never been balanced, skewing right of center as a matter of course) was a billionaire developer with no political experience and a spotty record of bankruptcies and lawsuits. He had largely earned his party’s nomination on his skillful ability as a demagogue, demonizing women, disabled people, immigrants, Muslims and LGBTQ people for political gain. 

On Tuesday, November 8, the US voting populace (i.e., those who were actually allowed to vote, never a given in Republican dominated states like Florida) faced a clear choice between an ice princess and a monster. 

In the end, the voters chose the monster. 

Spinning in their graves

Well, sort of. 

In the second incidence of electoral/popular vote disparity in the past five elections, the candidate who won the majority among US voters did not win the election. Instead, the winner of a thin victory in the electoral college will succeed Barack Obama in the White House, Mr. Trump having won just enough votes in the right states (including Florida, sadly) to claim that victory. In so doing, Trump will enter the White House with the smallest popular support since the election of 1824 won by Andrew Jackson when the pre-political convention period Democratic-Republican Party fielded three different candidates.  

Unlike the most recent case of electoral disparity in 2000, Trump did not have to rely on a Supreme Court dominated by his father’s justices to stop the recounting of votes in the state governed by his brother – a recount that would surely have allowed the actual winner of the election, Al Gore, to become president - to be declared the victor. In the end, Trump would win enough electoral votes to take the White House even as he would lose the nation’s popular vote by 3 million votes. 

There is no small amount of irony in the disparity between the popular and electoral results. The Electoral College was designed by elite and largely elitist Framers to be a check on popular sovereignty. The fear of large states supporting favorite son candidates to dominate smaller states was high among their concerns. Those fears would foster the creation of a bicameral Congress providing small states with a check on their larger state counterparts who could easily control the population-based House of Representatives through a US Senate with equal representation.

But an even more basic fear for the Framers centered around the potential for a poorly informed public to choose a populist demagogue. Framer Alexander Hamilton articulated this fear in “The Federalist Papers,” a series of pamphlets he generated along with James Madison and John Jay as a means of explaining and supporting the adoption of the original Constitution. 

According to Joe Miller at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Hamilton believed the Constitution was designed to ensure 

“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.” The point of the Electoral College is to preserve “the sense of the people,” while at the same time ensuring that a president is chosen “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.” (Joe Miller, “The Reason for the Electoral College,”, Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania).

No doubt Hamilton must be rolling over in his grave knowing that it was precisely this creation he and the other Framers worked so hard to perfect that made possible the ascension to the Presidency of a man who is observably “not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” to hold that office, populist sentiment to the contrary. 

Framer James Madison’s fears were more general. Like Plato, he distrusted direct democracy and in particular its proclivities toward popular tyranny:

Madison worried about what he called “factions,” which he defined as groups of citizens who have a common interest in some proposal that would either violate the rights of other citizens or would harm the nation as a whole. Madison’s fear – which Alexis de Tocqueville later dubbed “the tyranny of the majority” – was that a faction could grow to encompass more than 50 percent of the population, at which point it could “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” (Miller)

In the wake of an election in which a candidate who rode to electoral victory on a wave of anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-people of color and anti-gay sentiment, pimping the very worst of American prejudices and fears as a means of gaining access to power, no doubt Madison is spinning in his grave along with fellow Framer Hamilton. 

Across the pond, Alexis de Tocqueville is no doubt shaking his head in vindication. 

[Continued in Part II]
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston, 2016

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