American Notebook: The Electoral College: A Note on American Political Mythology

American Notebook: The Electoral College: A Note on American Political Mythology

After every close presidential election, the stage is set for an inquest: one can count on debates, congressional investigations, learned letters in The New York Times, elaborate outbursts of anal scholarship, all concerned with the poor old Electoral College. From the viewpoint of a practical liberal, this is so much time wasted: the only revision which could possibly be adopted by three-quarters of the states would be worse than what we now have. Conversely, the only sensible alteration in terms of democratic theory — direct election — would be butchered in the states in the unlikely event that it survived twothirds passage in the House and Senate.

However, since these rites are scheduled for this year, there is one aspect of the Electoral College that should be clarified. Clarification will hardly have any impact on either rhetoric or decision, but from a certain antiquarian passion I insist on laying some facts on the table. I am both tired of and annoyed at the generally accepted myth that the Framers of the Constitution fearing the “mob,” established a Council of Wise Men to choose the President. Paradoxically this myth has been advanced both by lachrymose conservatives, bewailing our departures from the “prudential wisdom” of the fathers, and by opponents of the College who deplore the founders’ undemocratic convictions.

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