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The "Golden Goose" of American Politics


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THE GOLDEN GOOSE OF AMERICAN POLITICS

[Slightly revised in Sep 97, based on feedback from Eric Smith--thanks!]

On the 10th of July 1979, the United States Senate voted 51 to 48 in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment to replace our present electoral college system with a direct popular vote electoral system. That was 15 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for the Senate's approval of a constitutional amendment, so the direct popular vote amendment was defeated once again. The "one man one vote" argument used to support the direct popular vote ideology is mathematically appealing, so like vampires, such proposals have a way of popping up every four years until they are once again killed by "the light of Day." (The editors of The Boston Globe made such a proposal again in their November 10, 1996 Sunday edition.) One of the reasons for this is that, for some strange reason (at least since 1979), our nation's leading news agencies been quite unwilling to allow their readers to learn about this repeatedly proven relationship between our electoral college system and the nature of politics in the United States. Anyhow, the following is an updated version of an article I wrote (and submitted to Reader's Digest) when this issue was being considered by our Congress in 1979.

THE OBJECTIVE IS TO WIN:

The rules of an electoral system are essentially the rules of a game which politicians must play in order to get elected. For those who want to win, any significant change in the way the game is scored will create a significant change in the way the game is played. In football, for example, if 7 points were awarded for a field goal and only 2 points awarded for a touchdown, the teams would rarely attempt to make touchdowns any more. For basically the same reason, if we had a direct popular vote electoral system, our major presidential candidates would rarely attempt to represent the interests of minority groups any more. Even worse, many of our minority groups would end up being portrayed as "enemies." Why?

Our electoral college system has been the primary reason for the development and perpetuation of a moderate two-party political system in the United States. Two key features of our electoral college system have (more than any other feature of our Constitution) been responsible for holding this nation together since 1789.

a. THROWING THE ELECTION INTO THE HOUSE: Under our present electoral college system, if no candidate can get a majority of the electoral college votes, then the vote goes to the House of Representatives, where each state is allowed one vote (presumably determined by a simple majority vote of the Congressmen from each state). Under such circumstances, the candidate sponsored by the political party which controls (or would control) the House of Representatives in that manner would naturally win the election. So the ONLY way a candidate from some other party can win the election is to get a majority of those electoral college votes. In order to do that, such a candidate has to appeal to a wide cross-section of American voters from states located in many different parts of the country, especially the larger states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and California. If a candidate loses five or more of these larger states, his chances of getting elected are practically nil. It just so happens that the people in each of these larger states tend to view things a bit differently than the people in the other larger states. The larger states represent at least four distinctly different parts of our country, and they cannot be ignored. This forces a presidential candidate to appeal to various groups of people who have a substantial diversity of interests (if he seriously hopes to win). Since he can't be sure that he will win the elections in at least five of those states, he must broaden his appeal even further to improve his chances of winning in the rest of the states.

Does the fact that the Republicans presently control the House mean that they can simply sit back and wait for the election to be thrown into the House? No! If they are up against a moderate candidate who has wide-spread appeal, then their candidate must seek to get a majority of those electoral college votes as well, and that in turn forces the party that controls the House to also sponsor a moderate candidate who has wide-spread appeal (if he seriously hopes to win).

If both of the two major-party candidates ever fail to adequately represent a significant number of American voters, then a third-party candidate often arises to fill the void (as George Wallace did in 1968, and Ross Perot did in 1992) Since the two major parties don't appreciate having a third party steal a substantial chunk of their electoral college votes, one party or the other will inevitably swing over to more adequately represent those third-party voters in the next presidential election (as the Republicans did after the 1968 and 1992 elections). So these factors strongly encourage both of the major political parties to choose candidates who appeal to people in many different parts of the country, who represent a diversity of interests, and who are moderate. Why moderate?

b. THE "WINNER TAKE ALL" RULE: It is no accident that our two major political parties have approximately equal strength in the larger states. The "winner-take-all" rule forces them to invest whatever it takes to achieve near equality in those states in order to have a reasonable chance of winning the next presidential election. This gives the minority groups in those states far more political power than they could ever have under a direct popular vote electoral system. It also virtually guarantees that any presidential candidate will lose the election if he (or she) resorts to class-hatred type arguments (i. e. "good guy" vs. "bad guy" arguments based upon racial, religious, sex or occupational distinctions). If any of the minority groups in those states become so offended by such a candidate that they vote in a block against him (or her), due to the near equality of the parties in those states, such block voting would almost certainly cause that candidate to lose the electoral votes for the entire state. This forces our presidential candidates to be very much concerned about minority interests, and it forces them to be moderate rather than extremist in order to win. For these reasons, the only candidates who are ever likely to win under the electoral college system are moderate candidates who appeal to people in many different parts of the country. These moderates are generally acceptable even to most of those who voted for the candidate that lost. This has been the "Golden Goose" that has ensured the political stability of the United States Government. Our electoral college system has not only ensured the generally moderate tone of politics in our national elections, it has also exerted a moderating effect on our state-level contests (note the difference in the harshness of our 1994 elections vs. our 1996 elections).

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN UNDER A DIRECT POPULAR VOTE SYSTEM?

Unlike the situation described above, it wouldn't take long for the candidates to realize that one of the most effective strategies for winning under a direct popular vote electoral system is to use class-hatred type arguments. They would find it to their advantage to define certain racial groups, religious groups, and/or farmers as "bad guys" and everybody else (in the US, mainly urban whites) as "good guys." Those defined as "good guys" would swell with pride and view such a candidate as a "charismatic leader." Those defined as "bad guys" would view the same candidate as "another Hitler." [Although Gernamy wasn't using a direct popular vote electoral system at the time, the system which they did have created a similar political fragmentation which made it easy for Adolf Hitler to use this strategy to take over Germany in 1933 with only "minority" rather than "majority" support.]

Under a direct popular vote electoral system, the presidential candidates would also have less of a need to "compromise ideals" in order to win. This nearly always leads to a fragmented multi-party political system dominated by extremist candidates, none of whom represent (or are even acceptable to) a majority of the voters. The direct popular vote has been tried many times already in Latin America and Africa, and within three or four election cycles, the military has often had to take over the government in order to restore order out of the hatreds and anarchy that were created by such an electoral system. This is not because the people in those countries are "inherently unstable"; it is because the direct popular vote electoral game that they were playing was inherently unstable. Direct popular vote electoral systems are games of anarchy with practically no restrictions, "no holds barred."

WHO WOULD LOSE IF WE ADOPTED A DIRECT POPULAR VOTE ELECTORAL SYSTEM?

a. Rural people and minority groups of all kinds would lose, because the presidential candidates would no longer need to worry about their interests. Many of them would also find themselves being POPULARLY portrayed as "bad guys" or "enemies." New Gingrich's attempt to use that tactic on "welfare moms" worked in some state-level elections in 1994, but it backfired (on his own credibility and approval rating) when he attempted to use that tactic nationally.

b. The Democratic and Republican Parties themselves would lose, because there would no longer be a need for presidential candidates to rely upon the support of a group of state party organizations. Instead, they would rely on television as their primary means for "getting to the people." Since there would no longer be a compelling need for the two major political parties to hold together, they would inevitably break up into splinter groups, each group supporting some extremist cause.

c. The larger states would lose, because they would no longer have the political clout that the "winner-take-all" rule gives them.

d. The smaller states would lose, because they are comprised mostly of rural people, definitely a minority in the US.

e. Those demagogues and their followers who base their campaigns on hatreds of one form or another would win for a while, but eventually everybody would lose. With the substantial diversity of interests which exists throughout our country, our government would eventually be replaced by a military dictatorship, as has often happened in other countries that have attempted to use a direct popular vote electoral system.

Our electoral college system is not perfect, but...

The following three arguments are normally used by direct popular vote advocates against our electoral college system:

1) The "one man one vote" argument that a vote cast for the president ought to count the same value, whether it is cast in North Dakota or new York.

2) The "American roulette" argument that under the electoral college system, the United States runs the risk every four years of electing a president who has finished second in the popular vote.

3) A direct popular vote would "increase voter turnout."

These arguments sound quite appealing until everything else is considered. A presidential election is a political game that is played once every four years. The election itself measures the status of public opinion on just one day during each four-year period. As anyone who has observed the results of our nation's public opinion polls knows, the status of public opinion in our country continually changes from day to day, from week to week. One the day after the election, the status of public opinion will be slightly different than it was on the day of the election. Two weeks later, the differences will be even greater. Those who advocate the direct popular vote assume that the status of public opinion on the day of the election is all-important. But how can such a variable phenomenon as public opinion be considered as all-important at just one point in time? Would the slightly increased overall accuracy of the "one man one vote" procedure really be significant?

The "American roulette" problem mentioned above can only occur if the popular vote for the major-party candidates is fairly close. Due to the previously mentioned restrictions which our electoral college system imposes on the choice of candidates and issues, the chances are that if a candidate scores slightly behind in the popular vote and yet gets elected president, there probably won't be much difference between the two candidates anyway.

Those who don't bother to vote are in effect saying that they don't care which candidate wins; either candidate will be acceptable to them. What's so bad about that?

SO WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT?

a. To have an electoral system like the direct popular vote that ensures a count of "one man one vote" regardless of the consequences for the supporters of the losing candidate?

b. Or to have an electoral system like our present electoral college system that ensures the election of a president who truly represents a vast majority of the American people--including most of those who voted for the losing candidate?


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It is really unfortunate that our news agencies have chosen to practice censorship against this Christian way of viewing our Electoral College System. Much of the political turmoil we have seen in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Columbia, and Haiti is being caused in part by the electoral systems they are using. If Bosnia's electoral system were designed so that their candidates would have to appeal to Serbs AND Muslims AND Croats in order to win, their government would soon become as stable as our own. But for some reason, our news agencies have been unwilling to allow their readers an opportunity to even consider such possibilities. Why? Good question! You should ask them why!


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Last modified on Friday, May 03, 2002