With the election of Donald John Trump to the office of the President of the United States, liberals are rightly concerned about the future of the Republic. Trump’s inflammatory campaign largely played on the basest aspects of human nature: misogyny, racism, jingoism, xenophobia, islamophobia. Many of his policies and promises are not very different than any Republican who ran in the primary leading up to the general election. But the tone and rhetoric Trump used throughout his campaign strayed into demagoguery and flirted with fascism.
For this reason among others, a movement has arisen among liberals to convince members of the Electoral College pledged to vote for Donald Trump to become “faithless electors,” to cast their vote for someone else or to abstain, and thus to block his victory. The argument goes that this is exactly what the Electoral College was designed for, to block the popular will of the people, whipped into a democratic fervor, from casting a figure into the executive branch who is a threat to the stability and functioning of the federal government. We are told that Electoral College voters should throw themselves between the people of the United States and fascism.
The problem I see with this is that, as I understand it, the Electoral College played the role people say it was designed to play—where electors weighed their conscience against the will of the people—for less than a decade after it was established. This is a historical fact. For practically the entire history of the republic, Electoral College voters have cast their vote based on the popular vote total in their state. The fact the term “faithless elector” even exists tells us how rare it is for someone to break their pledge. For 37 members of the Electoral College to subvert the will of the people they represent would not only be a coup, it would break with two centuries of tradition.
This is important. A nation is not merely made up of enumerated laws and established structures, it is also made up of mores and folkways, culture and tradition, silent and spoken agreements. In fact, a nation like the United Kingdom has no constitution. Their entire system of government is one big tacit agreement. It is a tradition of government rather than a system of government. The United States does have a constitution of course, but it too consists of traditions of governance, one of which is the functioning of the Electoral College. Liberals can talk until they're blue in the face about what the Electoral College was "designed" to do. But that does not describe what it is nor what it has been.
Okay, but if Donald Trump is the threat to the nation liberals claim, perhaps this break with tradition is warranted. Except arguing for the Electoral College to function in this way is equally threatening. This change would open up an entirely new and untested arena of American political gamesmanship. We already have practically unending Presidential campaigns. Are we willing to extend the campaign beyond the point where the people have cast their votes? Imagine the Electoral College opened up to lobbying, to political favors, to private and corporate donations. Does no one see how ripe for corruption an Electoral College would be that is not restrained either by law or the bounds of tradition? Liberals, Democrats, should be the first to see the potential subversion of democracy this represents.
A change in the way members of the Electoral College cast their vote is necessary. Votes should be tied to the democratic will of the entire nation, not based on the will of the people in each state. But then let us build the power and make the argument toward that change, not subvert our institutions for short-term political gain and open them up to the possibility of tremendous abuse in the future.