Note: This is the first in a series of essays examining the prospects for electing a republican president in 2016 and ultimately reining in the modern imperial presidency through the lens of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist essays on the executive branch.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician making Iowa or New Hampshire his second home must be in want of the presidency. We’ve got more than a few of those these days and can expect the 2016 presidential campaign to begin in earnest minutes after the mid-term elections conclude.
Expect the Big Announcement from Hillary some time “around” the end of the year we’re told–followed by the little announcements by Democratic Party minnows also wishing to swim in the presidential lake. Throw a dozen or more elephants in the room and we’ll have plenty to write and talk about as the President and Mrs. Obama prepare to settle into a compound in Hawaii to reflect on his presidency and the trials of directing the general will in a regrettably only semi-audacious political age.
Back among and within the contiguous American body politic, what will easily get lost in all the coming discussions of policies and personalities, gurus and gaffes is the critical role the presidential election process itself plays in determining the outcome of the election–and the way our current process and its trajectory make the recovery of our republic more difficult.
The constitutional framework for choosing the president is skeletal. Each state is given the freedom to choose how it will award its given number of electoral college votes (equal to the number of members it has in Congress, thus merging the Senate’s equal and the House’s proportional principles of justice). Constitutionally, there is nothing that requires a single popular vote be cast in determining the presidency, although, as Federalist 68 indicates, some sort of role for the people was assumed from the start.
What parameters there were, Hamilton explains in Federalist 68, were designed to produce a certain sort of president:
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, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.
This, Hamilton concluded, was “no inconsiderable recommendation of the constitution,” given the critical role “the executive in every government must necessarily have in its good or ill administration.” The president, if all went according to plan, would be republican, then, in at least two senses: (1) as a judicious representative of the people, not their impassioned and impassioning mouthpiece, and (2) as their servant in carrying out the specific task assigned to the executive branch: the just and responsible administration of the laws.
How could Hamilton confidently assert that the electoral college system would produce such a republican executive? As a negative constraint, a state-centered mode of choosing electors combined with the necessity of building a winning coalition state by state would undermine the efforts of demagogues and local rabble rousers to dangerously and divisively impassion the American people. As a positive measure, the system would impress upon the new president the national character of his constituency and urge upon him a public service equally broad, within the bounds of the Constitution’s clearly-defined lines of executive responsibility, enforced by regular elections and the system of checks and balances.
The system, in essence, was designed to produce presidents with the national character and executive disposition already possessed by the man all knew would be (and wished to be) the first president, George Washington. Washington modelled his public service on the Roman republic’s farmer-statesman Cincinnatus and was chosen first president of the Society of the Cincinnati, a veterans group whose motto was Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam (“He relinquished everything to save the Republic”).
The Obama presidency has accelerated and accentuated long-standing trends that threaten to make the office everything the founders hoped to avoid. The president as passionate orator we know. The president as pen- and phone-wielding policymaker we recognize. But the president as sober, competent executor of the laws, “relinquisher of everything to save the public”? Where’d that guy go?
To be fair, he’s been slinking off the national stage for a while. Almost as soon as the founding generation had passed from the scene, a new model for the presidency arose, described in the rhetoric and embodied in the person of Andrew Jackson.
In his First Annual Message to Congress (1829), President Jackson argued that the Constitution’s presidential election system was fundamentally flawed:
To the people belongs the right of electing their Chief Magistrate; it was never designed that their choice should in any case be defeated, either by the intervention of electoral colleges or by the agency confided, under certain contingencies, to the House of Representatives.
As a result, he proposed “such an amendment of the Constitution as may remove all intermediate agency in the election of the President and Vice-President” and vindicate “the first principle of our system–that the majority is to govern….”
Jackson being Jackson there is good reason to suspect that the driving force behind the proposal was as much bitterness as ideology — Jackson having lost the 1824 presidential election in the House to John Quincy Adams despite having more popular and electoral college votes than his rival (though not a majority of either). A passionate man leading a passionate movement (read any account of the 1828 presidential election) proposes a dramatic change to the Constitution that will free an impassioned people from the constraints of the electoral college: not exactly what the founders had in mind. Jackson’s proposal, of course, failed, but the idea–and presumably the understanding of American government beneath it–has had a remarkably robust following ever since.
Since it began polling on the question in 1944, Gallup has consistently found that a substantial majority of Americans favor abolishing the electoral college and replacing it with a system guaranteed, one way or another, to award the presidency to the popular vote winner. In recent polling, shortly after the 2012 presidential election, 61% of Republicans, 63% of Independents, and 66% of Democrats supported electing the president based on the national popular vote alone.
That day may be closer than you think. Although amending the Constitution remains a daunting task (requiring, today, that 38 states approve any change), the National Popular Vote movement has struck upon a formula that will, as it were, use the electoral college system to abolish the electoral college.
At present, 10 states (plus Washington, D.C.), with a total of 165 electoral college votes, have agreed to award their state’s presidential electors on the basis of the national popular vote. When that group is large enough to determine the election–that is, when it includes enough states to control 270 electoral college votes–the mutual pledge will be triggered and the electoral college, for all intents and purposes, will be gone. The assent of a group of nine additional states similar in profile to those who are already on board (relatively large and blue or purple in their politics) would do the trick. A simple majority in nineteen states, in other words, could settle the matter among themselves, bringing about what would be the final stage of the democratization of the presidency and, in all likelihood, the permanent elevation of the Obama-like orator policymaker over the sober executor.
Perhaps as striking as our long-standing, bipartisan opposition to the electoral college is the breadth of the consensus in favor of it at the time of the American founding. Alexander Hamilton notes rather mordantly at the beginning of Federalist 68 that “[t]he mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents.” As a result, Hamilton makes short work of his defense of the institution. Nevertheless, his case for the electoral college, paired with Jackson’s case on the other side above, shows just what is at stake in the debate over choosing our president: the very definition of our regime itself–republic or democracy?
If “the first principle of our system” is “that the majority should govern,” a president chosen by a national popular vote with a mandate to impose his will on any recalcitrants in Congress is the natural result. As Jackson argued, no other federal officeholder could claim to be the “direct representative of [all] the American people”–or at least most of them. But would the “divine right of the majority” give us any more justice than the “divine right of kings”? As Jefferson put it, “an elective despotism is not the government we fought for.”
On the other hand, if the first principle of our system, as understood in our founding documents, is that the natural rights of all should be preserved, we very much need a president who will faithfully execute the laws and “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution”–and an election process that, as Hamilton put it, “affords a moral certainty, that the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Applying the brakes to the National Popular Vote movement would be a start, but, as we’ll argue in subsequent essays, there’s rather more practical work to be done.
David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.