Donald Trump dominated the Electoral College, but solidly lost the popular vote. Predictably, the typical denunciations of the Constitution’s system of presidential selection have begun to appear. John Nichols’ repudiation in The Nation, for example, accuses the Electoral College of desecrating democracy by putting into office a man who won less than a plurality of the popular vote.
Do conservatives need to be ashamed of winning elections by means of the Electoral College that they would not win in a more directly democratic contest? No.
The only complaint of any significance to be leveled against the Constitution’s electoral system is that it sometimes thwarts majority rule. But simple majority rule is neither a principle of the American Founding nor is it a principle of moral right. Conservatives should be proud of using the legal rules, whatever they may be, to advance what is morally good.
‘The Federalist’ and Majority Rule
In “Federalist 68,” Alexander Hamilton explains the rationale behind the Electoral College. The Constitutional Convention balanced five important objectives in creating the system, he affirms. First, “It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice.” Majority rule was indeed an important goal, for the Founders, but it was not the only goal. It was one among many. Thus, the people have a say in the constitutional system, but their voice is not absolute.
Hamilton’s second reason for the Electoral College is that the actual choice should be made by those best qualified to choose a president of virtue and ability (remember that electors originally had much more discretion in whom they vote for). Third, the system was designed to prevent civil disorder by avoiding direct election of the president and spreading electors’ votes around the nation. Fourth, it prevents bribery of the electors by avoiding pre-existing bodies that could be corrupted over time. Finally, it promotes executive independence by not placing the president’s election in the hands of, for example, the state legislatures or the House of Representatives.
The purpose of this system was not to promote simple majority rule, but good government. Hamilton argues that the Electoral College “affords a moral certainty, 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.” Although he is unwilling to say that republican government is unimportant, he does maintain that the most important question is ultimately not majority rule. Instead, “the true test of a good government is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.” He echoes this theme two papers later when he argues in No. 70 that majority rule is important, but that if the choice is between majority rule and good government, the latter must be chosen.
This preference for the right over the popular is found throughout the “Federalist.” In No. 63, for example, James Madison argues that representatives are sometimes morally required to override their constituents’ desires. When the people go astray, representatives must “suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind.”
Hamilton is nearly as direct in No. 71, where he states that when “the interests of the people [understood holistically to include morality] are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to…withstand the temporary delusion.” Indeed, the entire constitutional system is elaborately designed to promote good government and prevent majority tyranny.
The principles of the American Founding, then, offer no support for the divinization of absolute, simple, majority rule. Good governance ought to prevail. To the degree that this is compatible with popular government, popular government ought to exist. But when the two conflict, the right, not the popular, must prevail.
Moral Right and Majority Rule
The case from moral right is even more straightforward. By definition, there is no right to do what is wrong. What is wrong is what one morally must not do. The fact that more people may want to do what is wrong than what is right changes nothing. Indeed, the idea that democracy should prevail over the moral law is not even coherent. For those who understand that there is such an objective moral law, the ultimate allegiance must be to what is right, not to what is popular.
An historical illustration should make this blindingly obvious. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas toured the state of Illinois holding a series of debates on the question of slavery. Douglas did not argue that slavery was right. He argued in favor of majority rule. If the people of a state or territory wanted to make slavery legal, then they should be allowed to do so, he said: “there is no principle on earth more sacred to all the friends of freedom than that which says that no institution, no law, no constitution, should be forced on an unwilling people contrary to their wishes.” Slavery should not be banned if the majority objected.
Lincoln’s response drove to the heart of the issue: No majority can change what is wrong into what is right. Slavery was wrong, so even a majority had no right to institute it. “[Douglas] contends that whatever community wants slaves has a right to have them. So they have if it is not a wrong. But if it is a wrong, he cannot say people have a right to do wrong” (emphasis added).
Slavery was not wrong because most Americans supported abolition. It was wrong because it violated the objective moral law. And because it was wrong, the majority had an obligation to end it. The majority had no right to do as it pleased, if what it pleased was evil.
Today’s political struggles are a battle between right and wrong just as Lincoln’s were. One party wishes to allow the legal killing of children, to violate freedom of speech and religion, and to impose tyrannical government in every area of citizens’ lives. The other wishes to prevent these things. This is not to argue that either the Republican Party or Trump are morally perfect. As with any human being or institution, this is far from reality. But that is beside the point. That the battle is not one of perfection versus pure evil does not make it any less a battle of right versus wrong.
For these reason, conservatives should not apologize for the election of their candidate in defiance of the popular vote. That the Electoral College does not operate as originally intended is irrelevant. If it is better for the country to have Trump rather than Hillary Clinton as president, then the College has achieved the Founders’ goal of promoting good governance. In doing so, it has also promoted the result that is morally right.
Don’t apologize for the Electoral College. Be thankful for it.