The debate over the Electoral College comes up constantly during American elections, including the midterms last month, with many on the left calling for a popular vote instead. The process of electoral delegates voting for one particular party even if the popular vote of their state had only a slim majority makes the presidential elections seem generally unfair.
Under the electoral system, lower-population states have outsized influence, higher-population states have somewhat limited influence, and swing states enjoy all the attention. With a popular vote, so the thinking goes, each citizen would have a voice, and the president and his administration would consequently have more legitimacy and better serve the American population.
Conservatives argue that popular elections would lead to politicians giving overriding preference to people in large population centers (i.e., cities) and ignore sparsely populated rural areas. This would result in a “tyranny of the majority” where urban majorities behind the winning party would be overrepresented and rural minorities would be even more underrepresented.
To this, the left simply responds, “So what?” Why should anyone care about what happens to hillbillies withering away in ghost towns? Why should ignorant farmers and ranchers living on big, unpopulated fields have more of a voice than educated professionals living in uptown? Cities are the centers of commerce, industry, education, and culture; they clearly put more in the system than small towns.
It should also be noted that people who support popular elections will cite European countries, like France and other European Union member states, as a reason to give up the Electoral College. If sophisticated Europeans have accepted direct democracy, they reason, Americans seem positively provincial to continue on their present course.
In truth, the bias against rural communities and for European cosmopolitanism often fuels these arguments for the popular vote more than anything substantial. Still, even if the sentiment behind the argument assumes the worst of people in the countryside and the best of people in old cities of Europe, the logic behind it deserves a response. Why should this group receive these protections?
A Popular Vote Feeds into Progressivism
There are two things to consider for this question: (1) what a popular vote implicitly suggests about the role of government, and (2) how a government that exclusively represents urban voters would act.
First, to understand what the argument for a popular vote says about the role of government, one should look at the premises: politician overserve small states, and underserve large ones. These premises envision government as a great provider and the states as needy dependents; they do not present government as the representation of so many different constituents. The motivation behind supporting a popular vote is to make sure the government gives more fairly, not that the government truly speaks for everyone impartially.
Constitutionally speaking, the government should not favor any state or any individual. As defined by John Locke, it does not give out favors, but secures freedoms of life, liberty, and property. People are protected by the government to provide for themselves and prosper. The government keeps the peace, while the people keep their property, and the idea of redistributing property to meet the demands of a favored constituency simply does not exist.
Because liberals have come to see government as a provider, and they shift ever leftward into socialist utopianism, they see elections as opportunities for enrichment. If they really saw government as a representative body of officials intended to secure rights, national elections really wouldn’t make a difference whether they were based on popular vote or something else. A popular vote is thus based on a distorted expectation about government and rewards the wrong kind of leaders. Demagogues who promise to give away more social benefits quickly overcome the statesmen who promise to uphold their duties so people can benefit themselves.
This doesn’t mean that the Electoral College eliminates the possibilities of urban demagogues, but it does discourage it. A politician who has to meet the needs of all kinds of voters, instead of just a few, will not easily be able to make so many promises, nor be able to vilify or ignore unpopular minorities.
Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote, lost the 2016 presidential election because she promised more entitlements and vilified conservatives (“deplorables”). Trump, who won the electoral vote, won because he promised to give America back to the people. He vilified the elite (“the swamp”) and put himself with working Americans of all stripes.
The style of these two campaigns nicely illustrate difference between a popular vote and the Electoral College. It is reasonable to assume that popular voting will produce more out-of-touch progressives like Clinton, while the Electoral College will produce more inclusive conservatives like Trump.
A Nation Ruled by Cities
The other thing to consider is how a government would act if it only cared about urban constituencies. Sure, it would hurt smaller states through neglect and even mild oppression. Who better to blame for problems or steal from than people whose vote doesn’t matter? But would it benefit those who live in the city?
To answer this requires reflecting on the nature of a city and its residents. For all the virtues that come of its size and population, the city at its core is the embodiment of dependence and collectivism. The city-dweller depends on many people: his landlord, his employer, the mass transit system, a well-trained police force, on decent infrastructure, and the many businesses that provide necessities and luxuries.
Collectives are also inherent to the city. Cities are the places of unions, corporations, factories, high-density apartments, subways, government centers, large universities, and medical complexes. People lose themselves in various groups and organizations and depend on them to advocate on their behalf.
Because of this, people of the city struggle to think and act for themselves. Their lifestyle has put them in the habit of outsourcing everything. They see big government as one more big organization to help them along, and they will continually vote for some of the worst political candidates if it means they might get something.
Fortunately, there are exceptions to this. Living in a city doesn’t guarantee that one vote for Democrat and adopt liberal positions; Republicans could never win nationwide elections on rural voters alone. Nor does living outside the city mean that one will do the opposite; as the midterms last month had shown, many voters in the suburbs felt more comfortable voting more Democrats into the House. Still, these exceptions mainly prove the rule and reveal a suggestive pattern: conservatives in cities will often find ways to mitigate the dense collective life of the city, and liberals in the suburbs and beyond will find ways mimic the dense collective life of the city.
This urban tendency to give up freedom and depend on others creates an elite class of people who promise to solve everyone’s problems. They are the business leaders, intellectual leaders, political leaders, and social leaders who assume authority and exploit the needy masses. After so many generations, this elite strengthens its hold and enjoys little accountability to constituents who have learned to become helpless.
With this in mind, one can finally imagine what a national government devoted to serving the needs of the urban population looks like. It would almost certainly do away with the Constitution and replace it with something that allows government to do more. Because the nation’s leaders are popularly elected, they will be wasteful and incompetent; because they rule by majority and not by principle, they will be authoritarian and arbitrary in their enforcement of laws. Meanwhile, the small towns outside the cities will shrink and disappear as their inhabitants move to cities where there is a future.
A real example of such a place is present-day France. It is a popularly elected welfare state that has picked winners and losers. The winners are part of the elite and their constituents in the cities; the losers are the inhabitants of “La France profonde” and the working class who are punished with little actual freedom and high taxes. This dynamic has stifled growth—except in immigrants looking for entitlements—and led to widespread desperation all over the country. Democracy is failing, and something will have to give: either the government will let the country burn, or the crowds will settle for modern serfdom.
The Romantics were onto something in their belief that the city corrupts. Perhaps the Founding Fathers thought of this and created an election process that could contain the corruption of cities. While Americans might not be achieving the ideal of educated farmers and small towns that Thomas Jefferson envisioned, it still has not quite fallen to the tyranny of the urban majority like France. For this, American should be grateful and learn from the mistakes of their brother and sisters in the Old World.