The Cultural Mythology of Election Cycles and How We, the People, Know So Very Little About American History

December 20, 2020

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Hillary Clinton received several million more votes than Donald Trump when all the ballots were counted in the 2016 election, yet she was not elected president. With Joe Biden’s win of several million votes more than Donald Trump in the 2020 election, along with securing enough electoral votes to win, the social media commentary concerning what the Electoral College could possibly do (but never has), and what the “Founding Fathers” intended for it to do (as some desperate cultural tale of last-minute bureaucratic heroism), has been an interesting (albeit naïve) distraction from the substantive pain of having a capricious, incompetent, and sectarian bigot in the White House for the past four years. The dialogue likewise reveals how very little Americans know about their own country’s history, both social and political. We have many cultural mythologies about the past meant to provide meanings that we consume in the present to both validate and soothe the consequences of having an average of only sixty percent of the voting public engaging their civic duty, particularly when they often do so with very little understanding of what that duty actually entails.

Let’s burst a bubble here: The “Founding Fathers” didn’t intend for the electoral system to correct the kind of “mistakes” experienced with the results of the 2016 presidential election wherein the Electors, freed from the chains of political tyranny, choose the candidate for which the majority of people cast their vote in order to avoid some sort of cultural Armageddon. This country’s founders meant for the state electors to correct “popular” mistakes by the unkempt and barely educated rural populace in voting for someone they didn’t actually approve to be president (and let’s be honest: like so many Americans today, the “Founding Fathers” also would not have approved of a woman winning that office). So, Donald Trump isn’t the mistake of the electorate: that vote went to Hillary. No, Donald Trump was the mistake of the Electors, and you can thank men wearing wigs and breeches two hundred forty-five years ago for enabling that tragedy.

The founding political elite created this process to ensure that the popular vote does not, in fact, elect the president of the United States of America. Granted, they lived in another time and place so remotely different from our own time as to be meaningless without the corresponding historical myths we create in order for those actions and experiences to be meaningful today. Hell, they even had their own mythologies for themselves in their own time, little stories they used to create political and social identities, like how they didn’t believe in political parties (yet, somehow ended up creating them anyway) and did believe that “gentlemen” shouldn’t campaign for public office but come to it sort of through a natural inclination to participate and lead (which also worked to validate the idea that any free citizen with voting rights couldn’t possibly know enough about politics and politicians to choose the president, as they wouldn’t and couldn’t possibly know him). But one thing is decidedly clear if you read the varied literature written by the people who created the United States of America: the “Founding Fathers” did not want the average person electing the president: in part (and perhaps most valorized) because they feared a tyrant coming to power by manipulating the average person; and in part because they feared the average person was a selfish and uninformed country bumpkin incapable of making appropriate decisions that considered the entire nation’s needs and welfare without screwing everything up.

I made up the last part, but it sounds reasonable, especially if you understand what Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers:

“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder… But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief.”

Hamilton believed that the educated and social elite possessed the intellectual complexity and thoughtfulness necessary for determining who could properly govern; the guileless majority, at best, could only be trusted to choose Electors from their local masses; this limitation was meant to safeguard against the “tumult and disorder” that would clearly be a consequence of permitting the average person to directly elect the president of the United States in late eighteenth century America. The framers of our Constitution were also a bit afraid of Democracy and the uncivilized animal it could become. Oh, and when Hamilton wrote “men,” he meant men.

You must also understand that the United States of America consisted of 13 states with approximately 2.5 million people stretched along the Atlantic coast of a big, wild country, each nascent state jealous of its own rights and powers, and suspicious of whatever the other states, and any type of central government, might want to wield over them. Sure, everyone learns “there were 13 original colonies” but do nearly as many people understand what that actually means? No, not really.

We play with these pretensions toward understanding history, and while some people dedicate their lives to researching and studying historical data and experiences in an effort to comprehend the lives and social realities of those who lived in past moments through a study of language and culture, archaeology and literature, architecture and cultural landscapes, it’s hard to take most folks seriously when they construct opinions using American cultural mythologies spoon fed to the masses who have rarely paid close attention or thought critically enough about contemporary social issues to truly even understand what is happening in our lived realities of today, let alone that of yesterday. If sent back in time, the average 21st century U.S. citizen would feel transported to a foreign land, where their pretense to knowledge, entitled arrogance, and enfranchised assumptions would be frankly useless.

As it often is today as well.

Let’s go over some basic civics: Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution reads, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

So, each state gets the same number of Electors as they have Congressional members, but Electors cannot be Congressional members or holding any other office, and these Electors will actually cast the votes for president. But wait, there’s more…

Southern states didn’t have as many “free people” as the Northern states for determining their number of electors. Southern delegates to the Philadelphia Convention thereby feared their states would be dominated by a new federal government: Northern states were smaller, but with denser populations, the Northern states basically had more free people, hence more voters. So they compromised: dividing power based on counting the “whole number of free persons” in the states as well as “three-fifths of all other persons.” Southern states were thereby given more power and seats in the House of Representatives than they had voting population and more “Electors” for representation and selecting the president.

Because of slavery.

And also because of the conflicting ideologies embedded within the fabric of our union’s original power constructions. If you truly grasp anything fundamental about America, then you understand that we have an Electoral College and Electors because we do not have a “Democracy,” but rather a Constitutional Republic. We are still a “democracy” (small “d”), which is a government by the people. We have representative federal governing bodies whose powers and existence are based on the laws of our Constitution rather than direct democracy, as the tension created between majority rule and individual rights meant direct democracy could be problematic. Is the process democratic in practice? Sure, one can argue that theoretically, in terms of contemporary equality of suffrage, there is a democratic process. There’s voting and majority wins the whole pot at the state level, but there’s no direct Democracy in our democratic process: we vote for the politicians who will “represent” us in Congress, and we vote for Electors who will choose the president, and an “elected” president who will appoint the candidates for our judicial system. All three branches of federal government are either construed to represent us or are chosen by our representatives: nowhere in there are we, the People, making any direct decisions about anything.

Should we decide change is necessary given the historical distance from the original founders lived realities and worries not representing the lived realities and worries of today’s historical moment, in order to change the Electoral College, we must first have a dialogue about whether or not undermining the basic premise of representational government is a can of worms we are willing to open. I believe that discussion is worth peeling back the tin top, particularly if it means revisiting this codified vestige of slavery and subjugation enabling the pointed disregard of the will of the people who actually bother to get out and vote for the candidates who will govern for us. It’s also an important discussion to have because this type of change actually requires collective national social action: we must either amend our Constitution, something we haven’t done since 1971 (well, 1992 if you include the 27th amendment that was somehow introduced for ratification in 1789, and was then actually ratified almost 203 years later; yet we couldn’t extend the ratification period for the ERA until three more states ratified that amendment – go figure); or we can change the manner in which the Electoral College works without abolishing it at all if the states themselves change their laws determining how they will apportion their Electoral votes.

You see, the states actually make the laws governing their election processes, including their electoral vote apportionment, so if enough states (those totaling at least 270 Electoral votes) form an interstate compact to ensure that their state laws permit their collective Electoral votes to represent the winner of the national popular vote instead of that of their individual states, then the states actually have the power to change the way in which Electoral votes elect a president of the United States of America.

Wouldn’t that be something? Deciding to give the state’s Electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in order to ensure we elect the candidate who actually receives the most votes without having to amend the Constitution and upset the apple cart of our Republic? It is a pretty selfless and cooperative thing to do though, and states are still a bit jealous of their power and suspicious of a central government’s intentions, so I’m unsure if we’re actually ready for the adult conversation that must precede such a development. And with America beginning to once again fully realize its asshole potential with the most recent election and the refusal of the current occupant of the White House to accept his loss, I’m not seeing a lot of selfless social behaviors working toward progressive social change in our near future…

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