Elizabeth Warren thinks getting rid of the electoral college would be an easy win for the Democrats. I wouldn't be so sure
Senator Elizabeth Warren announced her desire to abolish the electoral college on Monday night. “Every vote matters,” she said to a crowd at Jackson State University, “and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the electoral college.” Her call was endorsed the following day by Beto O’Rourke.
The Electoral College has been on thin ice for decades, with a majority of Americans favoring a constitutional amendment to install popular voting. That is, until the 2016 election, when, according to Gallup, Republican enthusiasm for the Electoral College rose dramatically.
Warren argued on Monday that the current system encourages presidential candidates to focus on a handful of “battleground states” to the exclusion of others, such as Mississippi. This imbues individual voters in those states with disproportionate power, so the argument goes. But Warren’s reasoning is almost certainly disingenuous.
Her enthusiasm for abolishing the electoral college is born of a confidence that demography is destiny: as the non-white population of the US grows, the power of the Democratic Party will grow with it. The idea that “national voting” would result in politicians like Warren investing more time in places like Mississippi, rather than freeing them to pour their energy into densely populated coastal cities, is laughable.
This is about power, not enfranchisement. Persuading the recalcitrant denizens of red states to sign on to the progressive project is tough work. The broad distribution of electoral control among the many states is the last thing standing between progressives and cultural and political hegemony.
This is a feature and not a bug of the electoral college. As James Madison explains in Federalist No. 10, the distribution of power throughout an “extensive republic” reduces the possibility of “factions” gaining control and damaging the common weal.
“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
The progressive capture of the Democratic Party represents a faction in a way roughly symmetric to Trump’s populist capture of the GOP. In both cases, the structure of party politics threatens to enable a minority to operate as a majority.
What, to Madison, might characterize a pernicious faction? “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project…” One wonders whether Madison, in a fit of clairvoyance, caught a glimpse of modern monetary theory, student loan forgiveness, marginal taxation, reparations, and Medicare for All. Is it any wonder that Warren is allergic to federalism?
Some have argued that too many counter-majoritarian outcomes will eventually sound a death knell for the Electoral College. But this would require a sufficient number of states to willingly divest themselves of power. This seems unlikely during a time of hyper-polarization.
Progressives’ desire to abolish the electoral college reflects a broader decline in how people value individual states. Excepting Texans, and maybe Californians, one is unlikely to identify strongly with one’s home state. When was the last time anyone bragged about being from Florida?
The average American moves at least 11 times in their lifetime, often from state to state. While this is less than in previous decades, the US is still one of the most mobile countries in the world. Along with high mobility, the fact that fewer and fewer Americans are able to own their own homes or purchase land promotes weaker attachment to place and community.
This devaluing of the local is compounded by the flattening effect of social media. The interconnectedness of our world tends to mute or erase distinctions of time and geography, a process media scholars call “context collapse.” When in the American imagination, every place bleeds into every other place, is it any wonder that we despise or ignore political diversity?
Context collapse is exacerbated by a news establishment that encourages an exaggerated focus on national issues and Washington palace intrigue — at the expense of state and local concerns. I often ask my students, in their first and second year of university, whether they can name any officials from their hometown — members of the city council, the school superintendent, the mayor, or even their state or federal representatives. In seven years of teaching, I’ve seen only a handful of students able to do so.
This is troubling. As individuals, we have the most influence over what happens locally. Most of us will never exercise more political autonomy than by participating on a school board or in a city council meeting.
The local also has the most immediate impact on our lives. The president’s tweets seem awfully grave — right up to the moment your city’s sanitation workers go on strike.
Justin Lee is a freelance journalist and literary editor at ARC Digital