For generations, America considered itself a democratic beacon, a shining exemplar of responsible self-governance. Now, it seems we have given up on the very idea of a one-person, one-vote democratic republic in which ordinary citizens’ voices count equally. Part of the blame lies with the Founders. But much of it lies with us, America’s citizens, for supinely accepting a system that disenfranchises the majority, diminishes America’s welfare, silences outsiders and marginalizes ethnic and racial minorities.
In 2016, for the second time in 16 years, the United States elected a president who lost the popular vote. That also happened in 2000, when the Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of halting Florida’s recount, effectively awarding the presidency to George W. Bush. Before that, you had to go back to 1888 and Benjamin Harrison to find a candidate who won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. There was also the infinitely contentious election of 1876. Since the Electoral College couldn’t decide on a winner, a congressionally appointed commission gave the nod to Republican Rutherford Hayes, but only after both parties agreed to end Reconstruction and effectively put Black Americans back in chains. The notorious Compromise of 1877 ended any chance of racial equality in America for nearly a century.
There was also the election of 1824, in which Andrew Jackson got more votes than John Quincy Adams; but the popular vote was meaningless back then. Only 18 states even held a vote; six left the appointment of electors to state legislatures. Because electors couldn’t agree on a winner, the House had to choose among the top three candidates. The fourth most popular was Henry Clay, speaker of the House, who threw his support behind Adams and ended up as secretary of state. That maneuver came to be known as the “corrupt bargain,” and that election brought the winner-take-all system to the Electoral College.
Until this century, the Electoral College has not much mattered. In almost every case it simply affirmed the popular vote. We sometimes overlook the fact that the Founders didn’t intend to empower ordinary citizens to choose a president; they created the body precisely because they didn’t trust them with such a task. Electors, and Congress if necessary, were assumed to be capable of making wiser decisions. The Founders also considered letting governors or state legislators or a committee of congressmen chosen by lot pick the president. After delegates to the Constitutional Convention deadlocked on the issue, the matter fell to the Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters.
The system they invented almost immediately imploded. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who belonged to the same party, received the same number of electoral votes. The decision went to the House, which, on the 36th ballot, picked Jefferson. Burr became vice president. The fix was the 12th Amendment, which mandated separate votes in the College for president and vice president but did not deal with the underlying faulty assumption: that a group of “virtuous gentlemen,” in the words of historian Andrew Shankman, would rise to the task of selecting the best possible president. Instead, electors turned out to be party hacks, sworn to back whomever the system coughs up. And because the vast majority are chosen by a winner-take-all system, they can seriously distort the popular will, especially when it comes to states polarized along racial lines — which, unfortunately, happens to be much of America.
In the 2010 Census, 106 counties were majority Black; 105 of those were in the South (the exception being the county that includes St. Louis). Blacks, who don’t constitute a majority in any of those states, are routinely outvoted by whites. The history of racialized voting goes back to the post-Civil War era, when the 15th Amendment theoretically gave Blacks the vote — which white Southerners immediately subverted. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to end voter suppression and racial intimidation but was eviscerated by the Supreme Court (Shelby County v. Holder) in 2013.
A study by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that when candidates are of different races, voters tend to go with their own kind. Barack Obama received only 10 percent of the white vote in Alabama in 2008, about half of what John Kerry, a white Democrat, received four years earlier. Much the same was true across the South. Even nationally, the study found, “Whites were the only racial group that did not cast a majority of their votes for President Obama.” In the Yale Law Journal, Matthew Hoffman observed that African-American voters in the South “have little or no hope of choosing even a single member of the Electoral College.”
Outside the South, blacks live disproportionately in big cities, notably New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Houston. In such places, Black votes can count, but because they are concentrated in particular states (60 percent of Blacks live in 10 states), the impact of those votes is diminished in the Electoral College.
Latinos are similarly concentrated in a few states. They make up nearly half the population of New Mexico, and close to 40 percent of California. Roughly 55 percent of America’s Latinos reside in just three states: California, Texas and Florida.
President Trump has made headlines by attacking Democratic states and cities (including the District of Columbia, Baltimore and Chicago) as teeming with rioters, criminals, illegal immigrants and anarchists. What Trump does not say out loud is that part of the reason he dislikes blue states and blue cities is that they (comprising largely minorities and progressive whites) don’t like him or his policies, which most whites seem fine with.
America was polarized along racial lines long before Trump came on the scene, a situation that Richard Nixon exploited in his quest for the White House. Trump has just made racist appeals more blatant and, some fear, more reckless.
According to Gallup, Trump’s approval among whites has rarely dropped below 50 percent. Among white men, it has hovered between 54 and 63 percent. Among white males without a college degree, it has ranged from 60 to 71 percent. In contrast, his highest support level among Black men was 22 percent, 13 percent among Black women. His support among nonwhites collectively has never been higher than the low 30s, and it typically has been in the 20s or lower.
As Trump stokes white resentment, he rejects the possibility that “structural racism mandates any sense of historical obligation,” observed Casey Ryan Kelly of the University of Nebraska. That message of white grievance and white innocence is warmly received in some quarters of a country witnessing the “intensification of white racial anxieties in anticipation of an impending demographic shift toward a nonwhite majority,” believes Kelly. Consequently, Trump keeps the loyalty of his base irrespective of his performance.
That brings us back to the Electoral College.
Recently I received a mass email warning, “Trump could lose the popular vote by 8 MILLION votes in 2020 and still ride the Electoral College to reelection.”
That certainly is possible. In 2016, Trump lost California by nearly 4.3 million votes and New York by more than 1.7 million. Put another way, some 6 million Democratic voters could have stayed home in those states and the Electoral College count would have been unchanged. As the minority population continues to grow (assuming the Republican Party remains the party of whiteness), so does the possibility of a growing mismatch between the popular vote and the outcome in the Electoral College. So, yes, Trump could lose states with large Black and brown populations by untold millions, but as long as he finds favor in battleground and whiter states, he could still be on a golden path back to the White House.
The problem, as noted, is not just the Electoral College, but the winner-take-all scheme. So why not follow the lead of Maine and Nebraska and choose electors by congressional district, which would require no constitutional amendment? Instead of battling over a handful of blue and red states, presidential contenders would battle over 435 districts, which would “force candidates to contest a larger and more geographically diverse percentage of the population than the current system,” argues professor Robert Turner of Skidmore College.
But why not just let the American people choose our president directly, instead of relying on some clumsy work-around to the Constitution?
The unfortunate and obvious answer is that many of us believe America is incapable of doing any better. But to accept that view is to accept the idea that polarization and racial antagonisms will remain a fundamental feature of our presidential elections — at least as long as Republicanism is largely defined by whiteness. To accept that is to accept the death of the American dream — a tragedy that would haunt us long after Trump is gone.
Ellis Cose is the author of numerous books, including “The Rage of a Privileged Class.” This column was adapted from “The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America,” to be published Tuesday by Amistad. Copyright © 2020 HarperCollins.
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