Over the past week, this writer has focused on the Electoral College and has spent hours doing calculations. After reviewing the options, it seems that the current system worked pretty well over most of our history. Out of the first 50 presidential elections, only three candidates won the popular vote and lost in the Electoral College. That’s six percent. However, in the past five elections, two have gone that way. That’s 40%. That’s bad. It’s also bad that 100% of the losing popular candidates have been Democrats, including a sitting president, Grover Cleveland.
The problem stems from the Founding. Individual states had their own governments. In order to get them to join the Union, they had to feel that they would have a voice in the new Federal Government. The compromise was to give every State two Senators—and since the Electoral College was based on the number of Senators and Representatives, the small States received more voice, per capita, than the large states. That gives us the current situation in which States with fewer than a million people have as much say as those with tens of millions. The City of Washington, DC, has as much a say as the entire State of Texas in the Electoral College.
For most of our history, it was an anomaly for the popular choice to lose. Lately, it has happened almost half of the time. Why is that? Certainly, technology has helped candidates to determine where they need to focus. And bad decisions can be a fatal blow. In 2016, Hillary Clinton thought the Obama coalition would hold for her, so she took her “Blue Wall” for granted, and spent a lot of time in places like Texas and Utah, hoping to get a historical landslide. In doing so, she totally neglected Michigan and Wisconsin—which ended up determining the Electoral victor.
But that is just about strategy. If both sides had equal strategic competence, the party with more voters should win, and Democrats have had a plurality of registered voters since FDR. But people don’t always vote the party line.
The Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson was originally the liberal party, with the Federalist as the conservatives. Jefferson’s party elected seven presidents in a row. Then the Whig Party won four out of five elections but ran out of steam. Jefferson’s party was renamed the Democratic Party with the election of Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee, in 1828. In 1854, the new “Republican” Party supplanted the failing Whig Party, and elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860, with a liberal goal of ending slavery. After the Civil War, Republicans elected the next four president—and 11 of the next 13. As a reaction, the South became solidly Democratic.—and conservative.
The Great Depression changed that. Having ruled for so many years, Republicans got the blame for the Depression, and FDR was seen, by even many Republicans, as the savior of the nation. That led to Democratic hegemony from 1932 until 1968 (except for the election of war hero Dwight Eisenhower). Even today, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Eisenhower, in the Lincoln tradition, sent national troops to desegregate schools. But instead of backing off the issue of desegregation when they were elected, JFK and the Democrats pushed for more racial equality. That led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When he signed it, Lyndon Johnson said that he was handing over the Solid South to the Republicans for generations—and he was right. The Democratic Party flipped to become the liberal party, starting in 1960, with Republicans becoming the conservative party of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. That was the last major realignment. This is all a little superficial, of course, but how many hours do you have to read this?
We went through this to point out that the parties realigned, with Democrats being primarily the liberal party, from the beginning to the Civil War. Republicans were the more liberal party from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when they flipped after Eisenhower, to become the conservative party.
Of course, through these years, there were liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans, as well as conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats. It was not odd to have a liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller and conservative Democratic George Wallace, even up to 1970. In those days, the South was still solidly Democratic, while California and the Northeast were reliably Republican. There were no litmus tests.
That has changed. George Washington warned against political parties since they are gangs of people fighting against each other for power and influence. Washington lost that battle. We have had party fighting since the second president. But things were never as crystallized as they are now. Let’s look at the 2016 party platforms.
In almost every possible issue, each party has staked out an opposing position.
• Republicans focus on right-to-life
• Democrats focus on women’s rights
• Republicans call for mandatory prison time
• Democrats support alternatives to prison
• Republicans call for homeschooling and private schools
• Democrats call for more support for public education
• Republicans call for energy production and only cost-effective rules
• Democrats focus on clean energy and protection for public lands
• Republicans promote individual gun rights
• Democrats call for stricter background checks
• Republicans promote American Exceptionalism and more military spending
• Democrats emphasize that war should only be used as a last resort
• Republicans call for repeal of Obamacare, leaving regulation to the States
• Democrats consider health care a right and will work for a public option
• Republicans warn of terrorism, drug cartels, and criminal gangs
• Democrats defend the DREAM Act and paths to citizenship
• Republicans support Right-to-Work and say minimum wage is a State issue
• Democrats call for $15/hr minimum wage and making union membership easier
• Republicans call for the Supreme Court to overturn its gay marriage ruling
• Democrats support the Court ruling and call to defend LGBT rights
• Republicans promote taxation only as a tool for economic growth
• Democrats call for a “multi-millionaire surtax” to benefit the middle class
• Republicans call for trade agreements favorable to American business
• Democrats call for agreements that do not undercut American workers
As you can see, the parties are diametrically opposed on almost every conceivable issue. That is the real problem with our elections. Half of us think one way, the other half think exactly the other way. Yet, when we have elections, presidents who barely win, or even lose the popular vote, are free to make dramatic, radical change that half the country does not want.
Is there a way to say that presidents cannot make drastic changes unless they have a real mandate from a strong election win? Shouldn’t those who barely win rule from the center—to “be president of all the people”?