By Harold A. Gould*
There have been two presidential elections in recent years in which the candidate who won the popular vote was not awarded the presidency because they failed to also obtain a majority of the so-called electoral college vote. In all of the other advanced democracies in the world this could not happen. Whomever gets the most votes plain and simply wins the election and assumes office as their country’s constitutionally ordained leader. The electoral college is an anachronism that was crafted by the country’s so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ in 1787 because they were elitists who didn’t trust the voters to do the right thing and choose the kind of candidates of whom they would approve . This is why the so-called ‘electoral college’ was created.
It enabled each state regardless of its size to choose two members for the Senate plus members of the House of Representatives in accordance with their demographic size. Allotting two senate seats to each state was a positive thing because it accorded equal representation for each state in the country’s senior legislative body, somewhat structurally analogous to the British House of Lords. Creating a second legislative body structurally analogous to the British House of Commons facilitated grassroots popular participation in the country’s legislative process.
These certainly were positive aspects of this arrangement from the standpoint of making sure that every state in the union regardless of size enjoyed representation in the legislative bodies responsible for debating and enacting the laws and policies that would govern the country. That is, every state regardless of its size and population would have bona fide elected members in the two legislative bodies (the Senate and the House of Representatives) which along with the executive branch would formulate the laws and social policies governing the country. It was a consensual approach to government that conformed to the founding fathers’ vision of participatory democracy and it contrasted fundamentally with the monarchical systems in Europe which they deplored and saw America as an alternative to.
But there was one potentially inherent flaw in the electoral-college conception of popular government, which took two hundred years to surface: This was the possibility that the electoral college vote and the popular vote would fail to correspond; and thus that one presidential candidate might get a majority of electoral votes while failing to win a majority of the popular vote. The winner would in effect be a ‘loser’!
And finally this is indeed what happened in the year 2000, and what has now taken place once again in the 2016 presidential election. In 2000, the election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Albert Gore was a virtual dead heat in the electoral college even though Gore had received half a million more popular votes than George W. Bush. The outcome came down to which candidate had won Florida’s popular vote and was thus entitled to the state’s 25 electoral votes. Whichever candidate was awarded these 25 electoral votes would be declared the president-elect because regardless of the number of popular votes he received in the overall election he would have surpassed the 270 electoral votes required to win the electoral college.
The final outcome was determined when the US Supreme Court issued a controversial 5–4 decision that reversed the Florida Supreme Court’s order that a statewide manual recount be conducted of approximately 45,000 ballots which voting machines in both Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties had failed to accurately tabulate. This implicitly awarded the presidency to Bush because it meant that
the Bush campaign would receive Florida’s 25 electoral votes.
Fearing that their lead of a mere 154 votes out of more than six million votes cast in the state could be nullified by such a comprehensive recount as the Florida Supreme Court had ordered, Bush’s campaign managers turned to the US Supreme Court with its 5-4 majority of right-wing oriented justices; as anticipated, they opted for political expediency over judicial integrity and dutifully voted to reverse the Florida Supreme court’s ruling, thereby in effect awarding the presidency to the Republican candidate. Because by winning Florida, and thus acquiring Florida’s 25 electoral votes, Bush narrowly won the national election 271 to 266—only one more than the required 270. Gore, however, won the popular vote over Bush by some 500,000 votes—the first inversion of the electoral and popular vote since 1888.
Once installed in the White House as an implicit election-loser, George W. Bush in concert with his hawkish, neocon Vice-President Richard Cheney, proceeded to pursue a foreign policy that embroiled America in a ruinous war in Iraq that cost thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and whose ramifications continue to this day.
Had Albert Gore’s popular vote victory in 2000 not been nullified by an arcane electoral college system that was from its inception designed to limit the efficacy of a fully open democratic election, he instead of George W. Bush would have become the 43rd president of the United States.
Albert Gore had already served as the country’s vice-president for eight years; he was a far more intellectually sophisticated person than Bush; his progressive political orientation and his status as Bill Clinton’s vice-president indicated that as president he would pursue a far more mature and circumspect foreign policy than would George W. Bush, surrounded as he was by a collection of neocon ideologues who harboured a childishly naive belief that they could transcend the indigenous political, cultural and historical complexities of the Middle East by establishing so-called ‘American-style democracy’ in Iraq, and opening the flood gates to a host of economic opportunists like Dick Cheney’s Haliburton who were poised to follow in the footsteps of the American military occupation of the country. In no time Bush’s policies had produced political chaos in Iraq and paved the way for the rise of ISIS.
History has repeated itself with a vengeance in 2016. Not only did Hillary Clinton amass nearly three million more popular votes than did Donald Trump, but Trump’s overall deficit in the popular vote actually approached nine million when the independent candidates’ totals were also factored in. So now, sixteen years after another popular-vote victor was denied the presidency by the gerymandering implicit in the arcane electoral-college system, another winner of the popular vote was deprived of the victory she would have earned in any other viable democracy anywhere in the world. And like 2000, this outcome portends disastrous consequences for the country’s future.
Had Hillary Clinton not been denied the election victory she would have achieved if the popular vote had determined its outcome, she would have continued and undoubtedly enhanced the social policies pursued by President Barack Obama and by the Democrats generally. Leaders like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and many other emerging party notables would have found themselves in a position to put their progressive stamp on future social legislation.
Instead, as happened in 2000, but even more so today, the United States is for the foreseeable future destined to be ruled by a racist-tinged, fascist-style populist demagogue who seems determined to erase all of the social progress America has made since the end of World War Two. Because a comparative handful of voters in a handful of rustbelt states were able to tip the electoral college balance in favor of Donald Trump despite Hillary Clinton’s three million vote margin of victory in the popular vote, America has fallen into the hands of a narcisstic, emotionally unstable, morally challenged, corrupt charlatan who has surrounded himself with cabinet appointees and advisors who for the most part will assist him in his efforts to impede and undermine all the progress that President Obama made toward building a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural social consensus in the country.
Thus for the second time in the last 16 years the pathological flaws in the electoral collage, coupled with the gerrymandering of political constituencies in the individual states for the purpose of denying African Americans, other ethic minorities, and millenials access to the polls, have succeeded in preventing the winner of the popular vote from gaining the presidency. Instead, the runner-up has become the de facto winner; and like 2000 the political consequences are coming home to roost. President Donald Trump has surrounded himself with a collection of cabinet appointees and key advisors who have been selected for the specific purpose of enabling his incumbent administration to dismantle the country’s evolving multiracial democratic consensualism and replace it with an American version of jingoistic populist authoritarianism in many ways comparable to the fascist-style regimes that arose in Europe between the two world wars.
To help him achieve this goal, Trump has selected Steven Bannon and Jared Kushner as his chief advisers.
Bannon is the former head of Breitbart News, which the New York Times has characterized as a “curios collection of right-wing journalists” who promote misogyny and racism, and was a “potent voice” for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump has now added Steve Bannon to the ‘principals committee’ on the National Security Council while at the same time downgrading the status of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both will only attend NSC Principals Committee meetings “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed..”
In short, President Trump is in the process of creating an inner-circle of psycophants who will as much as they can get away with it transform American society into a Mecca for the corporate elite (several cabinet appointees are billionaires) , economic opportunists, con-artists, true-believing fundamentalist ideologues with cultural roots in the American South, and legions of disgruntled working-class Whites who feel they have lost out to industrial automation.
Jared Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law, married to his daughter Ivanka. On the Sunday after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Kushner was sworn in as Senior Advisor to the President. Kushner is an orthodox Jew whose family has deep roots in the New York-New Jersey real-estate business world and in this sense provides cover for Trump against critics who allege that his racist propensities embody anti-Semitism; he is also an important link to Vladimir Putin’s devious blend of economic and political machinations designed to restore Russia’s past glories.
Thus, as in the 2000 election, so also in the 2016 election, the failure to award the election’s outcome to the candidate who won the popular vote has had pathological consequences for the American republic. In 2000 it resulted in the ascent of an administration which in the name of a childishly naive foreign policy plunged the nation into a disastrous Middle East conflict. In 2016 it has resulted in the triumph of a political charlatan who within the span of the two weeks since he took office has already plumged America into political chaos.
The miscarriage of political justice does indeed have deleterious consequence!
*Hal Gould is a leading US-based political commentator and a South Asia expert. He can be contacted at [email protected]