As we approach the 2018 midterm elections, President Donald Trump and other Republicans have adopted language defining leftist protesters as “mobs.” Democrats have pushed back, some even calling back “racist,” today’s go-to retort to Trump and conservatives in general.
Large groups of disgruntled people certainly have a right to be heard. When they coalesce in significant enough numbers, they will inevitably have an impact at the polls, as Democrats hope will happen in the midterms. Whether defined as a mob, a throng or a rally, however, American history resists the notion of a majority fully imposing its will on a minority. The Supreme Court’s long-overdue desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s, and Congress’ passage of important civil rights legislation in the 1960s, bucked the tide of public opinion, when the general population would likely have voted down those propositions if put to a vote.
And yet sometimes we are told that to act counter to popular opinion is misguided, even undemocratic. When Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to the Supreme Court, a Washington Post analysis pointed out that Kavanaugh “will be the first justice nominated by someone who lost the popular vote to earn his seat on the bench with support from senators representing less than half of the country while having his nomination opposed by a majority of the country.” Appeals to populist resentment seem to be more acceptable when conservatives are the subject.
The threat of a mob is the harm it can inflict on outnumbered opponents. And while the left may rightfully chafe at the “mob” imagery leveled at its activists, Democrats ranging from Hillary Clinton to New York Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez advocate just that when they suggest abandoning the electoral college in favor of the nationwide popular vote in presidential elections.
Had Democrats won the electoral college while losing the popular vote, instead of that distinction going to Republicans George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016, Democrats would almost assuredly be defending the system while Republicans would be bashing it. But that’s politics.
Although the sovereignty of the states continues to diminish under the growing power of the federal government, the United States, as the name implies, is in fact a collection of individual states, each with its own social and geographic interests. The electoral college exists to protect those interests. West Virginia offers such an example.
In 2000, Bush won West Virginia and its five electoral votes, the first non-incumbent GOP presidential candidate to do so in decades. While Florida and its “hanging chads” got all the attention, West Virginia Republicans, with some justification, take credit for Bush’s five-electoral-vote victory.
Before 2000, West Virginia was considered dependably blue, with Democrats dominating state and federal offices. But as the Democratic Party drifted left nationally, it lost touch with West Virginia’s social and economic values. After the breakthrough by Bush in 2000, the Republican National Committee — recognizing another nail-biter was a distinct possibility in 2004 — sent resources into the state. As president, Bush made numerous visits.
At the 2004 RNC Convention in New York, the West Virginia delegation was seated front and center at Madison Square Garden for Bush’s acceptance speech, its five electoral votes seen as crucial to the president’s reelection. I was there, having gone to work for the West Virginia state GOP in 2001. The delegation was treated like royalty, and throughout the campaign the state was the focus of visits by Cabinet members and GOP superstars. Without the electoral college, it would be hello Texas and Florida, see ya later West Virginia.
Protecting and valuing each state — large or small, populous or sparse – is why our nation settled on the electoral college. It was understood that the regional interests of Americans might be thwarted if citizens congregated heavily in just a few parts of the country — which has happened on the coasts.
States are largely awarded electoral votes commensurate with their populations. West Virginia, with its 1.8 million people, has five; California, population nearly 40 million, has 55. But those votes remain fixed regardless of turnout. Under the electoral college, popular vote remains crucial, but on a state-by-state basis. In 2016, Trump won the popular vote in 30 states, Clinton in just 20.
Mobs flourish by imposing their will on smaller, weaker opponents. Under a system that elected the president by national popular vote, that’s exactly what would happen — a disproportionate majority of voters from the largest states imposing their will on the more vulnerable minority of voters in smaller states.
If the Democrats want to disprove the allegation that they’re instigating mobs, and retain their claim to being the party of the oppressed and downtrodden, they could start by abandoning calls to abolish the electoral college.