Newspaper column: Why we have a federalism system, not a democracy

Someone buy these folks a civics textbook and maybe a Cliff Notes version of the Federalist Papers.

Yes, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but she lost the Electoral College vote by 304 to 227. That is because the Electoral College is made up of 538 members — one for each senator and representative from each state, plus the District of Columbia. (Look at it another way. Clinton won California by 4 million votes, but Trump won the combined popular vote in the 49 other states.)

This has prompted a number of people to call, again, for the abolishment of the Electoral College, which gives smaller states like Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and the like a disproportionate say in the presidential election, just as James Madison and the other Founders intended. They were looking for a compromise between the unitary government of England, in which all decisions flowed from the central government, and the Articles of Confederation that dispersed nearly all decisions to the states, weakening interstate commerce and a strong national defense posture.

They settled on a federalist system that granted enumerated powers to the people and the sovereign state governments, as well as the federal government.

Alexander Hamilton put it this way in Federalist Paper No. 68: “It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. This evil was not least to be dreaded in the election of a magistrate, who was to have so important an agency in the administration of the government as the President of the United States. But the precautions which have been so happily concerted in the system under consideration, promise an effectual security against this mischief. The choice of SEVERAL, to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of ONE who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes. And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place. Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.”

Despite this precaution, the electors were in fact subject to a flood of phone calls, emails and social media diatribes.

Joining this cacophony of voices wailing and moaning about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College was Nevada’s own senior Sen. Harry Reid, who is retiring in less than a month after three decades representing tiny Nevada in the U.S. Senate and more than a decade as Senate Democratic leader.

Perhaps, someone should remind Sen. Reid that the Senate itself was created to provide all states with an equal number of representatives in the upper chamber — very undemocratic, indeed, just like the Electoral College. Both were created precisely to be undemocratic and protect the rights of the minorities and smaller states.

In Federalist Paper No. 62 either Hamilton or Madison, not sure which, stated, “The equality of representation in the Senate is another point, which, being evidently the result of compromise between the opposite pretensions of the large and the small States, does not call for much discussion. If indeed it be right, that among a people thoroughly incorporated into one nation, every district ought to have a PROPORTIONAL share in the government, and that among independent and sovereign States, bound together by a simple league, the parties, however unequal in size, ought to have an EQUAL share in the common councils …”

Federalism, not democracy.

 A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

17 comments on “Newspaper column: Why we have a federalism system, not a democracy

  1. Great read Tom. What is staggering to me is the complete lack of understand to how and why this system exists. I get people each day arguing with me that it’s unfair. That Hamilton clearly didn’t know what he was doing. 😉 Merry Christmas!

  2. Bill says:

    They don’t teach things like this in our schools or colleges and certainly most of the media don’t know it as well. I would bet that if you asked the average educator what they know about our form of government you would not get much of a response other than that we have a representative democracy. A few years back, one of our political parties failed to nominate presidential electors at their state convention because the the then leadership didn’t know about them.

  3. deleted says:

    Thomas, did Hamilton believe electors were obligated to vote as their constituents had voted?

    If not, then why the criticism of modern day people trying to get the electors to do what Hamilton, and the others, thought ought to be allowed?

    And how “representative” is a system where the people voting, can be overruled, by an elector? Sounds like tyranny to me.

  4. That is up to the state legislators to decide. Many states require by law that electors follow the popular vote selection.

  5. deleted says:

    So, Hamilton’s system then, was set up to allow, or even encourage, electors to alter what their constituents wanted.

    Since that’s the case, what’s the objection to people trying to get the electors to do it?

  6. Bill says:

    Neither Presidents, vice Presidents nor Senators were originally constitutionally selected by popular vote. Senators and Electors were chosen by State Legislators. Electors were to vote for President and Vice President and the one getting the most votes was to be President and the second to be Vice President. If the electors wee unable to agree then Congress would decide. In any event, the electors were limited to the number of senators and congressmen from each state. In forming their Constitutional Republic the founders wanted to insure that each state had a voice, Witness the U. S. Senate, limited to two per state. Hardly representative of a State based on population. Witness that state legislatures selected senators and presidential and vice presidential electors. They envisioned a system of representation starting at the bottom and flowing upward to the federal government which, by Constitution, was given certain powers and as is so often forgotten today, all the rest of the powers were reserved to the States by the 10th Amendment4. They certainly did not contemplate a federal government that had the power to dictate toilet allocations within school districts.

  7. Rincon says:

    The way Conservatives blindly follow the perceived thoughts of the Founding Fathers, one would think that the supply of brains must have run out since they lived. It’s fine for deciding the Constitutionality of an issue, but should not be an excuse to avoid thinking for ourselves.

    The reason for the electoral college and Senate representation was purely pragmatic. The states were essentially all separate countries at the time and the smaller states feared they would be overwhelmed by the larger ones in a federal arrangement, so this was the compromise that was reached. One would have thought that by now, we would all be Americans first and residents of our states second. Sadly, that is not the case.

    Today and back then, it never seems to occur to anyone that the borders between states are merely lines on a map. There is a greater difference between the residents of Peoria and Chicago than between those of Chicago and Los Angeles, but as Illinoisans, we find ways to compromise on our differences rather than jealously guarding our turf. The same should apply at the federal level.

    Any system that can potentially elect someone who has barely 1/5 of the votes risks civil unrest or worse if the majority are kept down too many times. Luckily for us, both of the elections denying the majority were close enough to be perceived as unreasonable to dispute

  8. Steve says:

    Allrighty then!

    Hers a solution Rincon and the left should absolutely LOVE!

  9. Rincon says:

    It would probably be better than our present map, although it’s surprisingly similar to today’s, but the battle between urban and rural dwellers is perpetual.

  10. Steve says:

    That proved it, liberals do hate the USA.

  11. Barbara says:

    Thanks Thomas. Very good article.

    If the left would spend more time reading and less time pontificating, we’d all be better for it and might then have a basis for discussion.

    Our system of government was not based on pragmatism. Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 30 of them were college graduates, an astounding number for the time. Most had early training in both Latin and Greek, and were expected to know it before attending college. They were familiar with the writings of the ancients – Montesquieu, Locke, Hobbes, Virgil, Plato, Horace, Justinian, Nepos, Caesar, Tacitus, Lucretius, Eutropius, Phaedrus, Herodotus, and Thucydides as well as biblical teachings.

    Even those without college or formal education, such as George Washington, admired classical thinkers greatly. There are records showing that he ordered busts of figures such as Cicero that were put on display at his Mt. Vernon home. He also cared enough about classical culture to have Joseph Addison’s play about Cato the Younger (a famous Roman statesman) performed for his troops at Valley Forge. He also insisted on a classical education for his stepson.

    Our system of government was based on the collective knowledge of these men having studied centuries of human interaction as revealed through historical writings. Our Founding was based on wisdom and virtue, two qualities the left seems to disdain.

    What do they offer in return? Principles that have been tried by other nations and found wanting,

    We revere our Founding Fathers not because they were perfect, but because they knew, just as we know today, that human beings are powerful, wonderful creations, but flawed, and when left to their own devices, can cause great mischief. When it comes to human interaction, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

  12. Rincon says:

    I am grateful to the Founding Fathers and to so many other great leaders and common folk that labored to make this country great. I am suspicious of those who wrap themselves in a cloak of false patriotism while actively subverting the principles for which they stood.

  13. deleted says:

    I wonder what our founding fathers, those great thinkers, readers, and intellectuals would have thought of the most recent republican presidents? (Or is it precedents?)

    Stalwarts like bush the younger, Reagan the actor, and president elect Trump the dealer. All now following in the deep footprints of men that, purportedly, could actually read.

    I fear for our republic.

  14. Barbara says:

    I imagine our Founding Fathers would think we deserve the leaders we elect, both Republican and Democrat. General Washington dismissed from the Continental Army “with infamy” a man who was court marshalled for attempted sodomy of another man. Now our President proudly changes the rules to admit gays to serve openly and our Supreme Court legalizes same sex marriage. Would they even recognize the country they founded? I imagine they would pray for God’s forgiveness and grace.

  15. Rincon says:

    I’m not sure why Washington dismissing someone for homosexual behavior would be the prime example you choose as to how superior a leader he was or why you feel that gays should be treated differently than the rest of us under the law. The Founding Fathers also accepted the institution of slavery, decided not to allow women and black people to vote, and allowed them to be treated far differently by the law. Was that better too? Conservatives at the time certainly thought so.

  16. […] Trump, but he won more state electors, which is what the Founders envisioned, because ours is a federalist system, not a democracy. The Electoral College provides more power to the states. (Trump won […]

  17. […] Hillary Clinton won more popular votes than Donald Trump, but he won more state electors, which is what the Founders envisioned. (Trump won the Electoral College vote by 304 to 227. […]

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