Should Michigan Matter More Than the Michganders? Research Time, 21/06/2017

There are moments when you read The Federalist Papers and you see a bizarre flash into the future.

It’s as if reading the text, for an instant, merges the moment of Alexander Hamilton at the constitutional conferences in New York and Philadelphia, with a moment of Donald Trump laughing, belching in the Oval Office tweeting more and more gloats about his victory.

When Trump won, one of the things that drove non-Trumpist Americans out of their minds was the structure of the electoral college. Understandably – it’s the institution that allowed the candidate who lost the popular vote to win the election. 2016 is the second time this has happened this century so far, and we’re not even one-fifth through it.

A key message of Donald Trump's campaign was encouraging
Americans to revel in open contempt for the poor and ethnic
minorities. Trump won a narrow victory in Michigan, and the
mechanisms of the electoral college resulted in that difference of a
few thousand votes giving the weight of the entire population to him.
Here, a Flint resident carries bottled water.
We’ve all seen plenty of explanations as to how this happens. The electoral college is a form of federal vote weighting that assigns a specific value to each state in the actual institutional votes for the Presidency.

The people of the United States don’t, technically speaking, have one single national election. They have fifty national elections, one in each state. And the state elections determine which candidate that state will throw its weight behind. The electoral votes are functions of a state’s population, and it doesn’t matter if a candidate smashes it or barely ekes out a win – all the electoral votes go to that candidate.

You might be thinking, “Why in the hell do they have this kind of system?” Well, it’s because the United States almost fell apart at the moment of its birth as a country. That’s what you learn reading The Federalist Papers. I don’t think a lot of Americans know this.

The original confederal constitution of the United States vested all the non-explicit powers of government in the individual states. So the confederal government couldn’t do a damn thing. So the second US constitution was written in this moment of intense tension between federalists and all-state indépendistes.

The electoral college’s structure and rules was one of the few concessions that the original indépendistes of the United States could squeeze out of the federalists.

Hamilton argues it well. Democracy must rest a government’s institutional power ultimately in the hands of the people. A government that rests its own power in the people will be the one that inspires patriotic devotion, the sense of community that comes from a common government.

In the first US constitution, the governments that connected their powers with the people were the individual states. The federal government could only act domestically through the mediation of the states. Hamilton warned that this would result in huge inequalities of power from state to state, and erode the sense of common community that the revolution had instilled in white Americans from Maine to the Carolinas.

The electoral college was one last part of the American federal government that mediated the actions and votes of the people through the individual states as entities.

In this century so far, it’s helped exacerbate violent and resentment tensions between different states and regions of the US, as its mathematical quirks have enabled two disastrous presidents to ascend to state power.

I can easily imagine Alexander Hamilton telling the people of the United States, “I told you so.”

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