Chris Hayes, a talented liberal pundit with his own “cable-news” show on MSNBC, recently became a news story himself. Defending Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stated opposition to the electoral college, Hayes stated on his program that “the weirdest thing about the electoral college is the fact that if it wasn’t specifically in the Constitution for the presidency, it would be unconstitutional.”
The sound-bite struck listeners as tautological non-sense, and many mocked him for it. And if this were his central point, he would have deserved it. But his central point was less vulnerable to mere mockery. His central point was that the president should win or lose elections the way every other elected official wins, namely, by the popular vote. The electoral college, Hayes and Ocasio-Cortez argue, is undemocratic. That’s a different kind of claim. In fact, it’s a serious claim that pits liberalism and democracy against each other.
The sentiment is widely held by liberals today who feel they represent something like a new “moral majority” whose resistance to the outcome of the last presidential election is justified because it ran counter to “the will of the people” by a million votes. In other words, nearly all liberals feel they have been deprived of legitimate rule because of the electoral college. What’s fascinating about this is that liberals like Chris Hayes are actually rejecting a core ideological tenet of liberalism — a procedural system designed to protect minorities against the abuses of majorities, and designed to ensure that a president must appeal to all Americans in diverse parts of the country.
Chris Hayes and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez know that the electoral college is constitutional. They claim it is undemocratic, and so should be abolished. Why? Why suggest that something which is constitutional is also undemocratic? Quite simply because the electoral college has done precisely what it was made to do, namely balance special interests against one another, as well as balance state and federal powers, in order to guard democracy from its tendency toward mob rule. There are pre-liberal ways of thinking about how a mixed regime will check democratic institutions. But the electoral college is liberal invention, and it embodies a liberal commitment that liberals like Hayes and Ocasio-Cortez are all too ready to jettison.
What’s amazing about all of this is that it is not “integralists” on the fringe but liberals on cable news who are most fervently driving a wedge between liberalism and democracy. To Chris Hayes, and many other liberals of good and bad faith alike, “federalism” seems like an unnecessary limit on the will of the new democratic “moral majority.” They no longer find majoritarianism problematic as liberals. Neither Plato’s concern about “mob rule,” nor Tocqueville’s worries about “soft despotism” detain them long. They cry for “democracy” to save a liberalism that has failed.
One only need remind liberals of their favorite analogy, namely that Hitler was democratically elected by popular vote, to show them a problem inherent in their appeal. Rather than look upon federalism as a limit upon their political passions, it could be looked upon as assistance for overcoming the promethean will of the strong over the weak. In this way, liberals are actually not choosing democracy, but the philosophy of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche. They are actually authoritarian advocates of mob rule who are prepared to saw off the liberal branch upon which they sit so long as it gives the power they feel is due to them.
I happen to think a republic needs even greater assistance than the merely liberal procedural kind which federalism, or the electoral college, promises. The assistance of God, and the virtues of a people habituated to true religion, are qualitatively superior aids. But so long as the arrangements are liberal, the liberal democratic refusal of liberalism should be seen for what it is. It promises democracy to save us from tyranny, but would deliver a tyranny that could never save us from ourselves.
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