Believing the Cheerful Myth

“Nearly everyone believes the cheerful myth that nothing has changed since 1789.”

“As for the Electoral College, it is indeed an anachronism that serves no real purpose. It certainly doesn’t do what is was supposed to do: elect presidents who are, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, “pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” So wrote Hamilton, as “Publius,” in Federalist No. 68.

For what it’s worth, the Framers of the Constitution didn’t want the president elected by direct popular vote. Simple majority rule was alien and abhorrent to them, as the present two-party duopoly and the popular election of senators would have been; as Hamilton put it, direct election of presidents would produce “tumult and disorder.”

They prescribed that the people of each State should elect a body of presumably incorrupt and disinterested electors, men who possessed the requisite “information and discernment” to choose among candidates for the presidency. Those electors, in Hamilton’s words, should be “men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of the presidency]. They should not be officeholders, who might have “too great [a] devotion” to the incumbent president; their number would be a safeguard against corruption.” But if no winner emerged, the election would fall to the House of Representatives, where each State delegation would cast a single vote.

Subsequent generations, missing its inner spirit, have ruined it, like a vain fool daubing new streaks on an old masterpiece in the conviction he is improving it when it’s no longer even recognizable. Modern democracy has destroyed the essence of the thing; yet it flatters itself that it has preserved the Constitution, only because it has preserved its words while ignoring, or willfully forgetting, their import.

[The] original Senate no longer exists. The Seventeenth Amendment virtually abolished it by requiring the popular election of senators; before that, senators were chosen by State legislatures, because the Senate was supposed to represent the interests of State governments and to prevent usurpation of their powers. The House was to speak for the people, the Senate for the States.

When the Senate was converted to a popular body too, it lost its rationale and became as superfluous as the Electoral College now is, imperfectly duplicating functions better performed by the House: instead of representing the States equally, it represents the people unequally. The States, meanwhile, have been reduced to mere administrative subdivisions of a monolithic nation-state. They have lost the defining mark of a true State, which is sovereignty, and such powers that they retain are held not by right, but by the sufferance of the federal government.

But not one American in a hundred (and perhaps not one senator in a hundred) understands all this. Nearly everyone believes the cheerful myth that nothing has changed since 1789.

But everything has changed. No American should read the Constitution without a sense of loss. We would all be much freer if the US government played by its own rules. But there is no way to force it to do so as long as Americans remain ignorant of their own political heritage.”

(A Weird Election, Joseph Sobran, Sobran’s Real News of the Month, March 2001, Volume 8, Number 3, excerpts pp. 3-4)

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