The 2016 presidential election has come and gone and one thing is abundantly clear: Hillary Clinton won. And she didn’t just squeak by. As of the current count, she won by over a million votes with that number likely to grow as absentee ballots continue to be counted.
But although Clinton won the vote she has been declared the loser of the presidency because of an anomaly of electoral math. Donald Trump accrued more votes in the Electoral College, the body that actually decides the presidential election. However, that isn’t entirely true either since the Electoral College does not cast their vote until the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, which this year is December 19th. Trump’s supposed victory is nothing more than an assumption based solely upon the expectation that the Electoral College voters will follow the results within their state even if the national total doesn’t reflect the state-by state outcomes.
The funny thing about the Electoral College is this: there is no Constitutional requirement that the electors actually follow the will of the voters. The Founders devised the Electoral College as a stopgap measure to prevent the great unwashed from electing someone who was unfit for office. It is a fundamentally undemocratic concept that was born out of a distrust of direct democracy. After all, in the late 1700s most people were uneducated and information traveled slowly. And for most presidential elections the Electoral College was little more than a rubber stamp; the 2016 election is only the fourth time in our nation’s history that the president-elect lost the popular vote (although notably two of these instances have occurred in the last sixteen years).
Donald Trump is exactly the kind of candidate that the Electoral College was designed to prevent. After running a campaign based upon xenophobia and lies and proving himself completely ignorant of world affairs and matters of state, as well as being unusually cozy with the authoritarian elites of Russia, Trump’s transition to the White House has gotten off to a foreboding start. He has named a white supremacist to be his chief strategist, refused to put his estate into a blind trust, intends to give his children top secret security clearance, and apparently has little understanding of what the job of President of the United States actually entails. If ever there was a candidate who demanded to be overruled by the Electoral College, Trump is it.
But with the popular vote going to Clinton, the Electoral College wouldn’t be overruling anyone but themselves. Naming Clinton to the White House would be consistent with democracy and with the intentions of the Founders.
There have been calls to amend the Constitution and abolish the Electoral College. That’s a debate worth having but it should not be our primary concern. The immediate question for all of us—and especially for the members of the Electoral College—is this: are we prepared to ignore the expressed will of the people and hand over the presidency to an intellectually, experientially, and psychologically unfit candidate because of the eighteenth century equivalent of a computer glitch?
If the answer to that question is no, then the Electoral College voters ought to defer to the popular vote and name Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States. If the answer to that question is yes, then we face a crisis of democracy.
If the electors hand the presidency to Trump—an office he did not earn and does not deserve—they will do so over the wishes of the majority of Americans. The message to the citizens of this country will be clear: their vote did not matter and this government does not honor their wishes. This threatens to disillusion a generation of voters but the consequences could go well beyond depressing the turnout at the next election. The stability of our society is predicated upon trust and over the recent decades, trust in all of our social institutions has rotted. The confirmation of Trump as President of the United States could be the coup de grace that fundamentally breaks American democracy and precipitates a social collapse.
This is not hyperbole. People aren’t bound to follow the law or to be moral citizens. They choose to follow the law and they choose to behave in a moral way because it’s advantageous to do so. Our acquiescence is conditional. It rests upon the fairness and integrity of the system. And as Americans feel further and further alienated from their government and social institutions, the vote is one of the few things keeping us bound to each other and to the social contract. Removing that incentive weakens the few remaining pillars that prop society above a sea of chaos.
And perhaps those pillars will come crashing down. I don’t write that with nihilistic glee. I don’t want to be witness to the collapse of American civilization or to see our democracy weakened to the point at which it becomes meaningless. And I’m not saying that Americans should burn down Washington D.C. if Trump is inaugurated. But if the popular vote is nothing but a patronizing charade, what is left to dissuade them from doing so?
There is an opportunity to avert all of this. But the citizens will have to demand it and the members of the Electoral College will have to do what is best for the country. That is asking a lot and listening to the way our media and politicians and many of our fellow citizens have resigned themselves to a Trump presidency does not fill me with hope for the future. We’ve been so thoroughly conditioned to accept what “everybody knows” and to comply with traditions that most Americans do not have the capacity to imagine possibilities others than the ones given to them by authorities. But if Trump is made President and our society is crippled by a combination of depressive disillusionment and white nationalist totalitarianism, remember that we did this to ourselves.