If U.S. citizens today think of the electoral college, it’s as a rubber stamp for each state’s popular vote — a stamp that gives extra power to less populous states’ voters. But that’s not precisely what the founders envisioned. Originally, the electoral college’s function was to select statesman who would rise above petty politics, who would safeguard the enduring interests of the republic.
As political scientist Jeffrey Tulis argues in “The Rhetorical Presidency,” his canonical book on the history of presidential rhetoric, the founders believed that leaving the selection up to ordinary voters would lead to presidents who were like any other politicians, unlikely to successfully check and balance Congress when it indulged the passions of the electorate over enduring constitutional interests.
Few if any modern presidents fit that mold, of course. Today, the popular vote elects politicians. But many commentators (including Tulis) have suggested that, given the way he campaigned, a President Donald Trump might deviate even more than usual from the founders’ vision.
Let’s think about what that vision encompasses.
1. The founders feared demagogues.
The founders feared the kind of demagoguery then rampant in state legislatures. Tulis noted two kinds of demagoguery. “Soft” demagogues told the voters they were right and turned them against elites, even when elites had better ideas than the voters did. “Hard” demagogues rallied people against unpopular minorities as a way of gaining power.
Under the Articles of Confederation, many citizens were in serious debt. Soft demagogues promised to help through debt reduction laws or currency inflation that would have benefited debtors at the expense of lenders, reducing the availability of lending in the long term.
That was on display in Massachusetts after Shays’s Rebellion, which followed other states in placing a moratorium on debts. Both the rebellion and the moratorium helped persuade the founders to adopt a new government.
Hard demagogues exploited popular prejudices against minorities, such as people loyal to Britain. Nowhere was this more evident than in Pennsylvania, where the Philadelphia Assembly passed laws disenfranchising Quakers. Pennsylvania epitomized the flaws of democratic majorities unencumbered by checks and balances, where a unicameral state legislature was not subject to a governor’s veto.
Witnessing the follies of state governments, the architects of the Constitution believed that legislative power should be checked by executives who would block unconstitutional legislation.
The Constitution was designed to restrain short-term impulses in favor of the country’s long-term interests. Both presidents and the Supreme Court were expected to rise above the din of politics and review legislation for constitutionality. In James Madison’s original design, the Constitution even gave Congress the power to veto state legislation. Founders feared that popular elections for president would lead presidents to have their own policy agendas rather than acting to safeguard the Constitution.
And, of course, they were right. Between 1789 and 1836, states tied their electoral votes to popular votes. Presidential candidates do promise policies.
But that doesn’t mean they must slide into demagoguery. Candidates often indulge in what the founders called “soft demagoguery,” promising to fight for the voters’ ideas, and against the ideas of “out of touch” Washington elites. But Trump escalated this antagonism toward outsiders. When Trump announced his candidacy June 16, 2015, he famously said:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Similarly, after the San Bernardino attacks, his campaign released a statement that read:
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.
Inciting popular passions while neglecting legal and constitutional restraints is precisely the opposite of the founders’ vision of presidents. By using problematic stereotypes of Muslims, Mexicans, women and other groups, Trump’s campaign arguably represents hard demagoguery.
2. The founders wanted to protect congressional deliberation
Tulis contends that the electoral college was also intended to protect congressional deliberation. By holding hearings with experts and deliberating in private, Congress could refine hasty proposals into effective policies. Even if presidential candidates were not demagogues, the founders feared that presidential rhetoric in itself could intrude on productive deliberation, pushing poorly designed policies through Congress. For example, Tulis argues that Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” rhetoric impeded the success of antipoverty programs by designing policies around the metaphor rather than letting experts design the policy first.
Of course, such strong rhetoric is now common. Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama have exhorted the public to ask their members of Congress to take action, or attacked Congress in the hopes of injecting energy into a gridlocked system. They have even attacked opponents’ motives instead of debating the merits of policy.
But Trump has gone further than attacking the institution. He has singled out specific members of Congress and called them names, as when he called House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) a “weak and ineffective leader” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “Pocahontas.”
The only president of the 19th century to attack individual members of Congress, Andrew Johnson, compared himself to Jesus and his congressional opponents to Judas. The House of Representatives impeached Johnson on 11 charges, one of which was declaring “with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” against Congress, disregarding the “dignity and proprieties” of his office.
Name-calling threatens to replace policy debates with bullying.
The modern electoral college is, arguably, the worst of all worlds. It does not encourage republican virtues, as the founders planned. Nor does it confer the democratic legitimacy that modern Americans expect.
But perhaps candidate Trump intended all along to use his campaign rhetoric merely to help him reach the Oval Office, and didn’t literally mean that he would prosecute his former opponent, register individuals by religion or deport people en masse. As he becomes president, observers can assess for themselves whether he shifts into rhetoric that better meets the founders’ republican hopes.
Christopher Baylor is a visiting assistant professor at Washington College and author of the forthcoming book, “First to the Party: The Group Origins of Party Transformation.”