At the core of the debate about the role of the electoral college is whose needs should be at the center of American politics. In an unexpected monologue Tuesday night, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly made that point clearly, although probably not in the way he intended.
One moment from O'Reilly's argument gained traction on social media after the show aired.
“Summing up,” he said, “left wants power taken away from the white establishment. They want a profound change in the way America is run.”
The phrase “white establishment” is what has drawn most of the attention, suggesting that O'Reilly's argument for the electoral college is an explicit defense of the political power of white people. Which, in the broader context of the segment, it was.
O'Reilly points out that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's margin of victory in the popular vote was a function of how heavily she won California. He suggests that Democrats want to abolish the electoral college so that candidates would then be forced to campaign in densely populated areas — areas that are more heavily nonwhite.
“Very few commentators will tell you that the heart of liberalism in America today is based on race,” O'Reilly said. “It permeates almost every issue. That white men have set up a system of oppression. ... So-called white privilege bad. Diversity good.”
The irony is that O'Reilly's entire argument is an explicit defense of white privilege. Clinton's margin of victory does vanish if you remove California's votes — but California is home to nearly one out of every eight Americans. (Similarly, Republican Donald Trump's margin of victory in the electoral college vanishes if you flip Texas.) Voters in that state are underrepresented by the electoral college relative to other states, with each electoral college member representing about 258,000 ballots cast. In Wyoming, each elector represents 85,000 voters. That's one argument for the popular vote: that it treats every vote equally, regardless of where it originates.
California plays a special role in the nation's political imagination — a majority-minority state that's home to hippie-dippy San Francisco and Berkeley. O'Reilly's dismissal of its votes is not unique; it has been a common refrain in the wake of the election. Often, race and ethnicity overlap with that argument, with any number of people suggesting that Clinton's big win in the state was a function of ballots cast by hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants (that is, Mexicans). This isn't the case, of course. Trump's rhetoric simply didn't fly in the state. Along with the lefty Bay Area there's the more conservative southern part of the state — and Trump even lost conservative Orange County, making him the first Republican to do so since 1936.
In Tuesday's broadcast, O'Reilly was specifically arguing that places in which fewer people live should have disproportionate political power so that presidential candidates are forced to campaign in those places in order to win. In other words, he's suggesting that the power of the popular vote should be muted to give more power to the minority of Americans who live outside of cities. Eighty percent of the country lives in an urban area and those who live in rural areas are disproportionately white. O'Reilly is suggesting that those rural voters deserve a special privilege — more weighted electoral votes — and he's reinforcing that argument by pointing out that it will benefit whites. Privilege for whites. White privilege.
There is a “white establishment,” of course. Congress is overwhelmingly white — more heavily white than the population as a whole. The Senate is even whiter than the House; nearly as many Kennedys have been elected to the Senate as have black people. Not coincidentally, the Senate also gives disproportionate power to less-populated and often whiter states. (You've heard it before: Wyoming and California get the same number of senators.)
Moreover, there's a direct overlap between race and partisanship, as we noted in July. The Republican Party is a mostly white party; the Democratic Party is more diverse. (The overwhelming majority of the nonwhite members of the House are Democrats.) O'Reilly notes that white men have gravitated to the GOP, which is accurate and which makes the racial split more stark.
Race and party are tightly intertwined. The priorities of the parties reflect their membership, and therefore talking about partisan opposition often overlaps with talking about racial tension. That also means that defenses of the power of Republican voters overlap with defenses of the power of white voters.
Another way to frame O'Reilly's central premise is this: In the face of a diversifying American population, should protections be maintained that continue to support the political dominance of white people? A lot of white people, including O'Reilly, would say yes. A lot of nonwhite people would presumably say no.
On Jan. 20, the power structure of the federal government will be dominated by the Republican Party. The new establishment will be more white, will be acting on behalf of a heavily white party and will be less inclined to answer the preceding question in the negative. Nonwhite voters preferred Clinton and white voters preferred Trump (generally, though not universally).
It's the preference of the latter group that carried the day — and O'Reilly's entire argument is that it deserved to.