Image by Rob Dobi
In the mid-1980s, shortly after Ronald Reagan won a forty-nine-state landslide victory in his campaign for a second term, David Bowie had a top-forty hit with a haunting song from the soundtrack to the spy drama The Falcon and the Snowman. The song resonated with people who felt disconnected from their nation. It was titled “This Is Not America.”
Sometimes, of course, an election result is America: a Franklin Roosevelt or a Dwight Eisenhower or a Lyndon Johnson wins so decisively that the President can claim a genuine mandate. As frustrating as it may have been for a lot of us, Ronald Reagan won big in 1984—the year George Orwell had warned about.
But what about those times when the “winner” is not the winner at all? What about those years when the finish of a long campaign is in conflict with itself?
There is always a tendency on the part of major media outlets and political insiders to suggest that the United States is defined by the prominent men and women who take office after elections. Too frequently, even those of us who dissent from the conventional wisdom of American politics fall into the trap of imagining that the headlines declaring who has won define our times. But when that is not the case, there is a duty to speak the truth: “This is not America.”
Such is our circumstance today.
The Washington Post’s post-election headline declared, “Trump Triumphs.” The New York Post trumpeted, “President Trump: They Said It Couldn’t Happen.”
But it didn’t actually happen in the way that so much of the media imagines. Trump’s America is not America. In order to imagine that Trump’s presidency has a triumphant mandate, or even the barest measure of democratic legitimacy, Americans must surrender to the hoax that media branding is reality.
The reality, as Michael Moore noted in caps, is that “HILLARY CLINTON WON THE POPULAR VOTE!” “If you woke up this morning thinking you live in an effed-up country, you don’t,” the filmmaker explained on the day after the election, stating what the headlines did not:
“Your fellow Americans wanted Hillary, not Trump.”
Democracies and democratic republics that take seriously the notion that governing extends from the will of the people begin with the premise that the popular vote defines who wins and who loses. In other countries that elect presidents, Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory would have her preparing for an inauguration. In America, it had her walking her dogs on the day after her concession speech.
On election night, Clinton’s win was a narrow one. But the United States has archaic systems for casting and counting ballots, which means that the tabulation process stretches out for weeks, even months, after the polls close. One week after the election, Clinton’s lead had grown to more than one million votes. The Democratic advantage will just keep expanding, as the longest counts tend to be in West Coast states such as California, where Clinton is leading Trump by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Nate Cohn argues that Clinton could end up winning by two million votes and more than 1.5 percent of the total; others suggest the margin could go higher.
Even as the count progressed, Clinton’s winning margin grew greater than Richard Nixon’s in 1968. It was greater than John F. Kennedy’s in 1960. In fact, it was greater than the winning margin in more than twenty of the presidential elections the United States has held since its founding. Of course, the elections of the distant past had smaller overall turnouts. But Kennedy and Nixon were elected in high turnout elections in relatively recent times.
And there’s an even more recent election that offers an even more relevant comparison. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore beat Republican George W. Bush by 543,895 votes. At the time, that was the biggest ever popular-vote victory for someone who lost the presidency. But Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory over Donald Trump is already dramatically greater than Gore’s.
At the same time, the final 2016 count will give Trump a substantially lower percentage of the overall vote than Republican Mitt Romney received in his losing 2012 challenge to Democratic President Barack Obama.
But none of this matters, we are told, because Trump will prevail by a narrow margin in the December vote by the 538 members of the Electoral College.
So how do 538 electors trump—apologies—the choice of the more than 120,000,000 actual voters for the presidency? Because they represent a relic of the same set of founding compromises that permitted human bondage in a land where the Declaration of Independence announced “all men are created equal.” The Electoral College is, constitutional scholars say, a “vestige of slavery,” and was created to help protect that institution. The goal, history reminds us, was to keep the more populous northern states from overruling the South.
“It’s embarrassing,” argues Paul Finkelman, a law professor who has studied the institution. “I think if most Americans knew what the origins of the Electoral College is, they would be disgusted.”
The Constitution has been amended frequently to correct the errors of the past. The franchise has been extended to African Americans and women; the poll tax has been banned; the voting age has been lowered. The old practice of choosing Senators via backroom deals has been replaced with an elected Senate. Yet the most anti-democratic of the founding constructs—an elite Electoral College created to thwart the will of the great mass of voters—remains.
The Electoral College warps and diminishes American democracy at every turn. As George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University who edits the Presidential Studies Quarterly, tells us:
“The Electoral College . . . has the potential to undo the people’s will at many points in the long journey from the selection of electors to counting their votes in Congress.”
Consider this: In Wyoming, each elector represents roughly 160,000 eligible voters, compared with the more than 600,000 eligible voters represented by an elector from California.
Often this warping and diminishment is obscured when the Electoral College’s choice mirrors that of the national popular vote. The Electoral College only gets major attention when the college’s choice diverges from the national popular vote.
What Americans need to recognize is that such major malfunctions are becoming more common.
For the second time in sixteen years, the national popular vote decision is going to be overridden by the Electoral College. Trump has a narrow advantage in the Electoral College (so narrow that a shift of just 57,000 votes would have made Clinton the winner in the three states she needed—Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—to gain the 270 electors required to prevail). But that advantage is definitional under the current system.
This is a problem.
To be fair, it is a problem that has been flagged since 1787.
The group FairVote tells us that more than 700 constitutional amendments have been proposed to modify or abolish the Electoral College, “making it the subject of more attempted reforms than any other subject.” A proposal to replace the current allocation of state electors on a winner-take-all basis with a proportional electoral vote gained the endorsement of the Senate in the 1950s but failed in the House. A proposal to abolish the Electoral College won the support of the House in 1969 but was blocked by a Senate filibuster led by southern Senators who had opposed civil rights legislation.
Even Donald Trump griped that “the Electoral College is a disaster for a democracy”—but that was in 2012, not 2016.
The trouble with historic attempts to replace or reform the Electoral College is that they tended to be based on frustrations and fears extending from a particular election result, and thus absorbed in the closed circle of Congress.
The aftermath of the 2016 election, in which the Electoral College has again proven to be a disaster for democracy, can and must be different. There are many proper reactions to this election, including solidarity movements to defend those most threatened by the combination of a Trump presidency and a fiercely rightwing Congress. But if ever an election demanded a mass movement for reform, this is it.
Yes, this Congress is disinclined toward reform. But FairVote and other groups are advancing a credible vehicle for getting around Congress, and it has already gained considerable traction. Activists want state legislatures to endorse a National Popular Vote compact, which requires states to “choose to allocate their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.”
Ten states and the District of Columbia—with a combined total of 165 electoral votes—have passed legislation to enter the compact. And the idea has been proposed in the legislatures of the remaining states. This is a real reform plan. But it does not need to be the only one. What is necessary now is for Americans to organize on behalf of a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, or at the least to reform it with a proportional representation plan. We can sort out the specifics later. But this moment cannot be lost to frustration at a rigged system, or hopelessness about prospects for reform.
This should be a moment of radical urgency. Activism to abolish the Electoral College should be combined with advocacy to end the corrupt practice of gerrymandering, which allows incumbent politicians and their allies to draw maps of voting districts that are skewed to prevent competition. (Since 2010, these have been used to lock in Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2012, for instance, GOP House candidates won 49 percent of the votes and 54 percent of the seats.)
Any movement for real democracy must also address voter suppression, which played a profound role in the 2016 election. Restrictive voter ID laws, complex registration procedures, limits on early voting, and cuts in the number of polling places undermined democracy in jurisdictions across the country and, voting rights activists argue, contributed to declines in turnout that benefited Trump and his allies.
This was the first national election in fifty years that was not conducted under the full protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That is a travesty, yet there is little chance that a Congress led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will renew the act’s protections, especially under a President who has dismissed efforts to make voting easy and efficient as the “rigging” of elections.
The time really has come to embrace the proposal by Democratic Congressmen Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin to amend the Constitution to declare:
“Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election.”
The same goes for the amendment proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s anti-democratic rulings in cases including the 2010 Citizens United decision. Only an amendment will address the flow of billionaire and corporate money into our politics, which in 2016 Senate races proved decisive.
Yes, it requires hard work to amend the Constitution. But the document has been updated twenty-seven times since 1787, often in moments as difficult and divisive and challenging as these. And the American people are ready to make the change.
On November 8, in statewide referenda in California and Washington, and in referenda in a score of communities across Ohio and Wisconsin, voters overwhelmingly asked their elected officials to use their authority to overturn Citizens United and renew this nation’s commitment to elections where votes matter more than dollars.
The anger, the frustration, the fear and loathing that extends from the 2016 presidential race is real. It will find many expressions. One of them must be a bold and unapologetic call for democracy—a call grounded in the recognition that Donald Trump did not win a mandate. He did not even win the popular vote. And a system that allows the loser to win is not sufficient for a nation that proposes to be of, by, and for the people.
On the eve of the 2016 election, songwriter Leonard Cohen died at age eighty-two. His passing was announced after the election, and for those of us who cherished his genius, the news made a tough week tougher. But Cohen left us with a rallying cry.
In his quarter-century-old song “Democracy,” Cohen was not naïve. He saw every conflict and every threat. But he believed that from “the wells of disappointment,” the people would demand a politics that would get the country “past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate.”
He lauded America as “the cradle of the best and of the worst,” and went on to remind us that:
It’s here they got the range and the machinery for change and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst. It’s here the family’s broken and it’s here the lonely say that the heart has got to open in a fundamental way: Democracy is coming to the U.S.A
It will not be easy. But if the 2016 election has taught us anything, it is that radical reform is necessary. We renew ourselves not with bitterness, but with a commitment to make the change that brings democracy to the U.S.A.
John Nichols is a Progressive contributor and national affairs correspondent for The Nation.