In the weeks leading up to the Presidential Election, Professor of History Daniel Singal wrote about the need for the Electoral College system as a measure to avoid extremism. His most recently published guest essay appeared in the Democrat and Chronicle on Nov. 3.
In the piece titled “Abolishing Electoral College would benefit extremists,” Singal argues abolishing the Electoral College, as was suggested amidst polls predicting a tight election for 2012 “is an idea that may sound good at first, but one that would wreak havoc on our nation’s political system. Put simply, the Electoral College has turned out to be one of the most brilliant innovations the Founding Fathers devised. Its virtue is that it directs our politics to the center of the political spectrum, helping us to avoid the extremism that might otherwise rule the day.”
A member of the faculty since 1980, Singal earned a B. A. from Harvard magna cum laude and a M.A. and Ph.D., (with distinction) from Columbia. He is the author of “William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist” (Chapel Hill), and “The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945” (Chapel Hill).
The full article follows.
Democrat and Chronicle
Guest essay: Abolishing Electoral College would benefit extremists
Daniel Singal • November 3, 2012
With a close presidential election predicted for 2012, proposals for abolishing the Electoral College are again filling the air. This is an idea that may sound good at first, but one that would wreak havoc on our nation’s political system. Put simply, the Electoral College has turned out to be one of the most brilliant innovations the Founding Fathers devised. Its virtue is that it directs our politics to the center of the political spectrum, helping us to avoid the extremism that might otherwise rule the day.
In battleground states, independent voters in the middle of the spectrum gain tremendous leverage. Since those states are usually decided by a few percentage points, the candidates must gear their appeal to those “swing voters,” who are open to either side. Candidates running for the House and Senate must coordinate with the presidential campaigns of their parties, pushing our entire political process toward the center.
Think of what would occur if we elected presidents by a popular majority vote. Democratic candidates would camp out in places like New York and California, milking those states for the greatest number of votes, while Republicans would flock to the Deep South and the Midwest. In each case they would focus on their base, which means that Democrats would move to the far left and Republicans to the far right. The tone and substance of our politics would change dramatically for the worse.
It’s true that the country currently is mired in partisan gridlock. This kind of warfare occurs periodically in our history when we reach a critical crossroads. We are currently faced with a choice between two visions: one in which government is used to grow the economy while also solving major social problems like health care, and another in which government is cut to the bone and an unregulated free market is allowed to tackle those problems. If history is any guide, a firm majority of American voters will eventually opt for one of those visions and the gridlock will be broken. In the meantime, the Electoral College will help to keep partisanship under control. Those who believe things are bad should understand that the partisan conflict would be far more intense if the Electoral College did not exist.
Democracy is a messy process that requires us to be patient while a nation of 300 million people agonizes over a fundamental decision. What has always made that process work is our tradition of ultimately coming together in the pragmatic center while avoiding the temptations of extremism. That has been the secret of our nation’s success, which is why tampering with the Electoral College is a very bad idea.
Singal is a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.