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Steve Forbes explains why the Electoral College is fundamental for the US political ecosystem and that shattering it would have dire consequences.
Critics of the much-maligned Electoral College overlook one of its fundamental virtues: tamping down dangerously divisive politics. Advocates of replacing this “18th-century anachronism” with a straight popular vote implicitly assume the current two-party system would remain intact and that the candidate with the most individual votes—instead of electoral votes—would win the White House. That’s the way things work for every other elected office in the U.S.; why wouldn’t it be so for the most important one of all?
But the basic two-party arrangement we take for granted exists only because of the Electoral College. To win the presidency, a candidate has to appeal to people across the country. A nationwide coalition is essential to gaining a majority in the Electoral College. A narrow sectional or special-interest base simply won’t cut it. That’s why our parties are collections of many diverse interests and backgrounds, reflecting the character of this continental nation whose citizens, or forebears, have come from all corners of the world and reflect a wide array of cultures and beliefs. It’s why supporters of the Democratic and Republican parties are so often uneasy with one another. GOP voters in the Northeast, for instance, who tend to emphasize economic issues such as low taxes, are put off by social conservatives.
The system puts a premium on moderation. Yes, candidates can advocate bold programs, but they have to do so in ways that don’t alienate more tepid members of their party, not to mention independent voters. The Electoral College’s systemic bias for softening the rough, potentially dangerous edges of national politics has enabled us for over two centuries to debate and resolve even bitterly contentious issues without tearing apart the country and leaving wounds that can fester for generations. The exception, of course, was the issue of slavery. Otherwise, the tendency to move toward moderation and inclusion has held.
Look at the Democrats. The party has indeed lunged to the left, but behold what’s happened to its presidential wannabes who most faithfully parroted the extreme views of far-left activists on such matters as rigid anti-individual identity politics or an immediate government takeover of health care: They’ve floundered or have tried to soften the sharpness of their views. Elizabeth Warren’s once expanding bubble deflated once she had to explain how she was going to pay for all the “free stuff” she was promising.
If one of the parties does veer far from the existing center, it will suffer a shattering defeat, as the Democrats did in 1972 when they nominated a far-left candidate who ended up carrying only one state and the District of Columbia. Along the same lines, because candidates have to wage nationwide campaigns to win, the Electoral College forces these contenders to become familiar with local and regional issues they might otherwise overlook, most particularly in battleground states. The current arrangement does more to give a voice to minorities, people whose support could be crucial in key states.
A direct popular vote for president would shatter this political ecosystem that’s uniquely suited to America. Our Founders knew exactly what they were doing when they created the Electoral College. We ignore their wisdom at our peril.
Text: Steve Forbes
The article was published in our February 2020 edition „Space“.