Need a break from reading about COVID-19? I don’t blame you. The virus and the reaction to it have robbed us of precious lives, thrown our economy into a tailspin, and subjected our fundamental freedoms to unprecedented intrusion.
Our families, communities, and traditions will ultimately prevail — of that I (still) have little doubt. One way we can ensure that outcome is to think deeply and carefully, as fellow citizens of a free society, about the subtle and ingenious balance of powers and interests that lay beneath our social institutions.
Oversimplification is a dangerous temptation, especially in those who wield the coercive power of government. “Explanations exist, they have existed for all time,” the social critic H.L. Mencken once wrote. “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
Today’s non-COVID-related examples are our United States Senate and Electoral College. Under the provisions of the federal constitution, the upper chamber of the legislative branch isn’t apportioned by population and we don’t hold direct national elections for president.
Some progressives now advocate changing both of these features, pointing to the fact that Donald Trump (like George W. Bush before him) won his initial election without a majority of the popular vote, and that the current makeup of the Senate is skewed Republican by its lack of proportional representation.
Both institutions are departures from the abstract principle of direct democracy, to be sure. They are intentional departures, reflecting a broader deal among the blocs of large and small states that made the creation of a federal union possible in the first place. During the 1787 convention in Philadelphia, the more-populous states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts favored a system of apportioning members of Congress according to population.
Less-populous states such as New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut objected. While containing fewer residents, they nevertheless considered themselves to be sovereign states among other equally sovereign states, not merely sidekicks to the big ones.
Membership of the two blocs didn’t follow population counts precisely, however. Despite having the fifth-highest population, New York — or, at least, most of its delegates — initially sided with the small states. On the other hand, Georgia and South Carolina were more sparsely populated states but expected westward expansion to change that over time, so they favored the large-state bloc.
How was the matter resolved? The core of the Great Compromise was to base the House on population and the Senate on state equality. North Carolina was the fulcrum. It was originally one of the six members of the “large” state bloc, vs. five in the “small” state bloc (two of the 13 states were absent).
But when the final vote came, New York no longer had enough delegates to vote and the Massachusetts delegation was divided. That would still have yielded a 5-4 victory for the large states — except that North Carolina switched its vote, thanks primarily to the efforts of William Richardson Davie, a future governor and founder of the University of North Carolina. The compromise was struck.
Nearly two centuries later, another prominent North Carolina politician, Sen. Sam Ervin, played a key role in saving the Electoral College.
After Richard Nixon won a narrow popular-vote plurality in 1968 but won a solid Electoral College majority, the idea of eliminating the institution gained steam. It might have passed in 1970 had Ervin, a conservative Democrat, not allied with liberal Sen. Eugene McCarthy to lobby strenuously to preserve the system. Among their arguments was that chasing electoral votes motivated presidential candidates to campaign outside of populous metropolitan areas and that the system contained the effects of voter fraud and endless ballot recounts that might otherwise paralyze the nation when a presidential election is close.
Might Americans one day decide to modify either or both institutions? Perhaps. But that can’t, and shouldn’t, be done by a simple majority. A far broader bipartisan consensus is required — one reached by deliberate conversation, rather than in reaction to a fleeting political moment.