In Defense of the Electoral College
Jude Wanniski
November 8, 2000


Memo To: Political Writers
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Two-Party System

We were being advised at the latest hour in the presidential contest that there could be a realistic chance Republican George Bush may win the popular vote, but lose in the Electoral College to Democrat Al Gore. As this possibility has been a live one for several weeks, we have been hearing from various commentators that the Electoral College system established by the Founders is obsolete and fundamentally undemocratic and should be done away with. It is probably a waste of time to discuss a constitutional amendment because three-fourths of the states would have to approve any plan to water down the political power of three-fourths of the states in favor of the most populous. Still, it is always a subject worth discussing, if only to remind us of how wise the Founding Fathers were when they dreamt up the system as a matter of necessity.

Remember, first, that the United States is the only nation that began as a state. All the other nation states in the world began as nations -- roughly homogenous cultural entities -- which organized themselves into task-oriented states. The United States began as individual aggregations of varied immigrant people came together, bringing forth a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, etc. In his defense of the Electoral College this week, George Will notes that there was never an intent that our political system be majoritarian. If Al Gore were to win in the Electoral College when all the popular votes are counted and the majority are cast for Bush, we still would consider that the best man won and the national electorate will be satisfied that the differences that remain in our varied population were composed more satisfactorily in the Vice President than in the Texas Governor.

In a family unit, as I wrote in The Way the World Works, it is often the case that the minority outvotes the majority, but the majority is satisfied with the outcome. The example I used concerned a decision being made on whether to vacation at the shore or in the mountains. If one of the children has a powerful desire to vacation in the mountains and can express the intensity and validity of his choice on his brother and sister, he can swing the whole family in that direction. For Gore to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote to Bush, he would be doing essentially that, expressing a willingness to represent the intensity and validity of the interests of certain members of the national family. If there were no Electoral College, these weights could not be felt in the national decision-making process and the net result would be less satisfying to the national family. In our vacationing family, there is always next year, where the shore will win out after the summer in the mountains. In our political system, the Founders arranged chances for a change in the national direction every two years, as the people choose their representatives in the House of Representatives all at the same time. Mid-course corrections are made in this way.

If there were no Electoral College, though, a system would have to evolve which would take into account more or less intensity among varied sections of the population. There could be no two-party system. This is why the United States is the only country in the world with a two-party system, although the Founders allowed for the possibility of new parties entering the process, which would either replace one of the existing two, or dissolve when its work is done. This is also like a family unit, where there is a husband and a wife, a father and a mother, where primary decisions have to be composed by extended conversation, negotiation and healthy bipartisanship. If the husband/wife decision-making process frays, there is always the chance of a new adult entering the discussion, wooing away one or the other in a new arrangement.

In every other country in the world, there are permanent third parties that draw upon one or the other parties to form governing coalitions. It would be like a family where one husband were permitted two wives, or one wife, two husbands. It is more difficult for such arrangements to work at an optimum, which is one reason our system has produced the most enduring. In countries which remain basically homogenous, there is less diversity to be represented. Japan has essentially a one-party system, with differences being composed through its private cultural mechanisms. China is also a state that began as a nation several millennia ago. Its differences are composed through these ancient, learned cultural mechanisms we scarcely can understand. Those Americans who insist China must have a two-party democracy like ours may have to wait a few hundred years, at least, before that happens. Meanwhile, we will continue to celebrate our own unique system, created to fit a unique condition and set of needs. We are the nation of nations, and the Electoral College works as well as it does because it permits temporary special needs to be met. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.