Until recently, I had no idea how much liberal Democrats love Election Day. They enjoy it so much they want it to go on for weeks, at least in select Florida counties. It’s difficult to detect a similar enthusiasm for Constitution Day, alas, but then today’s liberals believe in a “living” and “growing” Constitution, so perhaps for them every day is Constitution Day—the celebration of that day’s Constitution, or of that day’s election returns tweaking the Constitution.
The 20th century has been, on the whole, the century of modern liberalism. You’ve probably heard the wisecrack that the only thing liberalism is concerned to liberate modern man from is his marriage contract. Not so, I’m afraid. Born in the Progressive movement and fastened on the country in subsequent bursts of political and cultural change, liberalism has sought a more comprehensive liberation—from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the moral principles that inspired and in turn were inspired by them.
The Claremont Review of Books, whose inaugural issue you hold in your hands, seeks to restore the principles of the American founding to their rightful, preeminent place in our national life. Why a book review, you might ask? Because it is a format that conservatives have not exploited, and we think that conservatives need, persistently and farsightedly, to wage the battle of ideas at the level of ideas rather than merely at the level of particular policies, important as they are. The galaxy of conservative journals and think-tanks will continue to shine brightly, of course, illuminating ideas as well as issues. But every month important conservative books and arguments languish, liberal tomes escape censure, and intelligent works of biography, history, politics, and literature remain unexamined. We aim to change that, to the best of our ability.
At the same time, we intend in each issue to reflect on current contentions and help reawaken in American politics, and especially in American conservatism, a forthright devotion to the Constitution and the principles of our political tradition. We believe this essential if conservatism is to understand its own majestic purposes, as well as to become a more effective political force.
The disorder in Florida is, in one sense, nothing unusual. Disputes over a close election happen frequently in American politics, and the vitriol and mistrust generated in this election and its strange sequel hardly match the bitter passions unleashed in the election of 1800. That contest, you may recall, ended with a deadlock in the Electoral College that had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, which took 36 ballots over six days to decide that Thomas Jefferson, not Aaron Burr, would be President. The incumbent, John Adams, was already out of the running, having come in third in the electoral vote. Yet in his magnificent Inaugural Address, Jefferson began to heal the country’s wounds by reminding his fellow citizens that not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” he explained. “We are all republicans—we are all federalists.”
* * *
The principle that bound, and continues to bind, political parties together in America is allegiance to the Constitution and the moral framework of republican government. What is disturbing about the election of 2000 was how thin that allegiance sometimes seemed. In the week after the so-called Election Day, Vice President Gore’s spokesmen repeatedly suggested that because Gore had won a plurality (so far) of the nationwide popular vote, he somehow must have won Florida’s popular vote, whether or not the election tally confirmed it. Furthermore, they suggested, his national plurality meant that he somehow deserved Florida’s electoral votes and thus the presidency.
In other words, it was not how Americans actually voted but how they meant to—or should have—voted that counts. This is a theory that hitherto has been at home only in banana republics and the phony “people’s republics” of the Communist world. Doubtless the Gore spokesmen got carried away in the passions of the moment, but it’s still interesting to see where they got carried away to. In any event, they never backed down from the notion that the moral high ground was held by the popular vote, not by the Electoral College.
So it is not surprising to hear that the senator-elect from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, promises that her first official act will be to support an amendment to abolish the Electoral College. You have to hand it to her. First, health care; now the Electoral College. She really has an itch to fix things that aren’t broken. In either case, her prescriptions would be a disaster.
The Electoral College is a crucial part of the Framers’ machinery for combining democracy with constitutionalism and the rule of law. In ensures that the president will be chosen not by a plebiscitary majority but by a constitutional one, distributed by states and moderated by the need to accommodate a variety of interests and viewpoints. Without the Electoral College, our political party system would fragment, smaller and more extremist parties would proliferate, and election fraud would multiply enormously. To abolish the Electoral College would be to strike at the heart of the Constitution.
Besides, if Bush wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote, he would have been elected by the constitutional majority, the only majority that has ever governed the United States as a free country.
Indeed, this is not really a question of democracy. The principles of one man, one vote, majority-rule democracy apply scrupulously in every state. Whoever finally wins the popular presidential vote in Florida will win Florida’s electoral vote, period. In truth, the issue is democracy with federalism (the Electoral College) versus democracy without federalism (a national popular vote).
In the end, the current struggle shows how willing the Clintonized Democratic Party is to break all the customary, unwritten rules of our constitutional democracy for the sake of partisan victory. These habitual rules are fostered by the Constitution, and nourish it in turn. Whatever else might be said about Mrs. Clinton, her willingness now to assault the letter of the Constitution is only the next step in the campaign waged by her husband and Al Gore against its spirit.