Democracy or Republic

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently that she wanted to abolish the electoral college. Representative Dan Crenshaw argued that she didn’t seem to understand that the country was a republic rather than a democracy. Crenshaw doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the two.

Three points:

  1. It’s a false choice. We are, of course, a democratic republic. A pure democracy is when the people vote to decide whether or not to go to war. A republic is when a representative of the people rather than the people themselves decides whether or not to go to war. A democratic republic is when those people choose a representative and that representative decides whether or not to go to war.

  2. It’s a red herring. The electoral college is not what makes this a republic rather than a democracy. The placement of representatives in positions to make decisions on behalf of the people is what makes this a republic. The electoral college is a means by which those representatives can be insulated from the will of the majority of their constituents. The problem is not that we are a democratic republic rather than a pure democracy but that we are increasingly an anti-democratic republic, wherein the will of the people is subverted when they attempt to choose representatives. Rather than the representatives insulating decisions from the pure will of the people by virtue of their making hundreds of small decisions and being judged on the totality of their performance, we have representatives who are insulated from democratic accountability by outside institutions that are superfluous to the question entirely (gerrymandered house districts, non-proportional senate seats, voter suppression, and an electoral college inseparable from those things). Crenshaw misunderstands the question or (more likely) is obfuscating.

  3. It’s impossible to take seriously an argument about the purposes of the electoral college to the founders without its context in the constitutional debate. First and foremost, the electoral college was never expected to cast its votes with the popular vote of its state. That was assumed to be the most likely outcome, but they were not bound to do so and were expected to be independent. Just like Senators were meant both to balance the power of smaller states in the legislature and insulate that power from direct democracy by having them be elected by members of the House. We’ve demolished most of the Republican aspects of our constitutional structure and kept only those that enable an entrenched minority to keep most of the levers of power even as their vote share shrinks. But perhaps more important is the reason for the college in the first place. James Madison noted that the debate over how to elect a president hung on the South’s being unwilling to be subject to the will of the North, in large part because of it’s peculiar institution (slavery). The paradox lay in the fact that, if the South counted its slaves as part of its population, then it would achieve something close to parity with the northern states. If the president were directly elected, the South would need to allow slaves to vote in order to claim its full power as based on its population. The convention reached a compromise by (1) designating each slave as 3/5 of a person and (2) using the electoral college to base a state’s power on its population without having to allow that entire population to vote. It was a means by which the South could be allotted power based on its population of slaves without having to give those slaves the right to vote.

Crenshaw and a lot of other defenders of the electoral college defend only half of it. They argue that it protects small states from the will of big states (though I’m not sure why I get less of a voice for living in New York City than my parents do for living in Virginia). Putting aside that this is a fundamentally undemocratic idea in the first place, they ignore the history of the electoral college, its original purposes, and all the ways that it is superfluous to the very (small ‘r’) republican argument that they’re making.

It’s annoying.