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Electoral College: Why We Must Decentralize Democracy

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Although it was long assumed that the electoral college favored Democrats — and this assumption continued right up to election night 2016 — Democrats in the United States have now decided the electoral college is a bad thing. Thus, we continue to see legislative efforts to do away with the electoral college, accompanied by claims that it's undemocratic.

Not All Democracy Is Created Equal

In fact, the electoral college system is neither more nor less democratic than a nationwide popular vote. It's unclear by what standard one can claim winning the presidency through 50 separate state-level elections is "less democratic" than winning one large national election.1

[RELATED: "Stop Saying 'We're a Republic, Not a Democracy'" by Ryan McMaken]

What makes the electoral college different, however, is that it was born out of recognition that the interests, concerns, and values of voters can differ greatly from place to place. Moreover, the system anticipated the phenomenon in which people in large densely populated areas would have different political values from people in other areas. The electoral college was designed to make it less likely that voters from a single region — or small number of regions — could impose their will across the entire nation.

In contrast, one large national election — as envisioned by the critics of the electoral college system — could hand national rule over to a small number of cities and regions.

But even the electoral college system is too much slanted in favor of national politics and large majorities. Far better strategies for governance can be found Swiss democracy. Thanks to the presence of a multi-lingual, culturally diverse population, the creators of the Swiss confederation sought to ensure that no single linguistic, religious, or cultural group could impose its will nationwide. Thus, Swiss democracy includes a number of provisions requiring a "double majority." That is, not only must an overall majority of Swiss voters approve certain measures, a majority of the voters in the majority of Swiss cantons must also approve.

In both cases, it is recognized that not all voters can be assumed to share the same economic, religious, and cultural interests just because they all happen to live within the boundaries of a single nation-state. 

Moreover, this assumption becomes all the more untenable the larger a political jurisdiction becomes. Is is unconvincing, for example, when nationalists assert that a protestant working-class Anglo voter in Boston, and a middle-class Catholic Hispanic landowning rancher in southern Texas, have common interests because they are both "American." In fact, their commonalities are sparse, to say the least.  These two groups live thousands of miles apart, experience very different economic realities, and are the product of two very different historical backgrounds. These two groups are unlikely to visit the same places, drive the same roads, or use the same schools.

If these two groups (and countless others) happen to participate in an election, by no realistic standard can we say the outcome reflects "the will of the people." Although we have been propagandized to think otherwise, the mere suggestion of such a thing should strike us as absurd.

Smaller Is Better

This problem, however, becomes lessened the smaller a political jurisdiction becomes. In the more ideal situations, the jurisdictions are small indeed. The median size of a Swiss canton, for example, is 234,000 people, which is the size of a small American city. The largest canton has 1.5 million people. Thus, in Switzerland, most public policy is created at a level which affects fewer than a million people. (The entire country of Switzerland has 8.5 million residents.) 

At this scale, it easy to see how differences among voters would be far more limited. Switzerland is only 220 miles across, and within a single canton, most voters are likely to share similar concerns about local infrastructure, cities, and institutions. They're more likely to share a common history, to speak the same language, and to practice the same religion. In other words, they're more likely to recognize others in their legal jurisdiction as people who truly have common concerns and needs.

This, of course, cannot be said about large jurisdictions like the United States, taken as a whole. With 320 million people across half of a continent, there is no reason to think any sizable number of people are apt to share a common sense of community or see themselves as sharing the same concerns and interests as people thousands of miles away. Certainly politicians and ideologues have long attempted to create a myth that this is possible. This is why we hear about how we all allegedly share a common heritage in the US Constitution. It's why many attempt to convince Americans to engage in quasi-religious rituals such as revering the national flag, or singing — cap in hand, and hand over heart — the same national songs. 

These are all extremely weak reeds on which to hang notions of national and democratic unity.  Given a strong enough state, however, unity can be forcibly imposed. 

The French Example

After all, coercively imposing notions of national unity and ideological sameness were the bread and butter of the French revolutionaries. It's not a coincidence that the French revolution ushered in new doctrines of "the general will," and the notion of "the people" as the lifeblood of a new ideology of the nation-state.

Unlike the liberal democratic notions of a decentralized, varied, and largely autonomous group of independent populations — eventually realized at least partially in the US and in Switzerland — the French revolutionary ideal of mass democracy required a version of democracy that was centralized, authoritarian, and heedless of the needs of various minorities. 

This was convenient given the sheer scale of the French nation-state which contained 28 million people. 

By contrast, US national democratic institutions were devised at a time when the population totaled no more than four million. Switzerland at the founding of the old Helvetic Republic in 1789 contained approximately 2 million. Moreover, governance in the United States was overwhelmingly local in its first century. The population of the entire state of New York in 1800 was less than 600,000 people.

The French state apparatus necessary to impose a single "general will" on a large national population proved to be problematic. Years of beheadings, financial crisis, factional conflict, and international war followed. Thanks to the centralization of the French state — and thus French democracy — the entire country suffered from the miseries imposed by an elite wielding nationwide power. With a political model based on the ideal of a single, democratic mass, few constitutional provisions survived to check the power of the central state. Elections thus became a high-stakes matter of seizing control of a state apparatus over a single vast territory. This was not a prescription for stability and serenity. 

Rousseau's Model of Mass Democracy

It is a great irony that much of the inspiration for France's national democracy came from Switzerland itself.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who exerted great influence in French ideas of democracy and the "general will," formed many of his ideas about democracy from his experiences in the relatively democratic Republic of Geneva.

Born in Geneva to a family with voting rights, Rousseau appears to have internalized a somewhat idealized view of how Genevan democracy worked. Genevan democracy, of course, functioned on a very small scale, and it worked fairly well.

In his essay "The Background of the French Revolution," Lord Acton discussed how Rousseau's idealized views of democracy were affected by his positive experiences in Geneva:

Rousseau was the citizen of a small republic, consisting of a single town, and he professed to have applied its example to the government of the world. It was Geneva, not as he saw it, but as he extracted its essential principle ... The idea was that the grown men met in the market place, like the peasants of Glarus under their trees, to manage their affairs, making and unmaking officials, conferring and revoking powers. They were equal, because every man had exactly the same right to defend his interest by the guarantee of his vote. The welfare of all was safe in the hands of all, for they had not the separate interests that are bred by the egotism of wealth, nor the exclusive views that come from a distorted education. All being equal in power and similar in purpose, there can be no just cause why some should move apart and break into minorities.

To assume, however, that the same situation is achievable at the scale of the French republic with nearly 30 million is a blunder of impressive size. The reasons for this are well explained by Acton:

Now the most glaring and familiar fact in history shows that the direct self-government of a town cannot be extended over an empire. It is a plan that scarcely reaches beyond the next parish. Either one district will be governed by another, or both by somebody else chosen for the purpose. Either plan contradicts first principles. Subjection is the direct negation of democracy; representation is the indirect. So that an Englishman underwent bondage to parliament as much as Lausanne to Berne or as America to England if it had submitted to taxation, and by law recovered his liberty but once in seven years. Consequently Rousseau, still faithful to Swiss precedent as well as to the logic of his own theory, was a federalist. In Switzerland, when one half of a canton disagrees with the other, or the country with the town, it is deemed natural that hey should break into two, that the general will may not oppress minorities. This multiplication of self-governing communities was admitted by Rousseau as a preservative of unanimity on one hand, and of liberty on the other.

Thus, Acton understood the protection of freedom lies in division, decentralization, and the liberation of minorities. For Rousseau, however, his latent federalism was no match for the idea of a national will of the people. Any idea of Swiss-style federalism collapsed under the fervor for a single national legislature that could impose the wishes of all the "French nation" to every corner of the Republic's jurisdiction. 

After all, why divide up the democratic mass if "the people" as a whole are never wrong? "Rousseau's most advanced point was the doctrine that the people are infallible," Acton wrote. "Jurieu had taught that they can do no wrong: Rousseau added that they are positively in the right."

Unfortunately, this ideal has never lost its appeal to many, and it continues to plague American politics with the idea that a "will of the people" can be realized in large scale elections across populations of tens of millions. After all, the abandonment of locally-based democracy is not just a problem at the federal level. The state of California today has more people than all of France during the revolution. New York, Texas, and Florida are not far behind. All of these states are controlled by unitary governments lacking provisions that temper democracy and protect minorities. Such a state of affairs would be unrecognizable to the Americans of the nineteenth century.  By their standards, the US has become a country of mega-states, mass democracy, and enormous republics that Rousseau might have looked on with approval. On the other hand, the best solution lies in a peaceful embrace of division, secession, decentralization, and disunity. Unfortunately, the electoral college controversy suggests the US is moving in exactly the opposite direction. As a result, division and disunity will still likely come, but in a much more violent way than what might have been.

  • 1. Some "constitutionalists" will claim presidents are really chosen by the 538 appointed electors. The de facto reality of presidential outcomes, however, is clearly based on the popular elections in each of the states and territories. Any sizable attempt to circumvent that system, no matter how much de jure support the old non-popular system may have received 200 years ago, would likely lead to a constitutional crisis, and probable intervention by the Supreme Court in favor of state-level popular elections. Thus, the current method employed is currently a democratic one by any realistic definition of the term. One can reasonably argue for a return of the old elector-based system, but that's not the current system we have, except in name only.

Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy, finance, and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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