Consent of the Governed, Part 2

This past Monday, the president nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.  The balance of power being what it is, unless Kavanaugh is found with a dead girl or a live boy (in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards), he will be confirmed by the Senate later this year and the nation’s highest court will be as ideologically conservative as it has ever been in our lifetimes.

From the moment Justice Kennedy announced his retirement last month, liberals have been running around the airwaves with their hair on fire, screaming that this development constitutes the end of the world as we know it.  That the replacement of Kennedy’s so-called moderation with the true blue right-wingery of his successor will usher in a generation of irreversibly destructive decisions on every issue the left holds sacred, from abortion rights to gun control to civil liberties to campaign finance reform.

While Democrats’ concerns about Kavanaugh are undoubtedly well-founded—after all, he comes pre-packaged and pre-approved by the conservative judge factory known as the Federalist Society—they are also misleading and incomplete, insomuch as they overlook a much larger and more profound fact:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old.

Lament Kennedy’s departure if you wish, but the truth is that he was a fundamentally right-wing jurist whose flirtations with progressive causes, however crucial, were few and far between.  While he is rightly credited with preserving abortion rights in 1992 and effectuating same-sex marriage in 2015, he is equally responsible for the majority opinions in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC—the two worst Supreme Court decisions since Plessy v. Ferguson, according to most liberals.  During the most recent term, he voted with the court’s conservative wing in every high-profile case that was decided by a 5-4 vote.  Every.  Single.  One.

Long story short:  Replacing Kennedy with a rock-ribbed conservative will not be the end of the world as we know it.  But replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a rock-ribbed conservative?  That will be the end of the world as we know it.

Perhaps it is bad form to observe that most human beings do not live forever, but if the Democratic Party is truly freaked out about losing every major Supreme Court case for a generation or more, it must come to grips with the fact that its most beloved and indispensable justice—the Notorious RBG—is an octogenarian and two-time cancer patient who, for health reasons, might need to leave the bench before the next Democratic president takes office.  Ginsburg may intend to serve well beyond the current administration, but then again, so did Antonin Scalia on February 12, 2016.

If Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer plan to make themselves useful in the coming months, they ought to emphasize, in no certain terms, that a Republican-majority Senate in 2018-2019 guarantees the appointment of Judge Kavanaugh—already a foregone conclusion, so far as I can tell—and that the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020 makes it exceedingly likely the court will contain only three—or perhaps only two—liberals by the end of Trump’s second term.  (Ginsburg’s like-minded colleague Stephen Breyer turns 80 next month.)

Elections have consequences, and one of them is a Supreme Court shaped in the image of the sitting commander-in-chief—an arrangement that has been in place continuously since 1787.

The left can whine all it wants about Russian shenanigans and Mitch McConnell’s dirty tricks vis-à-vis Merrick Garland, but the fact remains that people voted for president in November 2016 in the full knowledge that a) the winning candidate would be selecting the successor to the late Antonin Scalia, and that b) there would almost surely be additional openings on the court before his or her presidential tenure was up.  Candidate Trump made this point repeatedly on the campaign trail.  In retrospect, Hillary Clinton did not make it nearly enough—a mistake her party’s candidate in 2020 would be well-advised to avoid.

Lame as it may sound, Neil Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court today because Donald Trump received the most electoral votes in 2016 and there weren’t enough Democrats in the Senate to stop him.  Brett Kavanaugh will be on the Supreme Court this fall for precisely the same reason.

If you find this situation intolerable, you have two choices:  You can vote for Democratic senators on November 6, 2018, and for a Democratic presidential candidate on November 3, 2020.  Or you can assume John Roberts will magically evolve into a liberal overnight and that Ruth Bader Ginsberg will live to 120.

Personally, I’d recommend Option No. 1, however inconvenient it might be.  You’d be surprised what a democracy can accomplish when its citizens behave democratically.


The New Abnormal

Donald Trump has been president for exactly six months.  By my calculations, that means he has 90 months to go before he’s done.

That’s right:  90 months.  Seven-and-a-half years.  Two presidential terms.

You heard it here first:  Trump is going to be re-elected in 2020, and he’s going to serve until January 20, 2025.  He will not be impeached.  He will not be removed.  He will not die.  And he will not resign.

That’s not a prediction.  That’s a goddamned guarantee.

I haven’t the slightest idea how he’s going to pull this off—Lord knows I didn’t foresee last year’s shenanigans three-and-a-half years in advance—but nor have I any doubt that he could, and almost surely will.  If recent U.S. history teaches us anything, it’s that if you can win a presidential election once, you can win a presidential election twice.  Four of our last five commanders-in-chief have done just that, and there is little reason to expect this trend to abate with the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Trump is going to be an eight-year national problem, and we might as well get used to it now.  Don’t expect him to disappear ahead of schedule, or to go gently into that good night.  He has spent the first 71 years of his life steadfastly refusing to yield his place in the national conversation, never giving anyone a moment’s peace.  Why would years 72 to 78 be any different?

They won’t be.  Trump is not going to change any part of his core identity before he dies, and perhaps the most essential among them is his primal, obsessive need for total victory—as he calls it, “winning.”  Knowing, as he does, that being a one-term president would be an abject humiliation and would brand him an electoral “loser” for all eternity—indeed, doubly so, considering his failure to secure the popular vote the first time around—he is surely prepared to do literally anything to prevent such an eventuality from happening, up to and including breaking every social and political norm that he hasn’t already violated.

Think he’s corrupt and unsavory now?  Just you wait, Henry Higgins.  Just you wait.

Of course, I could be getting carried away, allowing misguided cynicism to obscure certain realities that are staring us squarely in the face.  The obvious rejoinder to my dour political forecast—the one you will hear from every white-knuckled left-wing media source in America—is that the sheer weight of ridiculous scandal already engulfing the Trump administration will ultimately destroy it—if not now, then within a few months, and if not within a few months, then sometime between now and the end of the first term.  Trump forever being his own worst enemy—devoid of scruples, subtlety and any sense of civic responsibility—he will sooner or later cross a red line—legally and/or morally—that the American public will view as the proverbial last straw and will then demand Congress dispose of him once and for all, which its exasperated members will presumably be all-to-happy to do.

Such has become the reigning fantasy of the Trump era:  The assumption that after two-plus years of getting away with slaughtering one sacred cow after another, Trump will eventually say or do something so profoundly beyond the pale that the entire country will drop everything and say, “That does it.  This man can no longer be the president.”  Evidently, nothing he has done so far has risen to that level—including that time he bragged about having committed sexual assault.

In any case, the crux of this hopeful narrative is the basic fact of Trump’s terminally low approval ratings since entering the White House—numbers that seem to remain in the toilet irrespective of how he behaves on any given day.  While much was made of a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey that pegged the president’s support at a historically awful 36 percent, the truth is that his numbers have barely moved since the moment he took the oath of office.  (According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating has ranged between 36 and 42 percent every day since April 29, and has never once risen above 46.)

How, you ask, could someone who has yet to garner the support of 50 percent of the public—and likely never will—possibly win the next presidential election under any circumstances?  It’s a sensible enough question—or it would be, except for the 16 U.S. presidents who have done exactly that.

That’s right:  More than one in three of America’s commanders-in-chief achieved ultimate power without winning a majority of the popular vote.  Of those 16 men, five (including Trump) lost the national popular vote outright, while the remaining 11 won a plurality of the popular vote but were denied an absolute majority thanks to multiple opponents who split the vote amongst themselves.  Three chief executives—Clinton, Wilson and Cleveland—managed to pull this off twice, so who is to say it will not happen again in 2020?

Having won by losing once already, Trump plainly understands that he doesn’t need broad support on anything to eke out a victory 42 months hence.  Gifted a lousy Democratic opponent and a halfway-viable third party nominee—both of which are entirely within the realm of plausibility—Trump could squeak back into the White House with little more than 40 or 41 percent.  As ever, the only number that truly matters is 270—a majority in the Electoral College—which Trump could hit merely by holding 26 of the 30 states he won last November.

And how will he accomplish that?  By doing what he does best:  Bluffing.

Regardless of his actual domestic record after four years, he will proclaim himself the most successful chief executive in history.  Regardless of the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation, he will declare himself not guilty on all charges.  Regardless of whatever happens in North Korea, the Middle East and God knows where else, he will boast of having defeated ISIS, staunched illegal immigration and Made America Great Again.

All such behavior will be perfectly predictable, stemming, as it does, from Trump’s nature as a delusional narcissist who is somehow also a world-class con artist.  As Sarah Ellison writes in this month’s Vanity Fair, “[Trump] is a pathogen, doing what pathogens do, and as surprised as anyone to have found himself replicating in the nation’s bloodstream.”

The question, then, is how many marks Trump’s act will attract this time around, and whether enough of them will turn out to the polls on November 3, 2020.

It is my view that enough of them will, and that this miserable circus will go on for precisely 2,922 days longer than most people expected on November 7, 2016.  Despite the incompetence and despite the fraud, Trump will remain leader of the free world for eight full years.

Why?  Because, fundamentally, Americans are leery of abandoning a known quantity who wields supreme power.  We like stability and familiarity in our leaders, and while Trump does not exactly embody the former, he has long mastered the art of distracting America from one controversy by bungling into a new one, thereby resetting the 24-hour media game clock and nudging the goalposts of moral outrage ever-farther down the field.

For all the warnings on the left to never accept Trump and his methods as “the new normal,” it is human nature to adapt to a changing environment over time.  Like the famous frog who adjusts to a gradually-warming pot of water, the American public has learned to assimilate the president’s singularly bizarre and dangerous behavior as an organic feature of the current political landscape.  His unpredictability has itself become predictable, and millions of our fellow citizens take real, if perverse, comfort from not knowing what the hell he’s going to do next.

George Carlin once said, “When you’re born in this world, you are given a ticket to the freak show.  When you’re born in America, you are given a front row seat.”  It was in that same spirit that, in June 2015—as the campaign was just beginning—The Onion ran a story, faux-written by Trump himself, titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”

Well:  don’t we?

When the Unthinkable Happens

A few years back, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a terrific little book called Revolutionary Summer, which revisited the events of 1776 in Philadelphia and New York, and concluded that the entire fate of the Revolutionary War—and, therefore, the United States itself—was sealed in those few extraordinary months.

The essence of Ellis’s case was that, although Great Britain enjoyed overwhelming tactical advantages throughout the war—its troops were better-armed, better-trained, more experienced and, by far, more numerous—in the end, the Continental Army was fundamentally unbeatable.  As the war’s home team—its soldiers culled from the very land on which they were fighting—George Washington’s troops were an endlessly renewable resource with everything to gain and very little to lose.  As miserable as their experience was, they were never going to give up the fight, since, unlike the British, they had nowhere else to go.

“Whereas most people have said, ‘How in heaven’s name did a ragtag group of amateur soldiers defeat the greatest military power on the planet?’” said Ellis upon the release of his book, “The real issue is:  Did the British ever really have a chance?  I don’t think they did.”

It’s a compelling piece of historical revisionism, and a companion to Ellis’s assertion in his most celebrated book, Founding Brothers, that “no event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.”

So improbable at the time, so inevitable in retrospect.  Those words have been floating around my head a lot over the last 48 hours, as I continue to grapple with the fact that a racist, authoritarian windbag has been elected the 45th president of the United States, despite assurances by just about every political pundit on Earth that such a thing could never, ever occur on American soil.

Well, it did occur.  Practically no one expected it, but it happened, anyway.  And as half the country reaches for the cyanide tablets, stuck somewhere between denial and depression on the Kübler-Ross scale, we have to wonder how history is going to handle the events of 2016 many years from now.

Will the ascendancy of Donald Trump be seen as an inexplicable aberration in an otherwise logical series of events?  A perfect storm of madness caused by a handful of Mississippi Klansmen and an Electoral College snafu?  An insane historical theft of America’s first woman president by a boor who never really wanted the job in the first place?

Or—to Ellis’s point—will we instead come to view Trump’s victory as completely foreseeable?  As a natural progression of American populism that began with extreme anger toward George W. Bush and gradually transformed into extreme anger toward Barack Obama?  In other words, after spending the balance of 2016 more or less assuming Hillary Clinton had this thing in the bag, will we ultimately conclude that a Trump win was the only possible way this election could’ve ended?

History has a way of surprising us in big ways, and it’s the job of both historians and the general public to continually re-interpret everything that ever happened in the past to understand what the hell is happening in the present.

After 9/11, for instance, many people decided that the late 1990s weren’t quite as peaceful as they seemed at the time, as bands of jihadists worked secretly on a plan to totally upend the world order.  More than eight decades earlier, the entire nature of Europe was reassessed after a 19-year-old Serb murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, somehow triggering a world war that claimed 16 million lives and ended four empires.  I dare say that few people saw that coming prior to 1914.

While it is yet to be seen whether the rise of Donald Trump will stand as an equally cataclysmic event in human affairs—and, if so, what sort of cataclysm it will be—we are already tasked with reverse-engineering the narrative of 2016 so it matches up with what it produced in the end.  Had Hillary Clinton won on Tuesday—as we thought she was destined to do—the story of this election would’ve been the shattering of the glass ceiling, the vindication of Barack Obama’s presidency and the rejection of the brutalism that Trump and his “basket of deplorables” so proudly and execrably represent.

Instead, we got the exact opposite in every respect, and it will take quite a while for us to collectively agree on just what that means in the long arc of history.  We could conclude—as many analysts have—that Trump’s win signifies that his anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, isolationist bellowing resonated with a majority of Americans, but how do we square that with the fact that Hillary Clinton actually received more votes nationwide?  While the Electoral College allowed Trump to become the next president, how can we say that Trump’s message won the day when his name was marked on only the second-highest number of ballots?

In time, we may know for sure.  For now, we can only guess.

The journalist I.F. Stone famously said that history is more of a tragedy than a morality tale.  At the moment, perhaps an even more fitting sentiment comes from James Joyce, who called history “a nightmare from which I am trying to wake.”  Either way, the essential lesson is that events don’t always unfold as you think they should—or, indeed, as you think they must—and that sometimes the unthinkable is staring us right in the face, if only we had the nerve to see it.

Like America itself, the notion of Donald Trump as president was a crazy, reckless, impossible idea right up until the moment that it became a living, groping reality.  We all assured each other the American people had a certain moral firewall that would prevent certain things from ever happening, yet now we have all become President Muffley in Dr. Strangelove, bitterly informing General Turgidson, “I am becoming less and less interested in your estimates of what is possible and impossible.”

That is the correct attitude to strike about the nature of human events, and history has borne it out over and over again.  Now that an American Mussolini is going to be the most powerful person on planet Earth, we no longer have the luxury to assume the world will ever again make any sense.

Losers Never Win

Is this it, folks?  Is this how the 2016 election will end?  Not with a bang, but with a blowout?

Crunching the numbers from the most recent batch of opinion polls, we find that Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump in the race for president by eight percentage points nationwide.  Breaking it down state-by-state—as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight continues to do better than any other human—it appears that, if the election were held today, Clinton would defeat Trump in the Electoral College by a score of 364-174—the largest victory since Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996.  Specifically, Hillary would win every state Barack Obama won in 2012, plus North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia—the last of which no Democratic candidate has won since 1992.

Again, that’s all based on the numbers today.  If we based it on the numbers yesterday, Clinton would win North Carolina but not Arizona or Georgia.  If we backed up a few days more, she would still prevail, but only by a hair.

From this, we can draw one of two completely different conclusions:  Either a) today’s polls are too hyperactive to be taken seriously three months before the fact, or b) Clinton’s numbers will continue to rise—and Trump’s will continue to fall—resulting in the most lopsided presidential election result since Ronald Reagan won 49 states in 1984.

Deep down, everyone knows the correct answer is “a.”  Even if the polls themselves can be taken at face value—a dubious proposition, at best—an awful lot of nonsense can occur over the next 91 days—particularly when at least one candidate has a vested interest in chaos and a proven knack for generating it himself.

Which is all to say that this week’s stats mean very close to nothing, since they will soon be superseded by next week’s stats—themselves the result of various unforeseen events—and not even Nate Silver can anticipate the unexpected.  By the second Tuesday of November—some 13 weeks hence—no one will remember a thing about what happened in the first week of August.

That is, unless they do.  Unless we look back—say, on November 9th—and conclude that the week-and-a-half following the Democratic National Convention marked the moment when all the pieces of this wild election finally fell into place.  When—after a year of dithering—a convincing majority of Americans finally took a long, hard look at Donald Trump and said, “This man is a terrible human being.  For the love of God, let’s vote for literally anybody else.”

If Clinton wins this election—particularly if she wins big—that’s exactly what we will say, and we will be absolutely right.  If her suddenly-commanding lead holds for the duration and Trump goes down in ignominious defeat, we will mark this period as the tipping point, noting—among other things—the veritable avalanche of Republican lawmakers and dignitaries who have publicly—and seemingly in unison—declared their opposition to letting Donald Trump anywhere near the Oval Office, voicing their disgust with their party’s nominee in no uncertain terms.

If all goes according to plan, these past several days will have been when America finally ended its flirtation with a bizarro fantasy world and snapped back into reality once and for all.

Now, I’m not holding my breath on this, and neither should anybody else (particularly Hillary Clinton).  But let’s run with this Trump-is-toast theory for a moment, if only to take a crack at a question Salman Rushdie recently posed on Real Time with Bill Maher:  “What is Trump’s kryptonite?  What is the thing that is finally going to get him?”

Up until now, we have never quite figured that one out, since every absurd, embarrassing incident that was supposed to sink Trump’s candidacy has only made him more popular with his peeps—hence the funhouse mirror feel of this whole ridiculous experience.

So—now that it appears Candidate Trump may well be mortally wounded—what exactly happened?  What was different about the last few weeks—compared to the 13 months that preceded them—to finally get it into people’s heads that this man is fundamentally unfit for the highest office in the land?

As we ponder this great mystery, let us step back and realize that we are talking about an extremely small, select group of our fellow citizens.  Whatever people may tell pollsters, it seems safe to say that the number of voting Americans who have yet to form an opinion of Donald Trump—be it positive or negative—could probably fit comfortably inside a single conference room of a local Marriott.  (Perhaps we should keep them there until they make up their minds.)

The truth is that, when it comes to Trump—and, by turns, the election—90-something percent of us are totally unreachable, convinced either that he is the greatest thing since gluten-free bread or is, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “an extinction-level event.”

Puzzling over why Trump has proved so impervious to his own faults is a bit like asking why trans fats haven’t stopped most of us from eating red meat:  We Americans do whatever we damn well please, and we won’t let trivial considerations like heart disease or nuclear war induce us into altering our behavior.

That is, except for a few us every now and again.

So sure, maybe Trump’s insane confrontation with a Gold Star family pushed some voters over the edge—even though he has slandered other military heroes in the past.  Maybe the relentless parade of anti-Trump speeches at the Democratic National Convention convinced fence-sitters of things that a year’s worth of Trump’s own behavior had not.  Maybe this unprecedented coming-out of #NeverTrump Republicans has underlined this man’s unhinged, unprincipled narcissism more persuasively than when it came from the mouths of liberal Democrats.  Or maybe it has simply been the cumulative effect of all the above and more occurring at roughly the exact same moment.

Whatever.  Call me a snob, but I’ve found myself rapidly losing interest in the psychology of someone who looks upon the face of an authoritarian and finds something—anything—to like.  If you are repelled by Trump keeping a crying baby from entering a rally but are attracted to him keeping 1.6 billion Muslims from entering the United States, I welcome your defection to #TeamHillary but I don’t anticipate that we would ever have much to talk about.  Indeed, in a normal election, there’s no way we would ever wind up on the same team, but then—as Ezra Klein so eloquently explained on Vox—this has not been a great year for normal.

By rights, the 2016 election was supposed to be a referendum on Barack Obama, a two-term incumbent whose legacy Hillary Clinton has promised to carry on without interruption.  And yet, instead, the race has become a referendum on Donald Trump.  Why?  Because Trump’s character has made it impossible for us to concentrate on anything else.  His abject rottenness had subsumed every other variable in this race.

And why on Earth shouldn’t it?  In government, as in medicine, first you must do no harm, and Trump is a seven-alarm cataclysm within striking distance of the West Wing.

He doesn’t just need to lose:  He needs to lose spectacularly.  He needs to go down in the general election like he should’ve gone down in the Republican primaries:  With the metaphorical force of a 16-ton anvil.  He needs to be humiliated and made an example of for all future demagogues who think they can rise to the top by sinking to the bottom.

Or—if you’d prefer a more positive spin—Hillary Clinton needs to win by a lot more than eight points.  She needs to crush it like she’s never crushed anything before.  She needs to be elected in such a ridiculous landslide that, 20 or 30 years from now, we will have totally forgotten the name of the poor schmuck she ran against.

As we know, history is written by the winners.  Never in our lifetimes have we encountered someone who deserved to lose bigger and more urgently than Trump.

Don’t Let the People Decide

In the first decade of the 19th century, the Federalists became the first major American political party to keel over and die.  Led by such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, the party was done in—or rather, it did itself in—largely through internal squabbling and managerial incompetence.

At the heart of this disintegration, however, was the Federalists’ increasingly unpopular theory about government, which argued—in a nutshell—that America ought to be run by a select group of intellectual elites—a “natural aristocracy,” as it were—who were smarter, wiser and nobler than the public at large.  They viewed ordinary citizens as an unsophisticated “mob” prone to irrational, violent outbursts, whose opinions, therefore, should be neither sought nor heeded in matters of great national importance.

In short, the Federalist Party didn’t really believe in democracy—not directly, anyway—and felt the country would function just fine without it.

In light of this year’s party nominating contests, I think this would be the perfect time to consider whether they were right all along.

A boatload of Republicans certainly seems to think so.  Having seen GOP primary voters anoint Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee, a great many officials are still entertaining the possibility—however remote—that the party will stage a coup at the upcoming Cleveland convention  by somehow stripping Trump of the nomination and handing it to somebody—anybody!—else.

The immediate rationale for this would-be hostile takeover is that Trump could not possibly defeat Hillary Clinton in November, and since political parties have no greater duty than to win elections, this entitles the so-called Republican establishment to take matters into its own hands by overruling the will of the people and hoping all goes well.

The implication is clear:  Given the choice, it is better to win with a candidate whom primary voters did not choose than to lose with a candidate whom they did.  The democratic process may be all well and good, but when push comes to shove, all that really matters is victory.

It has been theorized that had the GOP copied the Democrats and introduced “superdelegates” into the mix, Trump may well have been overtaken by some other candidate.  In truth, based on Trump’s lead in “pledged” delegates at the time his rivals dropped out, it’s unlikely that a superdelegate revolt would’ve been enough to produce its desired effect.

But let’s grant the premise, anyway, and suppose that a) the GOP elite succeeds in removing Trump from the race, and b) the replacement nominee actually defeats Hillary Clinton in the fall.  Would we consider that fair?  Would it signify that the system “works”?  Would it reflect the sort of country we want to be or, rather, would it suggest that democracy, as we know it, is a mere figment of our imagination?

The answers might seem obvious to us—namely, that the above would be a clear perversion of the principles of representative government and a big, fat middle finger to Republican voters from a party leadership that views them with patronizing contempt.

By today’s standards, yeah, that’s about the size of it.  By definition, if the party decides, the country does not.

However, by dismissing such tactics as brazenly undemocratic—and, by implication, blatantly un-American—is to ignore almost the entirety of American history and the U.S. Constitution along with it.

Although political parties have existed for almost as long as the country itself, our founding documents conspicuously omit mention of presidential primaries—possibly because they didn’t exist until 1904.  For the first century of the American presidency, nominees were selected not by a state-by-state popular vote, but rather by—you guessed it!—a group of party elites, acting on nothing but their own superior wisdom and, presumably, a series of crooked backroom deals.  In this preliminary stage of presidential campaigns, the “will of the people” was not yet a thing.

What’s more, once primaries were formally introduced, it soon became clear that the results were not exactly binding:  However the rabble voted, delegates went right on choosing whomever their hearts desired—based, again, on which candidate might actually win the election.  Indeed, it was as recently as 1968 that the Democratic Party selected a nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who had not even competed in direct primaries, but who nonetheless secured enough delegates from non-voting states to jump the line past such candidates as Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, who had taken the trouble to actually campaign.

Was the 1968 Democratic nominating contest an electoral farce?  According to us in the present, yes, of course it was.  (Plenty of folks thought so then, too.)  However, when compared to all previous primaries up to that point, the shenanigans that produced Humphrey were essentially par for the course.  What mattered to the party was not how its voters felt at the time, but rather how the entire electorate might feel in the first week in November.

Until very, very recently, that is how American democracy functioned:  From the top down, with the public playing an exceedingly minor role in how our leaders are chosen.  Even today, the existence and idiosyncrasies of the Electoral College dictate that the country install the people’s choice for commander-in-chief only after all other options have been exhausted.

The rationale for this is rooted in an admirably straightforward assumption:  On the whole, the American people are a bunch of idiots and rubes whose ability to choose a leader is no more informed than a toddler’s ability to land a jetliner.

Now that the rise of Donald Trump has lent real credence to that theory, we are forced to confront whether unfettered democracy—that is, a direct primary that cannot be overturned by superdelegates or anyone else—is simply too dangerous for the continuing health of the republic and the world at large.

Our system has institutional checks for when our leaders lose their minds and put the entire country at risk.  Why shouldn’t we retain similar checks for when voters behave the same way?

Electoral Math Problems

My presidential campaign epiphany of the week:  It’s over.  The election is over.  Democrats can get their bottles of Korbel in position.  Republicans might as well begin Monday morning quarterbacking now.  The president will be re-elected on the sixth of November.  Not a doubt in my mind.

This moment of clarity occurred with a studied gaze at the electoral map.  To coin a phrase:  It is a simple matter of arithmetic.

You begin with the map as it looked in 2008, when Barack Obama walloped John McCain by a score of 365-173.  Concede that, unlike McCain, Mitt Romney will win Indiana, as practically every poll suggests.  Despite the DNC’s flag-planting in Charlotte, Romney is likely to carry North Carolina as well.

The third surprise of 2008 was Obama’s victory in Virginia.  While the numbers show him likely to win the Old Dominion a second time, for the purposes of this exercise we’ll move it into Romney’s column anyway.  Finally—just for yuks—we will do the same with Ohio and Florida, the two biggest prizes of all, which, at the moment, are leaning very definitely in favor of the incumbent.

The result of this electoral tweakage, in which we give Romney every plausible benefit of the doubt?  Obama still wins, albeit by a razor-thin margin of 272-266.  So there you have it.

The presidency, as everyone knows, is not determined by which candidate receives the most votes, but rather by which candidate receives the most votes in a combination of states whose cumulative number of senators and representatives exceeds that of the states won by the other candidate.  As God intended.

I speak, of course, of the Electoral College.  There is a time in every cycle to reexamine its usefulness in our democratic system, and as Robert Plant so pungently crooned, “Now’s the time; the time is now.”

My favorite piece of revisionist history from 2004 concerns the state of Ohio, which George W. Bush carried by 119,000 votes, a margin of 2.1 percent.  Had those votes swung to John Kerry, Kerry would have won the state, the Electoral College and thus the election, while trailing Bush in the national tally by nearly three million votes—six times the margin by which Al Gore led Bush in 2000.

What does this mean?  Constitutionally speaking, not a damn thing.  No president has ever been elected by national popular vote, and our system used to be far less democratic than it is now.  (For instance, U.S. senators were not elected by popular vote until ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.)

Yet somehow it just feels wrong that, as in the above hypothetical, a man could become president with three million fewer votes than his opponent.  In fact, it is theoretically possible for a candidate to win 72 percent of the national popular vote and still lose the election in the Electoral College.  (This would entail winning 100 percent of the vote in small states and a hair under 50 percent in big states.)

You could argue from dawn to dusk that such a ridiculous outcome will never actually come to pass—and you would be correct—but that is pure evasion.  It could happen, and there would be nothing we could do about it.  Those are the terms from which we must begin this debate.

The debate itself, once it does commence, can spin off into a thousand possible directions.  Some considerations are more a matter of opinion than objective fact, as one weighs the relative importance of competing American values, chief among these being the perennial argument over federalism.  It began amidst the drafting of the Constitution itself and it has never quite abated.

Make no mistake.  More than anything, the Electoral College has endured because the country began with it.  There may be no more powerful force in American government than that of precedent.  An entire wing of judicial theory, known as stare decisis, is based upon it.  The essence of conservatism (at least on a good day) is to err on the side of long-established tradition and to alter or abolish such traditions with the utmost care and skepticism.

You don’t need me to point out that the “we’ve always done it this way” argument has occasionally led the U.S. astray.  Pick your favorite example; there are many from which to choose.

As far as the Electoral College is concerned, the smart money would say that if the 2000 election failed to generate a robust movement to abolish it, we just might need to accept that we’re stuck with it for as long as most of us will live.

For those made unhappy by this state of affairs, I hope some solace can be found in how very entertaining the prognosticating profession has been made by the system’s existence.  You wouldn’t want Nate Silver out of a job, now, would you?