Category Archives: Elections

What’s Your Vote Worth? The Bang for the Ballot Poll Parity Index

The currency of representative democracy is the vote and, at least in theory, we all have the same amount of electoral dough. You, me, Bill Gates and that bum on the street walk to the polls with the same balance in our democratic checkbooks, free to spend our matching funds of republican capital as we wish.

Well, that’s the theory. In reality, of course, our votes are like the oinkers in Animal Farm. Some votes, like some pigs, are more equal than others. What’s your vote really worth? I’ll get to the specifics, but to start with it depends on where you are and who you are. Geography and political partialities combine to create different markets for votes, and those inequalities create arbitrage opportunities that make suckers of some and a tidy political profit for others.

As the party of capitalism, it’s no surprise that Republicans do the better job of taking advantage of market opportunities. If extracting power out of a vote is like squeezing a quarter, the GOP’s vise-like grip is propelling Washington’s false teeth right out of his mouth and into the eagle’s ass on the other side. Democrats, true to their spendthrift reputations, spend votes like sozzled sailors, wake up with electoral hangovers, and think arbitrage is the brand of dodgy bourbon currently corroding their synapses (“give me an arbitrage and coke, I’m gettin’ my vote on.”)

Republicans have what is known in the trade as “greater voting efficiency,” which in English means the GOP gets a bigger electoral bang for the ballot than the Dems. For example, it cost roughly 205,000 Republican votes to “buy” an electoral vote for Donald Trump. It cost Democrats roughly 283,000 votes to nab one of those suckers for Hillary, and after paying 38 percent more per unit they turned around and piddled away five of them on the bright shiny distraction of protest votes. Bernie Sanders, Colin Powell and Faith Spotted Eagle all wound up with one of these expensive honors thanks to Dem electors, and I’m sure all three secretly thought Democrats should maybe lay off the arbitrage a little.

Electoral votes are fire-sale cheap compared to Senate seats, and it’s here that we really start to see Republicans clocking the double discount while Democrats get rooked. In 2016 Republicans coughed up a skosh over 1.7 million votes for each of the 22 United States Senate seats they won. The Dems splashed out an average of 3.8 million votes for a Senate win, and at those prices it’s no wonder they could only afford to buy a dozen rotunda rats. Calculated on a vote-per-seat basis the electoral system was charging the Dems a 200 percent-plus premium over its GOP customers. The invisible hand of our civic market is clearly dapping the GOP and diddling the Democrats big time.

The long and short of it is that a Democratic vote is not worth the same as a Republican vote because it simply does not have the same federal purchasing power. There’s a couple of reasons for this, some of which I’ve already yammered on at length about. States with Lilliputian populations, for example, wield disproportionate influence over the Senate and Electoral College because of apportionment rules, and the GOP has more of them. The GOP also controlled more state legislatures over the past decade, and has used those platforms to gerrymander the snot out of House districts. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats scooped up more than half of the state-wide votes for major party House candidates in 2016, but only won a quarter (5 of 18) of the seats. It takes serious partisan chutzpah to pull off that sort of cartographic legerdemain and have the resulting gaggle of sham-district pols toddle off to DC and make will-of-the-people noises, but there you are.

It was actually Pennsylvania that got me thinking what about what a vote was worth. Statewide, Pennsylvania Democrats spent an average 525,000 votes to purchase a single House seat, and Republicans spent about 189,500. The ratio of those two numbers is .36, which means in terms of purchasing power in the House of Representatives, a Democratic vote in PA was worth a paltry 36 percent of a Republican vote. Similar ratios are easily calculated for all states, and I’ve done that in the table below, which reports what I call the Bang for the Ballot Poll Parity Index or BBPPI. I call the acronym “Beepee” for short because it sounds sort of naughty in a juvenile way and so fits the current suck-my-thumb-and-wail state of politics. Oklahoma’s got a teeny Beepee, heh, heh.

*–Average votes for Republican House win / average votes for Democratic House win
#– Average votes for Democratic House win / average votes for Republican House win

Blue states in this table are where Democratic votes are worth more than GOP votes. So, for example, Maryland’s .24 means that a Republican vote there is worth about a quarter of a Democratic vote in terms of its ability to acquire representation in the House. The red states flip the numerator and denominator, so they show how much a Democratic vote is worth compared to a Republican vote. So, for example in Florida, a Democratic vote is worth about a quarter of a Republican vote. The yellow states are places these ratios is more or less 1, in other words they are states where the purchasing power of votes is equal.

A lot of the zeros in the red and blue columns represent pocket-sized constituencies, small population states that only have one House district. In those states one party is always going to end up with zippo House seats, so we shouldn’t get too bent out of shape that Beepees for, say, Vermont and South Dakota show a GOP goose egg in the former and Democratic bupkis in the latter. Still, note there are a number of zero Beepee states with three or more House seats dominated by one party. For example, Democrats got about a third of major party votes in Kansas and didn’t win any of that state’s four House contests. Most of these one-party states are Republican, places where Democrats represent a non-trivial fifth to a third of the voters who effectively have worthless ballots in House races.

The Beepees make a couple of things clear. First, the number of states with actual ballot parity is depressingly small. Only in New York, Arizona and Maine are the vote of a Republican and the vote of a Democrat equal in terms of their ability to buy representation in the so-called people’s House. In just about every other state, the House delegation exaggerates—often by a walloping margin—a party advantage. Some of this is undoubtedly due to how partisan votes are naturally scattered across a state. A lot of it, with even less doubt, is attributable to districts jiggered so politicians can pick their voters rather than letting voters pick their politicians.

Second, in the contest for splattering topological taint on the one-person one-vote yardstick, the GOP is clearly doing a better job than the Democratic Party. The Dems sure have their outposts of democratic duplicitousness, including some big kahuna delegation states like California and Illinois. But any way you slice it there’s a lot more red than blue on this list. On average it’s better to be a Republican voting in a Democratic state (mean Beepee = .40) than a Democrat voting in a Republican state (mean Beepee = .33). Republican votes are worth more even in places where they’re not worth much.

So what’s your vote worth? If you’re a Republican in Texas or a Democrat in California, rejoice. Your vote is worth appreciably more than the suckers toting electoral water for the other party. If you’re anyone in Arizona or Maine, be happy with the knowledge your vote actually meets that rare me-you-Bill-Gates-and-the-bum ideal. But a stonking swath of the electorate is drawing the geographic short end of party parity. For you lot, and there’s definitely a lot of you, my condolences. Now everyone can take a peek at your Beepee and know just how small it is.


A Majority Government Elected by a Minority

H.L. Mencken once described democracy as the idea that the people should get what they want and, “get it good and hard.” That seems about half right. The 115th Congress kicked off this week with a Republican majority pledging to bring the wood. Repeal Obamacare, revoke Planned Parenthood’s funding, rewrite Dodd-Frank—if the GOP makes good on half its vows this is going to be the most give-it-to-the-people Congress in two decades. Problem is, there’s not much evidence that the people actually wanted this, and even less that they wanted Republicans running the show.

It’s common knowledge, of course, that the bitter Twitter critter soon to be nesting in the White House was, by a near 3 million vote margin, the voters’ second choice.  Luckily for him, the will of the people don’t mean beans to the Electoral College, which blew one of its periodic raspberries to democratic humbug like majoritarian citizen preferences. Democrats still aren’t sure whether to attach hope or despair to the popular vote win, but either way the numbers inarguably add up to the fact that most voters wanted a different president from the one they got.

What’s been given less attention is that the voters weren’t exactly full-throated in wanting a Republican-controlled Congress either. I know this because in between downing my ration of holiday calories and festive libations I made it my business to go get official election result data for every congressional election, from all 50 states’ secretaries of state or election boards.* What can I say, I’m a nerd.

I’ve been prodding those numbers for a couple of days, and it’s pretty clear that whatever the American people wanted in a national legislature, they didn’t get that, either. I don’t mean to imply shady shenanigans of the sort hinted at by certain windswept-coiffed incoming presidents or slap-happy Green Party nominees. Nope. The Republican Party won its congressional majorities totally within the rules of our electoral system. The lawful legitimacy of their governmental dominance is not in question (and for those still yammering otherwise, do us all a favor and just get over it—time to stop squealin’ and start dealin’). The democratic legitimacy of gang GOP, though, is another matter.

How can a democratically elected government—elected fair and square by the rules of the system—have questions raised about its democratic legitimacy? Well, if you zoom down to the individual district/state level, you can’t really raise that question. Down in those trenches, Republicans and Democrats went head to head and, generally speaking, the Dems got their butt kicked. Rather than looking at what happened down in the Fourth Gerrymander of state X, though, zoom out and take a look at how the American people as whole cast their ballot. What you find there just doesn’t line up with the government that supposedly represents them.  It’s not even close.

Here are the basic numbers for the United States Senate: In 2016 there were 34 seats up for election, the Republicans won 22 and the Democrats, 12. Republicans scored this smashing victory by getting roughly 7 million fewer votes than Democratic senate candidates.  The total GOP vote haul for Senate was about 38.4 million, nowhere near the roughly 46 million received by Democratic Senate hopefuls. This all translates to Republicans getting 65 percent of the seats available in return for only 46 percent of the votes cast. Stick that in your democratic hookah and suck on it.

How can this be? Well, an obvious part is that Senate districts are states, which have wildly different populations. Republican John Thune only needed 265,000 votes to win in South Dakota. Democrat Kate McGinty got more than ten times that number of votes in Pennsylvania. And lost. If Republicans have the edge in less populous states, and in most cases they do, as a group they can have a lot less voters backing them and find themselves with a comfy majority of seats.

Still, even accounting for that and the fact that incumbents running for Senate in 2016 were mostly Republican (incumbents, all else equal, tend to win), something seems a bit off here. And it is. What is off is California, a population behemoth and deep Democratic blue. Kamala Harris won that Senate race with 7.5 million votes, but she was running against a fellow Democrat—Loretta Sanchez who notched 4.5 million votes. I did not include Sanchez’s votes in my grand tallies of Republican and Democratic totals, so that’s not tipping the scale. But because of California’s goofy blanket primary system there was no Republican Senate candidate in the general election, so the Republicans score a big goose egg in the most vote-rich state in the union. Even a Republican loser was likely to stitch up several million votes in a state as big as California.

So those with Republican loyalties might say an adjustment is warranted here. If we just drop California and deduct Harris’ 7.5 million from the Democratic column, their total drops from 45.9 million to 38.5 million, so roughly the same total as Republicans got.  But even if we just punt Cally from the tally the GOP still gets a massive return on voting investment—basically two-thirds of the seats for the half the ballots cast. That, of course, ignores the counter-argument that Democrats might favor:  If Republicans can’t scrounge up enough support to make it out of a competitive primary, too bad, so sad, and by all rights we should add Sanchez’s total rather than deducting Harris’. If you lean that way, the adjustment is now that Dems snagged roughly eleven million more votes than Republicans. And still got their clocks cleaned. Majorities obviously ain’t all democracy cracks them up to be.

Here’s the numbers on the House. All 435 seats were up for election and Republican candidates totaled roughly 63.7 million votes, which must come as sweet democratic relief to the GOP because it’s actually more than the 61.2 million who voted Democratic. Yes, unlike their colleagues in the White House and the Senate, House Republicans can actually claim to have the backing of national majority. This majority is, proportionally speaking, still a little exaggerated in terms of seats won—Republicans got 51 percent of the vote, but 55.4 percent of the available seats. Still, in at least one of the elective branches here is unassailable evidence that the people wanted the GOP in control, right?

Well, hold on, hoss. That depends. If we do a “California” and exclude races in which Republicans ran unopposed or against another Republican (other states besides California have goofy candidate selection systems), their total drops by roughly five million … giving Democrats the national majority. Of course, if we exclude races where Dems ran unopposed, they lose roughly six million and the Reps shoot into a commanding national vote lead. Rather than argue about this, I’m opting to just go with the raw numbers. Bottom line, the GOP took the House with a 51-49 percent squeaker in the national vote.

So if we take the American people as a whole, this is what they voted for: a Democratic president by a two or three point margin, a Democratic Senate by roughly a ten point margin, and a Republican House by a one or two point margin. If we toss together votes for president, senate and house, Republican candidates got roughly 165 million votes, Democratic candidates got roughly 173 million. In other words, if the will of the people is expressed through their votes, what the people wanted was a government that was largely—or even entirely–controlled by Democrats. What they got was Republicans in control of everything. Again, I emphasize, there’s nothing shady about this in a rules or legal sense. Neither the Senate, the House or the presidency are elected as a whole by the people—they are elected by states or by subdivisions thereof. And what majorities at the state or district level do not necessarily add up to majorities of the people as a whole.

Still, those national numbers do raise a valid concern about democratic legitimacy of what’s about to go down. This Congress, and certainly the incoming president, were not backed by a majority of those who bothered to cast a vote in 2016. They do not represent the will of the American people as whole and, at least in terms of national vote totals, are a minority government. Which is not good. Dems obviously should be pretty steamed about this—they got the most votes, but zilcho in terms of power to show for it. But it’s a concern for Republicans too. They are full-bore committed to using their power to implement an aggressive conservative/populist policy agenda which, anyway you slice and dice the numbers, was not comprehensively endorsed by voters in 2016. Indeed, you can make a pretty solid empirical case that it was systematically rejected.

So there’s a big gamble here for the GOP. If they get their agenda through and it works, they can say, “see, told you things would be better under us,” and have a good shot at having it retrospectively approved by a grateful electorate. If it doesn’t, they basically are a minority government that strong-armed a policy agenda onto an electorate against the will of the voters. In a democratic sense, that’s definitely not good. I’m kind of baffled the media hasn’t twigged to this yet. Sure, I know wrangling numbers is tougher than goggling at the latest Trumpian Tweet squall or keeping up with various Kardashians flashing their naughty bits on Instagram. But jeez, if I can do it, anyone with access to a web connection and spreadsheet software can too.

So, with apologies to H.L., 2016 taught us an unpleasant lesson about democratic theory as it applies to the United States. The people can make clear what they want. And whether they like or not, they’ll get something else. Hard.

*A brief note on the numbers for quant wonks: Data were taken from official results reported on state secretary of state and/or state election board websites. In the vast majority of cases these were certified results. All I collected were major party results, so excluded from all calculations are tallies by the Greens, Libertarians, Constitutionalists, and various and sundry other wannabes and wackaloons who smuggled themselves onto a ballot.

Aside from the weirdness reported in the text above (Democrats running against Democrats and whatnot) there are a small number of anomalies or gaps. For example, the Oklahoma secretary of state reports no results for its First Congressional District (!). That race was won by incumbent Republican Jim Bridenstine, who ran unopposed. I’m assuming that somebody actually, you know, voted for him in the general election, but maybe not. Regardless, Jim’s vote total isn’t totted up in the Republican column because those numbers were not made public and I was too busy with turkey and beer to pester Oklahoma officials to check and see if they had any unopened ballot boxes lying around. In any case, the number of these oddities was pretty small, not biased in a partisan sense, and extremely unlikely to have any impact on the broader nation-level inferences made above. It is, of course, possible that I made a punch error or a similar goof–it’s a lot of friggin’ numbers collected from fifty different sources and I was a lone political scientist in the midst of challenging holiday-related typtophan and ethanol issues. Still, while certainly possible, I’m pretty confident there’s no accounting flub big enough on my part to alter the general conclusions drawn above. My numbers will probably differ a bit from the official, official results reported by the Federal Election Commission later in the year, but barring any major howler on my part, the basic story reported above should stand.

Harry Potter and the Electoral College

Okay everybody, stand back. I’m going to attempt to explain the history, purpose and contemporary political implications of the Electoral College. My legal team insists I issue a disclaimer before doing so. So, fair warning, this is being done on a closed course with an expert driver. Do not attempt at home.

In technical terms, the Electoral College is an over-engineered doohickey connecting the people to the president based on a blueprint found in the “Where’s Waldo?” section of the Constitution.  The result rattles along more or less unnoticed by the masses in an average election cycle because when you fire that sucker up it generally picks the candidate with the most votes. And if the cool POTUS swag goes to the candidate with the preponderance at the polls, well, the electoral accounting seems reasonably kosher even if you don’t get all that electoral vote jazz.  Why bother sweeping back the curtain to investigate the grinder that makes this democratic sausage? The operating manual gives grown lawyers headaches and, besides, that thing is scary.

Every now and then, though, the machine spits out a president that the people clearly did not slide2want. He (it’s always been a he) gets the keys to the Oval Office and the nuclear codes, while the loser consoles themselves with the knowledge that, democratically speaking, they won.  Hillary Clinton got (at least) a couple million more votes than Donald Trump. And lost. This leaves a lot of Americans—a lot of non-Americans too—going, “WTF?” It also prompts much dusting off of hazy memories of a long ago civics course where the Electoral College was discussed as the sleeping giant of the SEC. Or maybe the Big 10. Or something like that. Pretty sure it was one of the major college conferences.

If Google or Wikipedia or that guy on Facebook doesn’t beat us to the punch, that curiosity offers humble folk such as myself that rarest of teaching moments, a miraculous alignment of opportunity, interest, and ignorance where people actually want some of that arcane knowledge we’ve spent careers stuffing into our brains. I intend to take full advantage of this ephemeral attention to matters institutional before everyone goes back to cat videos and fake news. Stand by for Electoral College 101.

First, how exactly the heck does this thing work? I’ll skip all the technical jargon here and just provide highlights of the process that will soon traslide1nsmute Trump into poo-bah of the body politic. During the first full moon in December, when Jupiter is in Mars, 538 electors will gather at the Republic’s sacred Hall of Requirement and bring out the sorting hat. As soon this piece of headgear gets within five meters of the orange Horcrux topping the president-elect’s noggin it’ll yell “Slytherin!” and head for floo network. Canada-bound most likely. We’ll probably have to fish it out of the secret chamber in Justin Trudeau’s sock drawer when we next need it. Anyway, once that formality is out of the way, Chief Supreme Court Justice Snape will administer the oath of office, give the ceremonial order of “ten points from Gryffindor!,” and congressional Dementors can start sucking the life out of Obamacare.

Okay, I can’t back any of that up and J.K. Rowling probably already has the copyright lawyers off the leash. The point is that to the average voter the Electoral College is all flap and fluster, an ancient bit of obfuscation that seems as mystical and magical as Hogwarts. Tell my tall tale at most dinner tables and the most skeptical comment you’ll get is something like, “Fancy that, I never knew the Canadian prime minister had a secret chamber in his sock drawer. Bet it’s something to do with hockey.” The Electoral College is the confundus charm of our democracy.

So why do we have it? In other democracies, national leaders are either chosen directly by popular vote, or by the party with the most seats in the legislature. Why do we alone use this baffling hunk of electoral jiggery-pokery? The answer lies in a disagreement among the Founding Fathers. Half of them didn’t trust the people to pick the president. Too easily fooled that lot, the argument went, they’ll end up getting their clocks cleaned by some tin-pot dictator. The other half didn’t trust Congress to pick the president. Given a chance that gaggle of Machiavellian power trollops will have the executive cleaning out the legislature’s chamber pots.

If the two obvious selection mechanisms were out, though, how to choose a president? Lottery? Seniority? The Supreme Court playing a game of nekkid Twister? Alexander Hamilton pondered this very question in Federalist 68, and as a bona fide Founding Daddy Dude, he’s got as good an answer as any. Hamilton argued that the “sense of the people” should be reflected in the choice of a president, but no way should the scruffy masses be trusted to do the job themselves. Better to have the most powerful office holder elected by men “capable of analyzing the qualities adopted to the station,” who could come up with a “judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.” Yeah, that sounds like Hamilton alright. Power to the people, but big decisions should be left to the grownups.

Anyway, the basic pitch was to have each of the states select a number of wise heads equal to the count of their congressional delegation, and these chosen few would do the actual electing after giving the matter due thought and consideration. The original idea of the Electoral College really did seem to be as a sort of deliberative super-group of prez pickers. At least according to Hamilton this process would weed out unworthy presidential aspirants, the sort of aggrandizing power grubbers with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” but little else to recommend them. Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way (see recent presidential election).

This whole indirect selection machine tends to throw a sprocket for two reasons. The first is the ever-present possibility that a popular vote winner will be an electoral loser. In simple terms, there’s a mild gerrymander baked into the system. Smaller states get to punch above their weight because they are guaranteed two Senators. That means nearly a fifth of the electoral votes are apportioned on the basis of state equality, not population. So California gets one elector for about every 700,000 voters. Wyoming can lay its hands on an electoral vote for less than 200,000 voters. On a population adjusted basis, then, Wyoming voters are way more influential. The upshot is that the electoral vote can seriously distort the popular vote, especially with the right popular vote differences across states.

This tends to be the thing that gets democratic do-gooders all undies-bunched and crying for reform. Yet it seems reasonable that the designers of the system understood this, at least in concept, and saw it as acceptable tradeoff in the indirect election/will of the people/states are sovereigns too calculations of their republican algebra. If the best and brightest political minds in the land converge on a worthy Cincinnatus who can’t snag the popular vote, so be it. The Founders, or at least Hamilton, are down.

It’s really another problem that stops the Electoral College from working as planned. The original merry band of commonwealth creators never really anticipated that states would jettison the whole idea of choosing electors based on political acumen and sagacity, or at least on some modest sense of political independence and commitment to the commonweal.  States have turned selection over to political parties, which didn’t exist at the time of the constitutional convention, and the voters, whom the delegates were dubious about to begin with. Electors these days are not carefully chosen political minds. They are party apparatchiks who can be counted on to vote as a slate for their partisan pin-up boy if he (or she) acquires a popular plurality in their state. And if you want to get the latter, exercising the little arts of popularity isn’t a bad idea.

Most of the time it doesn’t really matter. The presidential selection contrivance fires its parliamentary thingamabobs and engages its procedural whirligigs and the candidate with the most votes starts measuring drapes for the White House. Except sometimes not.  Political parties prize craven fealty to whatever merry-andrew bears their electoral escutcheon, not the will of the people, and certainly not any idealistic commitment to getting the best person for the job. Combine that with party selected electors, asymmetric voting patterns and state influence in the Electoral College and, shazam, you can get a president of arguable talents and democratic legitimacy.   There is no group of father-knows-best grownups to prevent this sort of thing as Hamilton once optimistically promised. With the arguable exception of George Washington’s election, there never was.

So, to get to the big question, can the Electoral College varsity really pull the old last play fumblerooski and keep Trump out of the White House? Well, technically, yes, though parties and states have done their damnedest to make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen. Political parties choose electors explicitly for partisan loyalty and lots of states have passed laws legally requiring electors to vote for the winner of the state-wide popular vote. There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires any such thing, though, and the Supreme Court has never weighed in on the legal liabilities of faithless electors. For all we know, electors really could perform the office anticipated by Hamilton.

Indeed, in this weird and wonderful political epoch we actually have a bone fide example of someone doing exactly this. Christopher Suprun, Republican elector of Texas, has offered a reasoned case for why he’s not voting for Trump that you can read here. Suprun even seems to have read Federalist 68. Yet I wouldn’t hold out much hope of a last minute surprise based on reasoned and informed debate amongst electors. Just look at what this current bunch is up to. One elector quit because Trump wasn’t “biblically qualified,” several Clinton-pledged electors have outed themselves as Bernie Bros and are mounting a Hail Mary lobbying campaign, and another set of Clinton electors are now saying they won’t vote for Hillary because, well, I dunno. They want to create a safe space with trigger warnings on the Electoral College campus or something. Lefty logic can be hard to follow.

This is all good sport and it probably merits a posthumous “Jesus H. Christ, what were we thinking?” from Hamilton. But it almost certainly won’t amount to diddly in terms of who ends up president. There’s one Chris Suprun, a handful of well-meaning but mostly politically pie eyed lefties, and a whole bunch of electors who are going to do exactly what their party is counting on them to do. The electoral math favors Trump any way you slice it.

Well, maybe we could/should change the whole process of selecting a president to insure that, you know, the person with most votes wins. Can we do that? Again, technically yes, but practically almost certainly not. Formally changing the Electoral College requires amendment level Constitutional hacks and/or state governments acting in harmony, comity and common sense. So no relief foreseeable on the old legal front. Pretty much the only realistic option is to hang on and wait to turn the key on this bucket of bolts next cycle. Not to worry, though, it’ll get the job done just fine next time. Probably.

The Voters Had A Jefferson. It’s Giving Me A Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson was super-smart and all, but honestly, that guy had his head so far up his ass his wig powder must have doubled as dentifrice. I say this as a nostalgic fanboy, a special place kept in my heart for his declaration that, “the sapling of liberty periodically needs irrigating with blood, preferably with the miracle grow gore sourced from the plebs and not from compost-spouting, Monticello-building aristos like me.”  Well, maybe not an exact quote, but the gist is accurate enough.


Jefferson is sort of like the Sex Pistols. You know, the band that not only scared the crap out of your parents, but just because you bought their albums and cranked them up to 11 they made you, a pimply teenage oik of no particular worth or provenance, kind of scary too. You might have to make a generational adjustment on the band to make that analogy work. So feel free to insert Eminem or the Satanic Sheep Shaggers of Doom or whatever auditory toxin leaks out of ear buds on college quads these days. The labeling and melodious specifics are ultimately irrelevant. As long as it intimidates middle-aged college profs into taking the long way to the latte bar it’s golden. You get the idea. Immature proto-adults like stuff that gives grownups the vapors, because that gets the grownups’ attention.

And that’s Jefferson. He gives Founding Father cred to people power, periodic revolution, and the general idea that having the lower orders drop kick the elites in the nads every now and then is a salutary tonic for the republic. It reminds everyone who’s really in charge. A little mob-led communal bloodletting on the republican oak, or at least an angry communal widdle into the potted plant of the commonweal, clears the air. Exactly how periodically flicking all these body fluids around the arboretum of democracy achieves this is beyond me, so don’t ask. The point is, Jefferson says it is okay for the sassy masses to have a good hissy now and then. Scares the grownups.

Well, the electorate clearly just had a Jefferson and it’s certainly got the grownups’ attention. The accession of the heir with hair to the highest office has the sober and staid guardians of keeping the machine running panicked. “This isn’t going to end well,” you can hear them warning in strangled castrati sopranos, nether regions still smarting from having the hoi polloi punt their daddy tackle right over their polling forecasts. What makes it all particularly painful for that crowd is that the ultimate republican grownup assured us this sort of thing would, if not never happen, at least be kept to the absolute bare minimum.

In contrast to Jefferson, James Madison was decidedly leery about treating the people as responsible sovereigns. Sure, he thought they should hold the ultimate lock box to power, but that was only because he couldn’t figure out a better place to stash the stuff. And if the people had the power, he was dead set on making sure they’d have to work damn hard to actually use it.  As he famously put it in Federalist No. 10, “Listen, I love the people too, but criminy, they’re suckers for all sorts of shinola trafficked by ripesucks and mountebanks. And, let’s face it, half of them are wackaloons anyway. If they ask for access to the vault, for chrissake let’s only give them half the combination.  We don’t want that lot getting in there without adult supervision.” Well, now that I think of it, I might have lifted that quote from Federalist No. 51.slide2

Regardless, Madison’s point was you couldn’t trust the people any more than you could trust the elites. You had to break up power like a jigsaw puzzle. The idea was that anyone really trying to be in charge was perennially going to be at least one piece short of a full picture. Oh, the proles might get into a tizz and catapult a few angry kindergartners into the House. No matter, the Senate will make sure that after their temper tantrums they’d eat their republican veggies and take legislative naps at the appropriate times. And if the children broke into the Senate, no matter, the prez will be there, like some sort of national junior high principal armed with tardy slip vetoes to keep them in line. And if even the Electoral College somehow falls to populist plunder, no worries, we’ve got the strict grannies of the Supreme Court to keep the kiddies in line. The only way the machine really breaks down is if the bully boys take over all of these institutions and, seriously, how likely is that?

The current reply, as grownups speaking through clenched teeth and in tones still an octave high might put it: “A sight more likely than we thought.” We have the semi-extraordinary situation of a president winning on a technicality (popular vote loser, that’s, like, bigly yuge, believe me), heading a party that actually took a legislative electoral hit (Republican lost seats in Congress), and between them suddenly unleashing a motley group of populist piffle-mongers to plunder as much power in all three branches as they can grab. It’s like Johnny Rotten getting license to sit as speaker in Parliament, ceding the floor only to the MPs gobbing in the aisles and sporting knitting needles through their noses. Jefferson might approve, but dignified it ain’t, and the needle on the RPM counter above Madison’s grave must be buried deep into the red.

Somewhere Alexander Hamilton is probably watching all this with an I-told-you-so smirk. slide3Hamilton made a career out of driving both Jefferson and Madison batty with his barely concealed distaste for tugging a forelock at popular sovereignty. Hamilton famously summed up his philosophy of republican governance by saying that, “The people should just shut the hell up and let those of us who actually know what they’re doing get on with it.” Well, I might be paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.  Hamilton more or less only wanted the grownups to govern.

And who were the grownups? Good question. Hamilton was pretty picky about designating grownups. The party he helped birth, the Federalist Party, basically went extinct because they didn’t want to let anyone into their club who had even the faintest whiff of infantile populism about them. Problem was, even back then, the stink of the masses smelt more like roses the closer they got to the ballot box. This was a problem for deep thinking scolds like Hamilton and John Adams who were deeply committed to representative democracy and representative democratic principles, but infinitely regretted that such commitments meant having to deal with, ugh, voters. The electorate, they firmly believed, could too easily be gulled into giving full-throated support to bluffers and fantasists who, if they were actually given power, would drop all of us two fathoms full into the shite.

Hamilton never did manage to square the democracy-run-by-elites circle, so power was connected to the people by the institutional gears, switches, and pulleys designed by Madison. And that Rubik’s cube of a transmission has kept the republic more or less humming along in drive ever since. The problem is, every once in a while, the people get tempted to chuck a wrench in there when they really, really want a change in direction. Of course, blowing up your transmission is not something the adults recommend as the best means to achieve a right or left turn, but what can the adults do? Madison might have written the operating manual, but everyone knows Jefferson was okay with tossing that over your shoulder and just giving everything a really good bash now and then. And the voters just had a major Jefferson. It’s giving the grownups a serious case of the Hamiltons.