America is in the midst of its quadrennial spectacle of democracy called our presidential election cycle. Though 2016 seems unique, its basic story feels familiar to us and wholly natural. A handful of candidates on the left vied for the Democratic nomination for president. More than a few handfuls of ambitious hopefuls on the right vied for the Republican nomination. They all slugged through the cold February treks into Iowa farm supply stores and New Hampshire coffee shops. Along the way they issued position papers, promised policies, and guaranteed achievements if they were elected. We’ve all seen this performance before and have become so used to it that it seems somehow divinely intended.
But how closely does our modern practice resemble the mechanisms and intentions our Founders established to be the driving dynamo of self-government in America? And what can we learn about our system and our choices from a consideration of those who created it?
The framers of the American Constitution had few bigger problems to overcome than those wrapped up with creating the American presidency. Because George Washington had proved more virtuous than most any military or civilian leader in a few thousand years and the government under the Articles of Confederation had proven impotent, the framers were open to something new and, in some ways, quite radical. They chose to place a single office holder at the center of the executive branch and give that person power and responsibilities beyond what had been previously thought prudent by friends of republican government.
To keep that person, and the rest of government, within proper bounds, they first left most power in the hands of state and local governments (or the people), delegating only limited powers to the central government. They then built a system of shared powers within that central government that allowed each of the parts to offer checks and balances against the others. That story is familiar to us, but the delegates wanted more than just limited and checked government. They also wanted a government that was effective within its given sphere and that promoted the common good. For those higher goals outlined in the preamble, the delegates understood it would be important to take special care that the officers be chosen under proper conditions to make it likely that they would have the virtues necessary to achieve the requirements of office.
How to select such an office holder to be chief executive proved one of the most momentous decisions of the Convention. Various proposals were submitted, including allowing the people a direct vote. In the end, they landed on a compromise option that would permit the states to decide how to select special electors who might have the requisite knowledge and wisdom to choose a suitable person for the office. We call that system the Electoral College, and its math continues to shape our presidential campaigns, though the founding vision has been largely forgotten.
Our presidential cycle with its lengthy primary campaigns, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on TV ads, micro-targeting of voters based on hobbies and car preferences, daily tracking polls, and seemingly endless promises of political nirvana once elected are about as far from our Founders’ intentions as it is possible to get.
What they sought was a deliberative process of wise and experienced people making decisions based on the character and experience of the candidates for office. America, however, has democratized, and our understanding of democratic self-government has changed to such a degree that our Founders’ vision seems totally out of date and unwelcome. However, let me offer some ways that a revisiting of our constitutional foundations might serve us still in our age of the presidential election spectacle.
First, the fact that our next president is guaranteed to be among the least trusted and respected individuals ever to be a finalist for the office demonstrates that our current system and culture does not set a premium on questions of character. If we don’t vote positively on fit character, what does drive our decisions? Are we moved by policy promises like free college tuition and wall building? Do we vote for candidates based on looks, wealth, or logos? Do we respond to more generic pledges of empathy or the rhetoric of division? Is it slick political ads that drive us in our decisions? The answers are as complicated as are the differences among Americans, but what is clear is that our current presidential election system does not produce the kinds of candidates envisioned by our Founders and as laid out so strongly in The Federalist Papers.
As Alexander Hamilton summed it up in Federalist Paper No. 68, the Electoral College system was designed to settle on “some fit person for president.” Indeed, Hamilton assures us that the system has been designed almost to ensure “that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” And what would such “characters” look like?
They would be able to be entrusted with power. They would be sufficiently loyal to their institution to fight for its prerogatives against other branches that might disturb the constitutional balance. They would have courage and determination to overcome obstacles in the way of the common good. They would be willing to listen, deliberate, and change their minds when evidence warranted it. This last point is one of the most crucial. The Founders gave us a system they hoped would be based on real deliberation in government, not sloganeering, promises, and pledges.
Though our political system today sets a premium on politicians being responsive to the whims of the public, and our technology has advanced to the point of keeping their momentary popularity ever on their minds, the Founders gave us a system based on responsibility. We would choose people of character, judgment, and ability, and trust in them to deliberate with others in government in order to find the best methods for pursuing the common good. Sometimes those decisions, though based in deliberation, discussion, and compromise, would nevertheless be unpopular, at least for a time. Federalist No. 71 is one of the greatest defenses ever made of the importance of political leaders having the courage to defy the public whim and then laying themselves and their records before the American people for judgment.
Our system is built on the foundation of men and women of high character being entrusted with office and then allowing the rest of us to pass judgment on the worth of their actions. With the democratization of primaries, television, massive campaign expenditures, political consultants, polling, and Twitter, our process today often feels like it’s more a fight for “Demagogue in Chief” rather than a deliberation to discover “some fit person” for office. Perhaps a return to our founding vision might prove a corrective to some of today’s political excesses.
Gary L. Gregg II, director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, is the author or editor of many books, including Vital Remnants: America's Founding and the Western Tradition.
Complement with Craig Shirley's fascinating story about the Republican convention that almost launched a co-presidency, George Carey's student guide to American political thought, and Ben Sasse on the American idea and why it's in jeopardy.