Paul Krugman's unwitting case for the electoral college

From “Real America versus Senate America” by Paul Krugman, New York Times, Nov. 8, 2018:

Continue Reading Below

“… For economic and demographic trends have interacted with political change to make the Senate deeply unrepresentative of American reality.

“…Conservative politicians may extol the virtues of a '’real America’' of rural areas and small towns, but the real real America in which we live, while it contains small towns, is mostly metropolitan.

“…The Senate, which gives each state the same number of seats regardless of population -- which gives fewer than 600,000 people in Wyoming the same representation as almost 40 million in California -- drastically overweights those rural areas and underweights the places where most Americans live.

“..As I said, real America is mainly metropolitan; Senate America is still largely rural. Real America is racially and culturally diverse; Senate America is still very white.

“None of this is meant to denigrate rural, non-college, white voters. We're all Americans, and we all deserve an equal voice in shaping our national destiny. But as it is, some of us are more equal than others. And that poses a big problem in an era of deep partisan division.

“We may, then, be looking at a growing crisis of legitimacy for the U.S. political system….

This breathtakingly tedious, elitist and remarkably oblivious column from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman unwittingly makes the case against the Democrats push to abolish the Electoral College and instead use a strictly popular vote system, an argument that’s periodically popped up ever since James Polk complained about it when he was in office.

The latest Krugman column echoes Hillary Clinton, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michael Moore and Al Gore supporters, that Senate Democrat candidates should now run the Senate instead of Republicans because Democrat Senate candidates won millions more in the popular vote, by one count nine million more votes versus Republican.

Common sense might tell you that the Democrats naturally garnered more popular votes because Democrats were defending more Senate seats, 26 Senate seats versus the Republican’s nine. Also, California’s jungle system resulted in a Democrat versus Democrat fight with a Democrat advancing, meaning Democrats got all of California’s six million votes. The state now has two Democrat senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

California is Exhibit A cited in the liberal argument to get rid of the Electoral College, since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in California in 2016, garnering 4.3 million more votes than Donald Trump in the Golden State. But strip out California, and Trump would have captured the popular vote by 1.4 million.

Also, the number of registered Democrat voters in California rose by 1.1 million over the last eight years, as the number of registered Republican voters plummeted, likely fleeing the state’s notoriously high taxes (evidence that the popular vote system Krugman wants would likely result in higher taxes across the board).

And it’s rather convenient for liberals to be complaining about the Electoral College, when their fear in 2016 was that Trump would seize the popular vote, lose the Electoral College, and then start a ferocious Twitter campaign calling the election rigged if he lost. 

Ignored by the Democrat critics here is that, before Hillary Clinton and other liberals started complaining about the Electoral College, that same system helped all the Democrat presidents going back to Andrew Jackson win the presidency. All won the Electoral College, including Hillary’s husband. 

There are multiple problems with Krugman’s elitist argument. Consider a popular vote system. If the U.S. went to a popular vote system, both parties would only have to campaign in, and commandeer, gigantic vote shares in populated urban areas, say, in New York and California.

Thus, the popular system would not deliver a governing majority. Instead, it would create an ochlocracy, a mobocracy that could perhaps harass and force those who disagree with them to surrender to a mob’s short-term demagoguery incensed with the majoritarian moral panic of the hour, driven by the accelerant of social media now criticized for bias against conservatives. Sound familiar?

It is no small irony that some liberals show their true colors, that they really are not ostensibly about fairness, about the minority, the smaller rural states, since the Framers meant the Electoral College in fairness to protect the minority, the smaller states.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others also wrongfully imply that the Electoral College, enshrined in the Constitution in 1787, is somehow a byproduct of slavery.

Cortez recently tweeted out: “It is well past time we eliminate the Electoral College, a shadow of slavery’s power on America today that undermines our nation as a democratic republic.”

That’s an unfortunate misapprehension. The southern states actually began to secede in 1860 in part because they felt the Electoral College was stacked against them after Republican Abraham Lincoln won a plurality (40%) of the popular vote and a majority in the Electoral College, author Benjamin Zhang says in his work, “The Electoral College and the Civil War.”

Zhang adds: “One could conclude that the Electoral College contributed not only to the election of Lincoln, but to what happened four weeks later. South Carolina decided to secede from the union.”

So perhaps the better argument is that the Electoral College helped end the era of slavery rather than emanated from it. Would Hillary Clinton, Cortez and Michael Moore still condemn Lincoln’s Electoral College victory as well?

Other liberals, in arguing against the Electoral College, unctuously try to claim that the Founding Fathers could never have predicted that the U.S. population would be amassed in a handful of states.

Even though that is exactly what the Framers saw 231 years ago, when smaller states like Rhode Island and South Carolina feared dominion over them by big New York and Pennsylvania. That’s exactly why the Framers pushed for the Electoral College system.

The fundamentally undemocratic Krugman way would lead to dysfunctional bias in the system against the smaller states that the Framers wanted to protect. That is the Founder’s vivifying, electrifying moral genius that informs all of our civil liberties.

Lost in the liberal’s benighted argument is that little Vermont has a Democrat senator, Pat Leahy, and Bernie Sanders, who votes with the Democrats. Same goes for New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware and Hawaii, each send two Democrats to the Senate. Maine, North Dakota, and Montana each send one. 

Think of it this way. Just because you lost a contest in which the rules were known for more than two centuries, should you whine and stamp your feet to change the rules?

Or should you try to figure out what it takes to win?

The country is much stronger when a president wins based on broad, geographic support rather than on a coterie in a smaller group of states, an approach the Framers disdained as political tribalism.

The Electoral College should, when it works, force both Democrats and Republicans to try and win by campaigning on policies that appeal across the political aisle, Democrats to conservatives, Republicans to progressives.

It’s about governing for all, not just governing for a party’s base.

That’s how Bill Clinton became president in 1992, after the Democrats failed to gain the Oval Office in 20 out of the prior 24 years. Four years later, Bill Clinton won again after his bipartisan welfare reform, capturing 174 electoral votes in states that Hillary Clinton would later lose, in part for calling voters “deplorables,” states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.

A party that seeks the presidency might try to broaden their support base, which both parties need to do. President Trump won in part by picking off disaffected Democrat blue collar union workers. But his party lost the disaffected suburban Whole Foods soccer moms who understand this is a “live-and-let-live society” that doesn’t want the government defining what we do in our personal lives.

Those are the families key to the 2020 vote, who want for their children the compelling message of unity and hope the Democrats sell so well, of the dignity of universal human rights that includes the outsider—a compelling case that could sway voters in the smaller “outsider” conservative states protected by the Electoral College.

Elizabeth MacDonald is the host of FOX Business Network’s (FBN) The Evening Edit with Elizabeth MacDonald (weekdays 6-7PM/ET.) She joined the network as stocks editor in September 2007. Prior to joining FBN, MacDonald was a senior editor at Forbes Magazine, where she covered stock market and earnings news and created "The World's 100 Most Powerful Women" annual list. Before Forbes, MacDonald covered stock market, earnings and accounting abuses for The Wall Street Journal's Money & Investing section, with front page stories and Heard on the Street columns.