Hail, Hail Hillsdale (continued)

Hillsdale College, which had mailed me a free copy of the Constitution, sent me an email about an “urgent matter” that’s “vital to our nation’s future.” I could almost hear the Jaws music as I read, “A movement is growing, led by progressives—but supported by many well-meaning Americans—to change the way we elect our president. In effect, it seeks to do away with the Electoral College as devised by the Framers of our Constitution.” I immediately noticed the absence of “other” between “many” and “well-meaning” in that sentence, but I did not know if that meant progressives were not well-meaning or that they weren’t Americans, or both. The email warned that states were joining “together in an attempt to undermine this constitutional bulwark of liberty.” This dangerous movement “has grown largely because of the failure of America’s schools to provide young people with grounding in American civics—too many Americans simply don’t understand the importance of the Constitution, including the Electoral College, to liberty.” (Quick. Tell me how the Electoral College is essential to liberty.) Presumably, this lack of understanding would be corrected if schools started following the recommendations of the 1776 Commission.

The email urged me to take a survey on “Presidential Selection.” I was curious because I have studied and written about the Electoral College [see the end of this post for references to some of those previous posts], so I clicked on the link in the email. I knew from the very first of the ten multiple choice questions that I had a problem. It asked initially if I agreed that we “should continue to elect our president through the Electoral College as devised by the Framers of our Constitution.” There is no way to answer this. You can’t continue to use something that is not being used. Our present Electoral College is not the one adopted by the Constitutional Framers. That one was so flawed from its inception that it was changed by Amendment XII (classical education useful here) within fifteen years after the Constitution went into effect. We do not use the flawed Electoral College created by the shortsighted Framers.

The second question did not ask about presidential selection, but about American civics classes. The next query returned to the Electoral College, asking if Americans understood the Electoral College “and its role in preserving free and representative government.” Quick. Tell me again how the EC does that. If it does so, it is not obvious how, or at least it is not obvious to many well-meaning Americans.

The fourth question asked if I agreed that the EC’s elimination would “disenfranchise citizens in large parts of the U.S. and increase the intense partisanship that is already dividing our nation.” Of course, that is two questions, and I don’t understand the first one. I don’t think that any proposal to reform the Electoral College would prevent or even make it more difficult for any citizen to vote. In fact, the serious movement to prevent or make it harder for citizens to vote in all elections including the ones for the Electoral College has been coming from conservative state legislatures seeking to gain a partisan advantage and make government less free and representative.

Then I was asked if I agreed that the “Electoral College requires candidates and parties to form broad coalitions that represent the interests of many Americans rather than just those of particular regions or urban areas.” And I asked myself: “To be successful in any nationwide election system don’t the parties have to represent the interests of many Americans? It seems to me that if they fail to do that, they won’t get elected. However, it begs the question of whether the EC does that better than, say, a direct vote?” As I have written on this blog, the Electoral College makes it easy to disregard the voters of a minority party in a solid Red or Blue state, and that would not be the case with a direct election of the president. I also noted “urban areas” in the question. I wonder how those who take this poll would feel if they were asked if they agreed that the Electoral College should be retained because it enhances the political power of poorly educated rural whites. Of course, such tendentious questions should not appear in any serious poll.

I felt something similar about the next question which asked if I agreed that the movement to eliminate the EC by “progressives” was politically motivated to “give an advantage to one political party over another.” That is a perfectly fair question, or it would be if paired with the flip side: “Is the movement to retain the Electoral College motivated by the right wing to give a political advantage to one party?”

Then came a question that made no sense: Was I aware that Washington legislators had “introduced legislation to abolish the Electoral College and that 15 states and the District of Columbia have already voted to do away with the Electoral College as devised by the Framers of our Constitution.”  Your first reaction might be: Well, I am now. But hold on. No one is seeking to abolish the EC devised by the Framers because, as cited above, that original failure was tossed aside by the Twelfth Amendment more than two centuries ago. Moreover, the current Electoral College is embedded in the Constitution. It could only be abolished or done away with by a constitutional amendment, as it was reformed before, not by legislation.

(concluded March 30)

April 10, 2019 “What if We Abolish the Electoral College” What if We Abolish the Electoral College? – AJ’s Dad

March 4, 2020 “Democracy Indexed and Flawed” Democracy Indexed and Flawed – AJ’s Dad

October 28, 2020 “The Shortsighted Electoral College” The Shortsighted Electoral College – AJ’s Dad

November 13, 2020 “Voter Turnout” Voter Turnout – AJ’s Dad


A Civics Examination

A friend says what others have said: many, perhaps most, Americans don’t understand the basic structure of our government. They don’t understand federalism—what should fall under the purview of the national government and what should only be a concern for the states. And they don’t understand that our national governmental powers are separated into three branches, a structure that was adopted to give us a government of checks and balances.

The friend, along with others, feels as if this basic knowledge has declined because the teaching of Civics in high schools or earlier has declined. The ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni), which states that it “is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability of America’s colleges and universities,” reports that a 2016 survey found that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government. An ACTA survey found that 80 percent of seniors at 55 top colleges would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge. This organization states that a reason for this lack of knowledge is that an emphasis on math and reading “has pushed out other subjects, such as civics. . . .”

I confess, however, that I am often confused about the present structure of our government even though I had a Civics course—in which I got an A (brag, brag)—and, of course, I can not only name the three branches of government but have enough historical knowledge to know who Daniel D. Tompkins was, although I confess I learned about that Vice President not from Civics but from Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. Indeed, I was even a bit of a high school constitutional nerd having won, but not received, money from a constitutional examination.

This particular test was sponsored by the Elks Club. Service clubs were not part of the heritage of my working-class family. I knew that my town had a number of them—Optimists, Eagles, Rotarians, Elks, as well as VFW and American Legion halls. My guess is that there was some sort of pecking order among these. I thought, but was not sure, that the Rotarians were at the top of the heap. At least, that is the impression I got from a schoolteacher when I was invited to a Rotarian lunch—I guess because I was student president of the high school. This event has stayed in my mind, not because it opened a world of networking that I later developed. I was painfully shy. I talked a bit with one or two friends and immediate family members, but I was as quiet as a blue point on the half-shell (homage to Red Smith) with all others, and that certainly included those adult Rotarians who sat next to me at the lunch. What I do remember, however, is the luncheon slide show.

A doctor in the town, who was presumably a Rotarian, had done volunteer work in Vietnam. This was at a time when the U.S. commitment in Vietnam was tiny, and few gave that country much thought or could even find it on a map. I don’t know how or why the speaker went there, but he showed picture after picture of deformed children and physically damaged adults. As one disturbing image succeeded the next, I began to feel queasy having never before seen a concentrated dose of such stuff. Sweat beads popped out on my forehead. I swallowed back what started coming out of my stomach. All I could think about was that I was about to disgrace myself. Finally, it ended in what I thought was the nick of time, and I rushed, without saying anything to my table companions, for fresh air. But I digress.

I had no idea where the Elks, or more formally the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks, stood in the town’s service-organization pecking order, but on a late winter Saturday morning of my senior high school year I went to our Elks Club. I have no idea what I had done to qualify for the state constitution test, but I remember that I had prepared by drawing on my Civics course memories, reading the Constitution the night before, and perhaps by reading about it in our encyclopedia, which was not the mindnumbing, comprehensive Encyclopedia Britannica, but an old, breezier World Book.

I went into the dark, dingy, musty Elks clubhouse and met the person who was going to drive me the hour to Milwaukee for the statewide test. I felt a bit sorry for him, whose name I certainly don’t remember. He tried to chat me up, but as I said before, I hardly talked with anyone back then, much less a strange adult. He did try to tell me how great the Elks were, as if he were laying the groundwork for recruiting me to the B.P.O.E. later in life, and how lucky I was to live in a great town like Sheboygan. I said but a few words in reply. The “conversation” did come back to me many years later. I was on a kick of reading some American authors whose reputations had declined through the years, such as John Dos Passos. The Nobel-Prize-winning Sinclair Lewis was on this list. I had heard that he had written outdated, cliché-filled novels that were almost embarrassing. I, on the other hand, found very good books. George Babbitt was not dated if you had been raised in the 1950s in a small midwestern town; it was certainly not dated if you ridden in a car with an Elks booster from Sheboygan.

(continued June 7)