Cram it sideways

Thomas Jones

Eric Foner’s piece on the history of the electoral college has been getting an unusual amount of attention online this week, with a huge spike in pageviews on Wednesday and Thursday. It was shared on Pocket (the app formerly known as ‘Read it Later’), but also in more surprising places, such as a politics forum on a fansite for the Texas A&M college football team. It may have been doing the rounds in less public quarters, too, on Facebook and WhatsApp, since we’ve received dozens of angry – and eerily similar – letters to the editor from people who don’t appear to be regular readers of the paper.

Some of the letter writers think it a bit rich for the London Review of Books to be criticising democracy in America, given the parlous state of democracy in the UK (‘that limey newspaper can cram it sideways,’ as one Texan football fan eloquently puts it). ‘We haven’t had to care what the UK thinks since 1776,’ one letter says. Another, addressing the editors as ‘gentlemen’, suggests that our reviewer ‘should write about the queen’. Some at least register that Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, is a US citizen. But they still consider his piece ‘liberal nonsense’ or ‘another left-wing nationalist attack’.

But what’s really curious is how many of them take aim at a supposed fundamental misconception in Foner’s review: ‘He has no idea,’ as one puts it, ‘that the United States is a Republic, not a democracy’ – slam dunk! – as if it were somehow impossible for a polity to be a democratic republic, or a republican democracy. The alleged distinction has been used as a slogan to defend the electoral college since at least November 2016. Part of the reason for its catchiness, I suspect, has to do with the way it resonates with the names of the two main political parties.

A piece in the Baffler last year by Ed Burmila traced the origins of the ‘ubiquitous comment-section incantation’ to the Federalist Papers, where James Madison distinguished between a ‘pure democracy’, in which everything is decided by plebiscite, and a republic in which government is delegated ‘to a small number of citizens elected by the rest’. The difference Madison had in mind, in other words, was the difference between direct and representative democracy. And ‘it is a cheap rhetorical sleight-of-hand,’ as Burmila says, ‘to justify outcomes or processes on the basis that America is “not a democracy”.’

When I asked Foner about it, he said that ‘the mantra may have originated with Madison and his generation … but it was popularised by the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society in the 1950s and remains a slogan of all sorts of conservative groups.’

I don’t suppose the LRB’s new correspondents are any more likely to be persuaded by Burmila (a political scientist in Chicago) than they are by Foner or me (an ignorant left-wing limey) but perhaps they would listen to Ronald Reagan, who in his autobiography, An American Life, described the United States as ‘this great democracy of ours’, and once said that ‘democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honourable form of government ever devised by man.’


  • 24 May 2020 at 12:14am
    Jay says:
    I think it's lazy to shrug off the republic vs. democracy question. As Foner acknowledges, it's a political issue that goes back to the founding, and just because it's weaponized by the John Birch society does not mean there are no stakes to the matter. In the Episode 170 of the Talking Politics Podcast Gary Gerstle and Helen Thompson have and interchange where Gerstle, like Foner, flatly asserts that the Electoral College should be eliminated. Thompson more thoughtfully points out that this would mean changing from a federal state to a unitary state and that this is not insignificant. The interchange begins at 36:41. I don't think Thompson is a John Bircher.

    I'm not particularly wedded to the Electoral College, but I don't think we should be dismissive of questions about how its elimination would fundamentally alter the political structure of the US. And as Foner points out in his review, the problems in US politics run much deeper than the Electoral College. Its dysfunction may be more a symptom than a disease.

    • 25 May 2020 at 12:27am
      Mary says: @ Jay
      The difference between a federal and unitary state is different than the difference between a republic and a democracy. Saying that some arguments are silly doesn’t mean that all of them are. In the case of republic vs democracy, the two aren’t mutually exclusive even by Madison’s definition. I don’t see how it’s lazy to point that out

    • 25 May 2020 at 4:37pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Jay
      Maybe I should listen to Thompson's argument, but on the face of it, it makes no sense to me. In a unitary state, powers now held by the "several States" would, presumably, have to be transferred to the federal government. Presumably, also, states would elect Senators on the basis of population, as they do Representatives; or else the Senate would be scrapped altogether.

      I don't see how any of that would follow, either logically, or as a result of the messy power struggles and sketchy compromises of regular politics, from the scrapping of the Electoral College.

    • 1 June 2020 at 4:15pm
      Alan Keenan says: @ Bob Beck
      Spot on - my thoughts exactly. Eliminating the Electoral College would indeed result in a profound change to US politics - mostly good, though possibly with some negative effects that would be hard to fully predict in advance. But it wouldn't eliminate the Senate (also a deeply non-democratic institution in many ways), nor the separate states and their constitutions and their distinctive powers and thus would leave federalism in place. Having just listened to the Talking Politics podcast mentioned above, Helen Thompson wasn't quite claiming that ending the Electoral College would end federalism, but she did come pretty close. Gary Gerstle was more accurate in saying that making the change - which requires approval by 3/4 of the 50 states - would require the states to agree to a diminution in their power. But it would unquestionably leave the US a federal state - with a bit more of a democratic element than before.

  • 24 May 2020 at 3:11am
    John Sens says:
    I found Foner's piece to be elementary, at least for Americans. For readers in other venues it seems to me a good introduction to the issues from a left wing view.

  • 24 May 2020 at 9:00pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    Back in 1998-9 I frequented a 'year 2000' forum; it began as a place for IT professionals to discuss the problem and how to fix it, but was overrun by survivalists who assumed it was unfixable and just wanted to talk about the end of the world and how they were preparing for it. (At one point I proposed a five-point scale for people's assessments of how Y2K was going to go down, with 1 being 'business as usual' and 5 being 'TEOTWAWKI'; several people found 5 inadequate, and one extended the scale to 10.) Anyway, the most vocal of the 'preppers' was very fond of reminding all comers that the USA was a Republic and Not a Democracy, a line which he traced back to the Federalist Papers; I hadn't heard of this document before, but got the impression that its significance in the history of America was somewhere between the Bill of Rights and the Bible. I guess that is how it looks from one perspective.

    • 25 May 2020 at 4:27pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Phil Edwards
      Back when my own country was struggling (some said belatedly) to codify its constitution, I found Americans' reverence for theirs, and for things like the Federalist Papers, inspiring.

      But I was only in my late teens then, and eventually I came to see it as closer to fetishism. When the Congress was considering whether to impeach Richard Nixon, one representative famously said "My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total." No-one laughed, and in fact, laughter would have been considered scandalous.

      On solemn occasions, you can forgive some rhetorical excess, but even so, it was a sign that rationality is not at a premium in that system.

  • 25 May 2020 at 7:34am
    BBeckett says:
    As an Australian, I am stunned at the lack of embarrassment at the pronouncement of "the United States is a republic, not a democracy."

    I am chagrined that we are a democracy, not a republic here, but if the 'Murcans now tell me that they are mutually exclusive, thank you, I will keep the vote and resign myself to Her Majesty's Government.

  • 26 May 2020 at 4:54pm
    Ernie Lazar says:
    Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to I.H. Tiffany in 1816, which certainly contradicts the Birch Society's understanding of ancient Greek "democracy" versus what our Founding Fathers had in mind. According to Jefferson's understanding of Greek "democracy":

    "They had just ideas of the value of personal liberty, but none at all of the structure of government best calculated to preserve it. They knew no medium between a democracy (the only pure republic), and an abandonment of themselves to an aristocracy or a tyranny
    independent of the people."

    Birchers make much of the difference between a democracy and a republic but Thomas Jefferson (as shown above) used the terms interchangeably.

    To Kercheval in 1816, Jefferson wrote:

    "I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom."

    Hmmm---sounds like Jefferson harbored some animosity toward persons of wealth and how they might use their wealth (i.e. capital) for their own selfish interests instead of the commonweal. Does that mean Jefferson was a "socialist" in the Birch scheme of things?

    • 27 May 2020 at 5:14pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Ernie Lazar
      Mighty suspicious, and no mistake. If today's Republicans have the *chutzpah* to claim Abraham Lincoln as a political ancestor, then they should be made to reckon with Theodore "Malefactors of Great Wealth," into the bargain.

    • 27 May 2020 at 5:15pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Ernie Lazar
      ... Theodore "Malefactors of Great Wealth" *Roosevelt*, that should of was.

  • 27 May 2020 at 4:03pm
    Gardiner Linda says:
    A friend of mine who went to a Catholic school in Massachusetts during the 1950s recalls that the nun who taught "social science" told the class that the US was a republic when the Republicans were in power and a democracy when the Democrats were in power. One can well imagine this sort of thing replicated on a large scale....

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