Richter Scale

Election 2012: America’s Weimar Complex

Why are Americans hesitant to elect their president by a direct popular vote?

Credit: Teresa Azevedo/


  • Republicans realize that the last thing they would want to consent to is a move to a true popular vote for president.
  • There are increasing odds that Barack Obama could be reelected to the White House, but not with a majority of the popular vote.
  • U.S. conservatives ought to be prepared to look ahead and agree to fix the problem once and for all.
  • Doing away with the bizarre anomaly of the Electoral College is the only sensible way to end debates about illegitimate presidents.

One could be forgiven to think that it is the United States, not Germany that had a truly traumatic experience with electing its president directly by popular vote.

But it was not the United States, but rather Weimar Germany where a popularly elected, but politically weak president back in 1932 triggered consequences that almost brought the world to its knees. The octogenarian president, Paul von Hindenburg, was instrumental in Hitler’s rise to power in 1932.

Understandably, the Germans have ever since been very leery of electing their president on the basis of a direct national vote and equipping the office with real powers. They reduced it to a largely ceremonial post that, at most, offers a platform for moral suasion.

The United States, which had the tremendous birth advantage of starting out as a democracy, has not undergone any bouts of fascism. And yet it has, like Germany, a strange and strong reservation against electing the president by a true popular vote.

The system relies on the bizarre crutch of the Electoral College — and thus a mediated election. This system may have been (barely) justified in the late 1700s, when the Constitution was decided upon and the institution of the Electoral College was presumed useful as an instrument to overcome the geographic vastness of the land.

The real reason for the insertion of the Electoral College, of course, is quite different. It was meant to tamper down any plebiscitarian dynamism.

Giving the masses, i.e., the people at large, the power to vote directly for one person was something that many of the founding fathers shied away from. Their strong preference was to rely much more on what they regarded as the more civilized electoral appetites of the landed gentry.

So much for history. Right now, there are increasing odds that Barack Obama could be reelected to the White House, but not with a majority of the popular vote.

Such an outcome would bring a repeat of the 2000 experience, only under reversed partisan circumstances. In 2000, it was Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, who actually got over 500,000 more votes than his opponent (and eventual president), George W. Bush — and yet lost.

If a similar scenario were to play out in 2012, it would mark the fifth time in U.S. history and, more intriguing, the second time in 12 years.

And yet, rather than engaging in political America’s favorite pastime, which is to revisit the past and try to remake it, U.S. conservatives ought to be prepared to look ahead and agree to fix the problem once and for all.

If Barack Obama does indeed get back to the White House lacking the majority of the popular vote, both parties should agree to do away with the bizarre anomaly of the Electoral College. In its place, they should agree to elect the president forthwith on the basis of a true nationwide popular vote.

If that happened, one of the biggest goals of Republican foreign policy, to bring the maximum level of democracy to other countries, would thankfully no longer just be applied to the Middle East and other foreign regions, but to the homeland as well.

Making this move is the only sensible way to end once and for all any debates about illegitimate presidents. It would have spared Mr. Bush and the country the embarrassment of being lifted into the office not by the people, but rather by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision about one state’s vote in the Electoral College.

Far more enticingly for Republicans, in 2012, it would have allowed Mr. Romney to become president — if the assumption that he may gain the majority of the popular vote indeed holds true.

A direct nationwide vote would also give every last American a direct stake in the vote — and hence a reason to go voting. It would make for a much more democratic campaign season.

As things stand now, there are only a few votes that really matter, the ones that come from approximately seven “swing” states. As those fall to one side or the other in the last days prior to the election, it can be one or two states — out of fifty — that make the decision.

Imagine instead a brave new world where the electoral college were abolished: As they enter the voting booth in a tight election, every man or woman above the age of 18 could imagine themselves as potentially casting the decisive vote for president. What a tremendous reality-TV show that would be!

Currently, in very populous states with a solid Democratic majority, most prominently California, many Democrats don’t have a real reason to go and vote because the result is preordained. They don’t need to worry about not being counted and casting their vote. That is what may lead to Mr. Obama not having the majority in the popular vote.

Counterintuitive though it may be, this is why anyone who has an interest in making the United States of the future a truly democratic nation ought to advocate for this peculiar outcome in the election of 2012. The Republicans will never again have a better reason to fix the system than operating under the pain of the lost 2012 vote.

Alas, the odds that they would actually opt for this democratizing scenario remain low. Republicans already find that their electoral advantage among white male voters is dangerously counterbalanced by the Democrats’ strong advantage among ethnic minorities.

But since it is the latter whose population share — and hence representation at the ballot box — keeps rising dynamically, while that of the white guys is shrinking, Republicans realize that the last thing they would want to consent to is a move to a true popular vote for president. In fact, the Electoral College is one of the best crutches at their disposal if they want to gain future majorities.

As the country’s ethnic and social basis is shifting away from the Republican Party, the Electoral College is far from the only instrument in the constitution that the Congress will retain to check the full expression of the popular will.

Others include the overly generous two-vote per state rule for the U.S. Senate, which vastly overrepresents increasingly underpopulated rural lands. This trend is only worsening as the population leaves these states behind and concentrates on the two coasts.

All of these measures were introduced — and, there is no denying it, are maintained — in order to preserve the structural conservatism of the country to the maximum extent possible. It will be a long time before the United States will be a truly democratic nation.

All of this is why, as far as Republicans are concerned, calls for true and unmitigated democracy will remain a great foreign policy play, in the Middle East, China and elsewhere. Just not one designed for application on the home front.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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