I’ve been watching closely as Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead has grown and grown since election day. It now stands at over 2.6 million votes, a 2 percentage point lead in the popular vote. Of course, the electoral college determines who becomes President. But contrary to what some say, the popular vote is still important. It shows that Trump will be a minority President. It also helps focus Democrats on what did an did not go wrong.
But I wanted to flag a short opinion column which I believe captures a critical element of what is happening in the country right now: our constitutional architecture can allow popular minorities to dominate or at least disproportionately influence the nation’s politics. But not permanently. This was the case for most of the 19th and 20th century. But it can’t do so forever. Even in this period of nationwide Republican dominance I think most Republicans realize it is a fragile grip.
Here’s the rather breathtaking column by Michael Barone, in which he argues that the electoral college is important because it is preventing California from exercising ‘colonial’ rule over the rest of the country.
It is a very unlovely argument. It has a number of statistical ins and outs. But these two passages capture it.
White middle class families have been pretty well priced out of the state by high taxes and housing costs, and the Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have replaced them vote far more Democratic.
California’s 21st century veer to the left makes [the electoral college] a live issue again. In a popular vote system, the voters of this geographically distant and culturally distinct state, whose contempt for heartland Christians resembles imperial London’s disdain for the “lesser breeds” it governed, could impose something like colonial rule over the rest of the nation. Sounds exactly like what the Framers strove to prevent.
One might argue, and with some truth, that we shouldn’t make too much of this argument since this is just a particularly ugly pushback against those arguing Trump lacks a measure of democratic legitimacy for losing the popular vote.
But there’s a bit more than that to it, I think.
This is the mindset of a person and, I think, a political movement that fears that their power cannot be maintained in the context of majoritarian democracy. It’s of a piece with voter suppression, voter ID checks, expulsion of undocumented immigrants — the nationalist surge that drove the outcome of this election.
The big takeaway both parties took from the 2012 election was that Republicans had maxed out the white vote and that it still was not enough to prevent Barack Obama’s reelection. That was the predicate for the Republican post-election ‘autopsy’ and a lot of Democratic confidence going into 2016. That assumption was wrong. In part it was wrong because the 2012 exit polls slightly but significantly distorted the electorate, making it look younger and less white than it was. (That’s a story for another post.)
But it wasn’t that wrong. Whites continue to make up a shrinking portion of the national electorate. It’s no accident that of the three Republican presidencies since George Bush left office in 1993, two lost the popular vote and one won it only barely. This isn’t a fluke but an escalating trend.
This does not mean that 2016 was a hiatus on the way to the Democratic millennium and that Democrats just need to hold on until the Trump coalition shuffles off the stage. That is definitely not what I mean. What I think it does mean is that the kind of ‘last election’ apocalyptic speechifying we saw this fall from Trump and others did not and will not end with Trump’s unexpected victory. We are still in that moment. It continues to permeate everything in our politics.