The founders' wisdom


By Alan Keyes
2000 WorldNetDaily.com

Nothing about the current extraordinary aftermath of the presidential election has been quite as alarming as the spectacle of almost uniform ignorance among our political elites, media and citizens, of the very purpose and principled justification of the constitutionally prescribed procedure by which the United States selects its presidents.

Senator-elect Hillary appears to believe that the Electoral College is merely an archaic reflection of our elitist ancestors and their distrust of democracy. Why shouldn't the people elect the president directly, she wants to know, as she prepares to take her seat in that equally "archaic" institution, the Senate, in which, as a senator from New York, she will have precisely as much constitutional authority as senators from Wyoming and Alaska. Possibly she will soon be moved to question the "injustice" of such disproportionate representation.

The Constitution of the United States was crafted with prayerful care and deep wisdom to enable the vision of virtuous self-government proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence to take on the flesh and bone of real political life. Animated by the principles of the Declaration, the Constitution is the fundamental procedural instrument by which we pursue our national goal of governing ourselves. Our founders recognized that all men are prone to sin and selfishness. They had learned from history that democratic governments that put no procedural restraint on the will of the majority usually resulted in tyranny and persecution of minorities; in abrupt, passionate, and dangerous politics, and the failure of self-government. That is why, in designing the American system, they were so careful to put into the democratic process those safeguards that allow it to have stability and longevity.

There has been criticism of the system in the last several days because it is alleged that a simple and direct election of the president by means of the national popular vote would have avoided the controversy regarding the Florida totals. But the current troubles are actually a clear vindication of the wisdom of the Electoral College. It has confined the controversy to one state, because it holds the balance of the Electoral College, rather than spreading it throughout the entire country. Without the Electoral College, the entire country would be consumed by the question of the popular vote, in which Vice President Gore and Gov. Bush are separated by about 4,000 votes per state. That means that from Alaska to Florida, Maine to California, partisans of both men would be subjecting the election totals of their communities to recounts, challenges, litigation -- the inevitable temptation to fraud -- and other attempts to find the few votes that might make the difference to the national total.

I have often compared the Constitution to a nuclear reactor, with the power of self-government understood as nuclear power. If you don't have the control rods in place, if everything isn't set up properly, you don't have a controlled and useful reaction -- you have a meltdown, or the makings of a bomb. That's what democracy is like. If it is not properly structured, it is highly destructive. If it is properly structured, it is probably the best form of government we can attain to. And I think the design bequeathed us by our founders comes pretty close.

The question the founders faced was how to establish institutions of government that would be accountable to the public will, but in ways that systematically encouraged that will to be reflective, deliberate, and truly public-minded. Such encouragement makes no sense, of course, if one believes that the public will, or desire of the majority, is truly the ultimate principle of political justice. But the country was founded with a Declaration that acknowledged the duty of the people to seek justice in conformity to the laws of nature and of nature's God. Our Constitution is crafted not simply to empower public will, but to empower those expressions of public will that are most likely to be consistent with the nation's pursuit of true justice.

The founders understood that a government designed to respond directly, immediately and completely to the will of the majority would be extremely unstable. Among other threats to political stability in such a system they concentrated particularly on the danger of what they called "factionalism." A system that awarded political power to any group achieving simple majority status would be vulnerable to the possibility of a majority faction that would not represent the good of the whole. Regional factions, for example, might form on the basis of an interest common to residents of the region, but detrimental to the Union -- such as in the period leading up to the Civil War.

The purpose of government is justice, the harmonious ordering of private and partial interests with the overarching common good of a community. Because government must have daunting coercive power if it is effectively to accomplish this purpose, government is inherently almost as dangerous as it is necessary. A government that, like a lens concentrating sunlight to start a fire, simply focused the passions of a majority into a single beam of power would be much more dangerous than necessary. The founders sought to prevent this deadly laser of popular will and power, which they called the tyranny of the majority. They crafted a government truly of, by and for the people, but which systematically prevented the suppression of the rights of the minority. They thought, thereby, to come as close as humanly possible to a government that expressed the will and sought the good of the whole, rather than of a majority.

The three pillars of this attempt were the universal American sentiment of reverence for the rule of law and the goal of justice; the division of sovereignty between the state and federal governments; and the division of the federal government's offices into three branches, the legislative, executive and judicial. The good character and intentions of the American people, artfully reflected through this system of divided yet composed government power, has for two centuries produced governmental action that has been, on the whole and roughly speaking, more illuminating than incendiary. This simple fact is the greatest triumph of statesmanship in the history of human government.

In our day, shallow, superficial and selfish "leaders" neither understand this history, appreciate the benefits it has brought, nor fear the evil its abandonment will bring. Led by Bill Clinton, they have assaulted the character of American decency and good will that alone makes self-government possible. And now they are preparing an assault on the balance and separation of powers, seeking to undermine the entire cathedral of American liberty by their selfish and childish insistence on immediate exercise of their individual will.

The Electoral College is one safeguard that was introduced in order to help stabilize the American system against factionalism by increasing the odds that a president has to attend to the whole country, not just to a particularly intense concentration of his political support within it. The Electoral College system tends to reward a candidate with modest majorities in many states, rather than a candidate with overwhelming support in a few. As we are being reminded vividly by the current election, there is no benefit to a candidate for president in having much more than a bare majority in any given state -- he gains nothing from those votes beyond the one that gives him victory in that state. It is a wise and good system promoting truly national leadership that encourages presidential candidates to seek a plurality in many states, rather than basing his support in a few states overwhelmingly committed to his cause. This is not a guarantee that candidates will be nationally-minded, of course. But it is a generally effective protection against the worst kind of regional factionalism in presidential politics. This protection is subtly accomplished by the Electoral College system in every presidential election, and we would be short-sighted indeed if we abandon it in a selfish and stupidly willful reach for direct influence of our individual votes.

Acceptance of the procedural twists and turns that stand between the popular will of the moment and its expression in the form of effective political power is not so different from the simple act of counting to ten before speaking when angry. This simple pause can seem arbitrary, and it delays the expression of our will. But it also, and more fundamentally, acknowledges that even in our freedom we are bound to respect the verdict of reason in what we do, and that we must consult reason before acting.

In fact, resentment of the Electoral College usually reveals a deeper resentment to the principles of the American Republic. Zealots of the popular will cannot stomach the notion that every one of us has an obligation to something other than our own will -- and that as American citizens we have an obligation to seek not our own private benefit, but justice for the whole. The Electoral College system is merely one of the ways that our constitutional system requires us to accept the fruitful paradox of American statesmanship -- that higher principles than the popular will must be respected in the constitutional outcome, but that these higher principles cannot ultimately govern American politics unless they are freely accepted by the people.

Political ambition in America cannot be absolute, but must always be limited by the demands of prudence and the ultimate goal of justice. The oft-repeated but seldom understood statement that America is not a democracy but a republic reduces ultimately to this fact.

Indeed, the spirit of moderation and of the search for justice that is implied in the structural constraints on the public will found in the Constitution can also guide our thinking about what should now happen in Florida. Whatever result emerges from the political drama in that state, we know that a successful result for the country requires that even in this particular controversy we must respect the principles that guided the founders in crafting the Constitution and in founding the Union.

This means, first of all, that the rest of the nation must expect from Florida a resolution of the dispute that respects the requirements of the integrity of the franchise, and which seeks to accomplish justice both in perception and in substance. The key to accomplishing this will be to remember several principles of American political life, deeply respected by our founders, that might be lost sight of in the midst of all the partisan passion. No enduring good result will occur if we fail to respect the things the founders cared about. They cared that we should have self-government, and that it should be just, stable and long-lasting. They cared that it should produce results that were consistent with the dignity of all our people. They hoped and trusted that Americans would always strive to place these goals above any immediate political aims.

We must, therefore, care about not just whether our candidate wins, but also about pursuing the results in a way that contributes to the stability of the electoral system and to the national respect for its integrity without which no prudent expression of the national will is possible. And we must take great pains to care about these things more, not less, as it becomes ever more clear that our opponents do not.

It is ironic that at the end of the most lawless administration in the history of our country, the man who stood silent in the shadow of that lawlessness and became its accomplice should demand from the American people "respect for the rule of law." But for those of us who have been defending the principle of the rule of law throughout these difficult years, it is neither ironic nor difficult for us to demand that same respect for justice here that we wanted in the case of Bill Clinton.

At the end, let us hope and pray, of the Clinton era, this amazing election has made it suddenly necessary that all Americans consider questions usually reserved for the statesman or the founder. We must remember the deep meaning of the institutions and procedures by which the Constitution helps us to replace mere popular willfulness with the considered judgments of the better angels of our national nature. And we must remember as well that such statesmanship is the duty of the citizen even in the particular and passing contests of political life, when our passions tempt us to seek triumph without due regard for justice.

It would be sweet indeed if the citizens of America -- Democrat, Republican and independent -- rise to the occasion and resolve the current travail in a way that renews our veneration for law and for the justice that is its purpose. Let us bless the founders for our Constitution, and for proclaiming the eternal Declaration principles of justice it enshrines. God give us wisdom.


Former Reagan administration official Alan Keyes, was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Social and Economic Council and 2000 Republican presidential candidate.