Sean Wilentz is Being Silly

I think it should be obvious that I am not “in the tank” for Barack Obama, but this near-comic pro-Clinton intervention from Sean Wilentz deserves special attention.

Finally, there is the disquieting question of acknowledging what kind of democracy will determine who wins the presidency in 2008. Strong arguments could be made that, in a thoroughgoing democracy, voters choose presidents with a direct, plebiscitary system. The candidate who commands a majority (or, perhaps, a plurality) of the popular vote nationally wins the election. But, interesting as they might be as an academic exercise, such musings are irrelevant to the politics of 2008. We have a winner-take-all system, but it operates on a state-by-state basis (except in Maine and Nebraska, where it’s winner-take-all by congressional district). Like it or not, we will choose the president under the indirect and fractured democracy of the Electoral College.

Like it or not … like it or not … but this is a normative argument about democratic legitimacy, isn’t it? Or is it an argument about electability or … Wilentz calls proportional distribution, a close cousin of proportional representation, “eccentric.” And it’s true, it is rare in the US political system for a variety of reasons, one of them being anti-Communist hysteria and, in some cases, racism. (PR was common in American cities before the 1950s. Douglas Amy has written extensively on the subject.) But given that some form of proportional representation is used in most advanced industrial democracies, it hardly seems right to call it “eccentric.” True, the system is inconsistent. But surely that is part of the genius of American federalism. Right? Well, perhaps Wilentz has divined the deep structural logic of the Electoral College, and he believes that it ought to be privileged and enshrined. That almost makes sense. The trouble is, as D. Cloyce Smith reminds us, Wilentz hasn’t been quite so consistent on this “like it or not” question. Not only did he “like it or not” — he went quite a bit further than that.

In 2000 Wilentz organized a $100,000 advertising campaign, placing two ads in The New York Times, both of which decried the constitutional crisis that resulted when the Electoral College and the popular vote were in conflict. (Wilentz even got in a bit of trouble for these ads; a few signers had not approved the text as published.) This “constitutional crisis” resulted, as Wilentz well knows, because the American Electoral College and the popular vote are pretty much designed to provide different results—as they have on several occasions in our history.

Now, however, Wilentz suddenly finds an argument in favor of these bipolar elections. The argument’s name, it seems, is Hillary Clinton. “Like it or not, we will choose the president under the indirect and fractured democracy of the Electoral College.” In other words, the Democratic Party should mimic the nation and go with the “indirect and fractured” system more likely to cause a discrepancy between the popular vote and the delegate count. After all, who needs just one crisis during an election year when you can have two?

I think Smith wins this dispute. He goes on to make the obvious yet very important that had the rules been different, Obama would surely have run a different campaign. (The same, I hasten to add, was of course true of George W. Bush in 2000.) One neat thing about the Democratic primary race is that some rank opportunists who’ve curried favor as ferociously partisan Democrats, Mark Penn among them, are now seen as the flim-flam artists they really are, all because they bet on the wrong, which is to say the unfashionable, horse.