The United States finds itself in its 58th presidential election, and popular candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are vying to capture the nominations of U.S. citizens. In a democracy, the citizens would vote the president directly into office.
However, in the United States, the people do not actually have the final say in the matter.
“It’s one of the great fallacies of America. The total popular vote means nothing, because the reality is that each state chooses electors for the Electoral College; it’s not until the members of the Electoral College cast their votes that we have a president,” explained Castleton professor Bill Wiles.
When President George W. Bush was chosen by the Electoral College to be the 43rd U.S. president, the Supreme Court approved of Bush’s win — even though 500,000 more U.S. citizens voted for Al Gore.
When a candidate with half a million fewer votes wins an election, do we really have a democracy?
While two Castleton English professors admit that the U.S. political system may not be perfect, both Dennis Shramek and Chris Boettcher are unsure if a change to the system is what they would want. Asked if they thought a change allowing the popular vote to determine the presidency would be better for the country, both expressed concern toward unforeseen implications of such a democratic change.
“I would need to find out more about these implications before I would want to change the current system,” said Shramek.
Fellow English professor Joyce Thomas once joked that “Kanye West would become president” if the U.S. population was allowed to directly vote a candidate into presidency. And these perspectives may make sense. What if the people don’t know what’s best for them, or who would be best to lead their country?
In a 2015 Washington Post article, Eugene Volokh argued that the United States is both a democracy AND a republic. It seems like a contradiction to say a country could be two fundamentally different types of government at once. But when the question was brought to the head of political science at Castleton, a firm answer was given in return.
“We are a democratic republic,” says professor Rich Clark, pointing out that the popular vote and the decision from the Electoral College has only ever disagreed twice.
But is twice too many times, when the president that the people chose was not given office? Would Gore have made better decisions than Bush?
Clark expressed that the term “democracy” has been used differently throughout history, and noted that politicians have long bent the specific definition of what a “true democracy” once meant. A true democracy would mean the citizens vote on the decision of every law, and every professor interviewed said that such a true democracy, in modern America, would lead to chaos.
“I am absolutely opposed to a total democracy. All you have to do to see what that would produce is go on Facebook or Twitter,” Wiles said.
He also pointed out that the votes from a state like Vermont would barely matter in a true democracy, as our state lacks a large population in comparison with other states.
American citizens do get to directly vote in their state senators, which is a big splash of democracy that compliments the U.S. republic, thanks to the 17th amendment. Before, the selection of senators and presidents both were not in the hands of citizens.
Senior Jake Stafford has mixed views on U.S. politics and the current election campaign.
“The current system was put in place for a reason: the population may make an ill-informed or ignorant decision. The problem is, if the informed people who run the government have maligned views, you get an election where the president selected is not in the best interests of the people,” he said.
A major study conducted by professors from Princeton and Northwestern universities in 2014 argued that the United States, by the numbers, appears to be more like an oligarchy or a plutocracy, than a democratic republic.
The report, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little to no independent influence.”
The report continued to argue, through data collected examining nearly 1,800 enacted U.S. policies from 1981 to 2002, that “when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or organized interests, they [the citizens] generally lose.”
Clark, however, suggested it was a biased study, regarding “what they chose to measure.”