Americans may be deeply divided by the 2016 presidential election, but we’re getting one helluva civics lesson. Until this year, most of us gave little thought to the Electoral College, the Federalist Papers or even the Constitution. Now we’re getting a crash course on the stuff we ignored in high school civics class (if we even had a civics class).
The post-election campaign to defeat Donald Trump has been educational. We learned that when recounts fail to change the vote totals, the Electoral College can theoretically overturn the election in the name of democracy. So hitherto anonymous electors were targeted with email, letters, phone calls and noisy demonstrations demanding that they vote their conscience by defeating Donald Trump. This was promoted by scholars of the Federalist Papers such as Martin Sheen, and suddenly every activist was quoting Alexander Hamilton (or maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda). And we were outraged by the Russian hackers who threatened our democracy by exposing the dirty tricks of the Clinton campaign.
There never was any chance that party-loyalist electors would betray the voters, despite the wishful-thinking media hype, but the browbeating campaign offered a shred of hope to Democrats going through stages of grief. Diehards still may cling to the fantasy of Vice President Joe Biden refusing to certify the Senate’s endorsement of the Electoral College vote Jan. 6, or the Supreme Court declining to administer the oath of office at the inauguration. Maybe someone will hide the Bible.
We haven’t heard the last of the Electoral College. There’s bound to be yet another movement to abolish it in favor of a nationwide popular vote. The latest argument is that the Electoral College is based on racism, though nobody mentioned this in 2008 and 2012. A straight popular vote would require presidential campaigns to focus on big states like California while completely ignoring places like New Hampshire, Iowa and most of flyover country. A constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would require two-thirds of the states to approve their own disenfranchisement. So it’s not going to happen.
Federalism is coming back into vogue. For decades progressives have pushed to expand federal authority and diminish the power of state and local governments. Now sanctuary cities like New York and Santa Fe are claiming the right to block federal deportation of illegal immigrants. This harks back to a Nineteenth Century controversy in which states claimed the right to nullify any federal law they deemed unconstitutional. Nullification had a brief revival in 1963, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace attempted to block federally mandated school desegregation.
Some folks in California are even talking about seceding from the United States. I’ll bet South Carolina will give them a deal on gently used Confederate flags.
This is a role reversal because it’s usually conservatives who want to shift power from the federal government back to the states. If Democrats are embracing the principle of federalism to defend sanctuary cities, it’s logical that they also will support Trump’s proposals to put states in charge of Medicaid and environmental regulation. Unless they’re just fair-weather federalists.
We’re also seeing a role reversal on the Constitution. For the past eight years Republicans have claimed President Obama’s executive orders and regulatory actions were unconstitutional. The courts often agreed but Democrats cheered every stroke of the executive pen. Now the Dems are telling us that Trump should be barred from the presidency, or immediately impeached, because he is violating the Constitution (by his very existence, apparently).
Expect a lot of activists and pundits to invoke the Constitution with claims that owning real estate (as Washington did), appointing billionaires to the cabinet, holding rallies or sending insulting tweets are unconstitutional and/or grounds for impeachment. The good news is that the political noise may get more Americans to actually read the Constitution. Perhaps universities will even allow its distribution on campus.