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We’ve Been Here Before – 1800 Edition

November 30, 2016

With Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead having blown past 2 million—and more ballots yet to count—it’s increasingly clear that the anti-democratic structures (most notably the electoral college) in the US political system have delivered us a government in which the minority party (in this case, the Republicans) has near total control of the levers of power.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened*. We’ve already talked about the 1920s, and the 1850s. Now let’s go back to where it started, with the election of 1800.

The presidential electoral system the US has today doesn’t come from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It comes from the aftermath of the “Revolution of 1800“, when Jefferson—with the aid of the 3/5 Clause—defeated Adams, the party system (not envisioned by the men convening in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787) emerged, and was effectively institutionalized by the adoption of the 12th amendment.

As Yale constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar notes:

“It is the 12th Amendment’s Electoral College system, not the Philadelphia Framers’, that remains in place today.    —snip—

Southerner Thomas Jefferson, for example, won the election of 1800-01 against Northerner John Adams in a race where the slavery-skew of the electoral college was the decisive margin of victory: without the extra electoral college votes generated by slavery, the mostly southern states that supported Jefferson would not have sufficed to give him a majority. As pointed observers remarked at the time, Thomas Jefferson metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.”

This is the world as it is: US presidential elections have, from the beginning, had a systemic bias against people of color, and that structural bias continues today.

As European-Americans continue to shrink as a percentage of the US electorate, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for candidates like Donald Trump to win presidential elections…if everyone votes.  (Which is another reason to expect voter suppression efforts to intensify during—and with the support of—the Trump administration.)

For those who are fearful at the prospect of a President Trump—and outraged that he’ll take office despite having lost the popular vote by a convincing margin—one of the challenges is understanding the context of our times. This isn’t unprecedented; we have more power (including a popular majority) than we think we do; and there are lessons to be learned from our predecessors who also faced the challenge of organizing for justice in the face of anti-democratic and oppressive institutions.

*Note: For purposes of this discussion we’re setting aside cases of massive, categorical disenfranchisement of entire populations—e.g., women prior to 1920, slaves (and freedmen and women) before 1870, African-Americans across the South for the three generations between the end of Reconstruction and passage of the Voting Rights Act.

That’s despite the fact that there’s also much to learn from the political, social and economic organizing tactics and strategies successfully used by those non-voters to have powerful impacts upon the political system…including tactics and strategies that led to the destruction of those exclusionary regimes.

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