A fortnight after Donald Trump won the American election and became president-elect, many are still trying to prevent the Republican victor actually being elected president of the United States.
Almost as soon as the overall result of the 8 November elections became clear, the cry went up that Trump would not be a legitimate occupant of the White House. Filmmaker and Hillary Clinton cheerleader Michael Moore spoke for many top Democrats when he denounced The Donald as ‘an illegitimate president’ who ‘does not have the vote of the people’.
Anti-Trump protesters angrily pointed out that, while the Republican candidate had won a majority in the electoral college — the system the US uses to elect its president indirectly — Democratic Party candidate Clinton had won a larger share of the popular vote. (Though the final votes are still being counted, it seems likely that Clinton could end up with over a million votes more than Trump – about one per cent of the total votes cast.)
Within days of the election, a Washington Post-ABC poll found that one-in-three Democrat voters believed Trump’s win was ‘illegitimate’, with 27 per cent of them feeling ‘strongly’ about it. Those feelings appeared strongest within the metropolitan strongholds of the Democratic elite, where media-focused protests against the result were concentrated.
Now online petitions are gathering support, calling on the 538 members of the electoral college to go rogue and refuse to endorse Trump when they all congregate on 19 December. He needs the support of 270 electors to be confirmed, and has almost 300 on paper. But it remains theoretically possible for enough members of the college to act as what are called ‘faithless electors’ and endorse a candidate whom the voters in their state did not support.
The biggest petition of this sort on Change.org has apparently now gathered almost 4.5million signatures, demanding that the electoral college make Hillary Clinton president because ‘SHE WON THE POPULAR VOTE’. Meanwhile college electors report being ‘bombarded’ with phone calls, emails and social-media messages calling on them to vote against Trump. Some Democrat electors themselves admit to lobbying for their counterparts in the college to vote for ‘Anybody But Trump’ and switch support to a more ‘respectable’ Republican such as Mitt Romney.
Two points in response to all of this: Firstly, yes, the electoral college represents a strange, distorted brand of representative democracy. That is precisely why it was established in the first place – to provide a potential brake on popular sentiments of which the US elites do not approve. Secondly, however, there is little that is democratic about the sudden upsurge of protests about the US system. Those who are happy enough with the electoral college when it delivers results they want are simply furious because it has allowed for the election of the despised Donald. Indeed, their demand for 538 members of the electoral college to overturn the votes of ‘ill-informed’ Trump voters represents the new face of anti-democratic politics in the US and the West.
The Founding Fathers who led the American revolution against British rule from 1776 and established the US as an independent republic were fearful of ‘too much’ popular democracy. They created a system of checks and balances that could, if necessary, restrain the people in the name of representation. The powerful Supreme Court is one arm of this system. Another is the Senate, the upper chamber of Congress which gives two seats to every US state, regardless of population size, and thus enables smaller, rural and generally more conservative states to counter-balance the big urban centres.