19 December 2016

Republican multiculturalism

Republicans' vindication of the Electoral College, which today meets in each state to formally elect Donald Trump president -- barring some acts of madness advocated in the supposed mainstream media -- should serve as a reminder that regardless of this year's apparent backlash against multiculturalism, and in spite of whatever Trump himself says or believes, neither Republicans nor conservatives really believe the United States to be one nation or even one culture. The justification for the Electoral College in the face of Hillary Clinton's daunting plurality in the popular vote is that there remains (and should remain) a qualitative difference between the city and the country, the urban and the rural. Deciding the presidency by electoral votes on the constitutional plan is a good thing, Republicans affirm, because it wouldn't be right for an overwhelming majority of a certain kind of people -- city dwellers -- to decide the nation's future when different kinds of people disagree so strongly. It's understood that Clinton built her maddening plurality in the large cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. -- and in geographic areas that can't help but appear isolated from the great American heartland when you look at a map. The Electoral College becomes all the more necessary on the assumption that the people on the coasts do not and cannot know "flyover" America, and that to be outvoted consistently by the cities would be unfair and oppressive to rural or small-town America.

This is not a new idea. It partly explains why we have an Electoral College in the first place. The Founders accepted that each state (and each future state) was in some respect a culture unto itself that was owed protection from the homogenization likely to result from domination by the most populous cities and states. Their great assumption, ironic in light of this year's supposed populist uprising, was that no one part of the country could claim to be America, and that no group of people -- not even a numerical majority -- could claim to be the American people in any sense that compelled people in the minority to submit unconditionally. The national interest emerged only from a consensus of these different peoples requiring a compromise of each group's particular interests, and not from the largest group dictating to the rest. On top of all this, cities have been mistrusted as cauldrons of decadence and dependency since ancient times, and despite the seemingly inexorable urbanization of the world the countryside's distrust of city dwellers may only have intensified in modern times. The irony is that the people today who insist most vocally that they are the American people in some implicitly exclusive way have made their hero the next president through a system that rejects their pretense. I've warned in the past, however, that Madison's schemes to contain majoritarianism have been strained by evolving forms of identity that transcend the geographic and "cultural" boundaries he knew: partisanship, race-consciousness and ideology. It remains to be seen whether the Electoral College's favoring of a purported populist signals a larger failure of Madison's system to prevent the sort of "tyranny of the majority" that many fear today, even as they claim that the "tyranny" lacks a real majority.

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