Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sean Wilentz and the Fall of American Democracy

My friends are finding it increasingly implausible that I have no real preference for the Democratic nomination; I was, as many know, a Clinton delegate to the 1996 convention, and I am a longtime fan of the Clintons.

Still, in truth, I would be thrilled with either Obama or Clinton as President. In fact, for the first time in 24 years, I couldn't bring myself to vote in a New York primary; I simply couldn't decide among all three candidates (including Edwards).

But this desperation-smacking, politically motivated, ahistorical rant from historian Sean Wilentz, published by Salon, has temporarily tilted my equilibrium. Wilentz argues that, if the entire primary system were different ("if the system made sense"), Hillary would be winning the nomination and would soon have it wrapped up. Different how, you ask? If the primary were run the same as the Electoral College, with the winner taking all the delegates in each state.

Five observations:

1) Salon reprehensibly and irresponsibly does not identify Wilentz as an unwavering Clinton supporter--one who has published a series of articles attempting to prop up her faltering campaign. (Instead, they leave that important tidbit of information to a reader who, in the comments, lists Wilentz's many essays.)

2) In 2000 Wilentz organized a $100,000 advertising campaign, placing two ads in The New York Times, both of which decried the constitutional crisis that resulted when the Electoral College and the popular vote were in conflict. (Wilentz even got in a bit of trouble for these ads; a few signers had not approved the text as published.) This "constitutional crisis" resulted, as Wilentz well knows, because the American Electoral College and the popular vote are pretty much designed to provide different results--as they have on several occasions in our history.

3) Now, however, Wilentz suddenly finds an argument in favor of these bipolar elections. The argument's name, it seems, is Hillary Clinton. "Like it or not, we will choose the president under the indirect and fractured democracy of the Electoral College." In other words, the Democratic Party should mimic the nation and go with the "indirect and fractured" system more likely to cause a discrepancy between the popular vote and the delegate count. After all, who needs just one crisis during an election year when you can have two?

4) Let's be merciful and grant that Wilentz is right: that the state primaries and caucuses should be winner-take-all, to best imitate the general election. If that were the case, then Obama would certainly have run a different campaign--a consideration Wilentz blithely ignores. But both candidates used campaign strategies for the system as it exists--not as Wilentz imagines it should have been now that the game is nearly over.

5) "It's like the Patriots on their final drive against the Giants saying that if you went by just touchdowns they were actually tied."