Alexander Hamilton was an important but (until recently, at least) unsung hero in American history.
In light of Trump’s presumptive Presidential nomination (and the incredible success of the Broadway musical Hamilton), it is worth remembering the prescient warning Hamilton delivered in “Federalist 68”, in which he offered the following defense of the Electoral College, which was recognized even then as a fundamentally undemocratic institution:
“Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”
Hamilton envisioned the College as made up of men like him—thoughtful, intelligent, and well-educated. And while they would be elected by the general populace, electors would not be beholden to the wishes of their voters. They would provide a buffer between the will of the masses and the highest office in the land. In providing that buffer, Hamilton hoped to prevent the election of a man who might have great charisma, but no ability to actually run the country.
Trump is undoubtedly a talented man, particularly in what Hamilton calls “low cunning” and “the little arts of popularity”. But, as many have observed, those talents are not at all good predictors of the ability to be a good president.
Hamilton clearly foresaw the problem with allowing direct elections (and now that electors have been legally bound to vote for the winner of their state, we are close to directly electing the president), but his proposed solution was wrong. While checks and balances are necessary in a democracy, the most important voice should always be that of the people. But, if a mind such as Hamilton’s could not arrive at a correct solution, what can we do?
Trump has succeeded in no small part by being allowed to contradict himself and lie through his teeth, but it is not entirely correct to paint his supporters as ignoring the facts. The problem, rather, is that they have no idea how to tell the difference between fact and fiction. And that may not be entirely their fault.
The Internet, television, and social media have made for a swirling cocktail of contradiction and misinformation, and without a clear and easy way to discover truth, people tend to accept the “facts” that they see and hear that fit what they already believe.
In a somewhat ironic twist, this phenomenon has given disproportionate power to a certain class of people that Hamilton wanted choosing our president: the wealthy, educated elite of the country. But it turns out that they are the ones who have the means and time to flood cyberspace and the airwaves with nonsense and bunkum.
And however educated and wealthy these people might be, they are not the disinterested philosophers Hamilton might have imagined. (Nor are they elected by an Electoral College.) The result is the disproportionate power of a few people, a tyranny of the minority manufactured by ad buys and internet hit pieces.
Of course, even Hamilton would likely deny that a solution would be to restrict voting rights. Rather, what we need is a way to cut through the noise and suss out fact from fiction, prejudice from wisdom, caviar from baloney.
What we need is not a better Electoral College, but an Information College—a group of wise people, citizens who have arrived at a place “beyond fear or favor” who cannot be influenced or bribed: retired judges, former Presidents, etc. Such a group could review (with help from staff of their own choosing, paid for by the government) all of the relevant material that flows through the modern media. It would be monitored and studied, and such an Information College board could/would issue pronouncements to set the record straight.
If such a process were conducted wisely—often enough to be well recognized, but rarely enough to stand out from the general noise—it could acquire real credibility and help all open-minded people sort out right from wrong.
It could be a body resembling our highest court, but its ‘check’ would not be on the Executive or Legislative branches, but on the validity of the whole world of free speech, and thus the power that the wealthy can impose through all forms of modern media.
Consideration should also be given to granting such a new institution powers of investigation—similar to a grand jury—and some powers to sanction repeat offenders of disseminating serious misinformation.
Yes, this is radical stuff, but we are dealing with radical problems.
It will take a serious change to stem the tide, which—if we do not act quickly and decisively—may drown us all.