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The consequences of presidential ‘illegitimacy’

Charles Henry, professor emeritus, African American studies | January 21, 2017

When civil rights icon Representative John Lewis said he would not attend the inaugural because he did not consider Donald Trump a “legitimate” president, it ignited a firestorm of controversy. Trump predictably responded with a tweet attacking Lewis’s character rather than Russian hacking and some 60 of the congressman’s colleagues joined him in the boycott.

The legitimacy of a presidential election has come into question on at least three occasions in my lifetime, all with severe consequences. In 1968 Hubert Humphrey lost one of the closest elections in American political history to Richard Nixon who had a “secret” plan to end the war in Vietnam. According to the New York Times, the disruption of Nixon’s 1969 inaugural parade by war protesters was the first in 180 years of the presidency. Just recently what had been suspected has now been confirmed — that during the campaign Nixon had “secret” discussions with the Vietnamese to stall any peace talks until after the election. Of course Nixon’s administration marked a new low for modern presidents as he resigned in disgrace in 1974.

In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote over George W. Bush but with the electoral college vote hanging in the balance a Republican Supreme Court handed the election to Bush. Bush proceeded to launch two costly and continuing wars, increase the national debt and wreck the economy. Gore went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on climate change.

It remains to be seen to what extent Russian involvement influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Ironically FBI Director James Comey has refused to speculate on his investigation of the hacking on the grounds that the bureau is always neutral in political matters. Russian hacking, along with the fact that Hillary Clinton received approximately 3 million more popular votes than Trump, have led many to join Lewis in questioning both Trump’s mandate and his legitimacy. It is difficult to accept the calls of Trump supporters to give him a chance when he launched his political career eight years ago as the leader of the “birther” movement challenging the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency.

What seems clear is that we are likely to see increased division in our country until some of the checks our founding fathers placed on democracy are removed. The founders were pre-eminently concerned with power of the House of Representatives and sought to balance it with a Senate that was indirectly elected until the 20th century, a Supreme Court appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate but not the House, and a president selected by an electoral college. This past century we have managed to reform the election of senators although they still disproportionally advantage states with small populations. Isn’t it time to get rid of the electoral college?

Comments to “The consequences of presidential ‘illegitimacy’

  1. To say that the Electoral College system has been around since the founding of the nation is hardly an argument in its favor. I’m sure we all remember other institutions that were around at the time of the foundation that have been discarded since.
    I don’t like the Electoral College system because it is undemocratic: it allows a candidate to “win” with less than the majority of the popular vote. In 2004, the incumbent (Bush) won with 51% of the popular vote; in 2008, the Democratic candidate (Obama) won with 53%; and in 2012, the incumbent (Obama) won with 51% — whether or not the winner meets with my approval, I have no problem with these contests.
    As far as whether or not millions of illegals voted in this election, I have no idea, and it is an entirely different issue. If fraud has been committed then it should be investigated. By the way, if memory serves (and as you noticed it doesn’t serve always well), the citizenship requirement to vote is a relatively recent one. Throughout most of the 19th century citizenship was not a requirement.
    Finally, and off topic again, I do favor giving the right to vote to legal resident aliens. Why not? If you pay taxes you should be able to have your say on municipal and state issues.

  2. I misspoke above regarding 1988 being the last time a candidate won a majority of the popular vote. What I should have said is that before the 2004 election, 1988 was the last election in which the winning candidate received a majority of the popular vote.

  3. So, you do not like the Electoral College System that has been in existence since the founding of the USA (because the Democrats lost).

    “If you take California out of the popular vote equation, then Trump wins the rest of the country by 1.4 million votes. And if California voted like every other Democratic state — where Clinton averaged 53.5% wins — Clinton and Trump end up in a virtual popular vote tie. (This was not the case in 2012. Obama beat Romney by 2 million votes that year, not counting California.)”

    “While states control the voter registration process, some states are so notoriously slipshod in their controls (California, Virginia and New York — all of which have political movements to legalize voting by noncitizens — come to mind) that it would be shocking if many illegals didn’t vote.”

  4. Not only should we get rid of the electoral college (an undemocratic institution if I’ve ever seen one), but we should put in place a majoritarian electoral system for the highest office in the land. The way it is now, not only can a presidential candidate win without a majority of the popular vote, but s/he can win without even receiving a plurality (as in the recent cases of Bush and Trump). This is not a democratic system. In fact, a minority is dictating its will onto the majority. And this, in the country that claims to be the leader of the democratic world!
    A majoritarian system would insure that the winner of the presidential election has been voted in by a majority of the voters. The last time a candidate won the majority of the popular vote was in 1988.
    My realistic voice says: “Dream on…” Not in my life time. It would take some major political will to make such a change. In this era a political mediocrity we can’t expect our politicians to rise to the occasion.

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