A Better Way of Selecting Presidents
OCTOBER 01, 1959 by FREDERICK MANCHESTER
Dr. Manchester views a timely subject from still another angle (see his "Apropos of the Presidency" in The Freeman for June 1959), and argues for what is in essentials the Constitutional method of choosing our Chief Executive. Commenting on the present article, he says: "I am of course under no illusion, as I trust I make plain, that my plan, or any other closely resembling it, will be put into practice in the immediate future. Before that can happen, an enormous change must take place in the political outlook of a sufficient number of us to constitute a prevailing influence, direct and indirect, in the councils of government; and this change, as you of The Freeman never tire of insisting, can come about only through a process of education. I should like to think that in this process the survey of an important topic I here make, and the considerations I assemble and bring forward, might play a useful part."
Just one more of our involuntary, unplanned trips around the sun, and we in
This has two main stages: first, the nominating of candidates; second, the choosing from among the candidates in a popular election.
Nominations by Politicians
The nominating is done neither by the nation, nor by the states, nor by any agency of either, but by voluntary associations of voters, of fluctuating membership, known as political parties. These vary in number, but two have long predominated, the Democratic and the Republican. Each of these has an organization in each state, as well as a national organization, and each state organization sends delegates of its own choosing, or else delegates chosen by party voters in a primary election, to a convention known as a nominating convention. It is this body which selects a party candidate for President—and also a party candidate for Vice-President.
The convention has a set program. It disposes of various routine matters, adopts a statement of party policy, called a platform, which probably few read and fewer take seriously, and finally gets to its principal business. In a book published in 1924 a former Solicitor General of the
Twenty thousand men and women are gathered in a great hall to witness the so-called "deliberations" of the representatives of a political party. Everything is done to give to such a convention the character of a vulgar hippodrome…. When nominations are made, a hysterical speech is bawled out through the media of amplifiers, and then follows an organized and purely mechanical demonstration, whose purpose is to surpass all past records in prolonged and meaningless noise. Men with stop watches keep the record of the vociferous cheering as though it were a horse race, and upon the faintest indication that it is diminishing all manner of circus tactics are resorted to to keep up the enthusiasm. When previous records of meaningless noise have been shattered the vocal volume is reluctantly permitted to die down. No votes are influenced, and all that has been accomplished is a meaningless spectacle, at which the world stands in amazement. If Washington or Franklin were to visit such an assembly of either of the two historic parties of American politics, would they not gaze at each other in stupefaction and say: "Is this Bedlam, or is it
Had the great men just mentioned been at the Democratic Convention of 1924 at the moment when Franklin D. Roosevelt finished nominating Alfred E. Smith, their answer to the question, "Is this Bedlam, or is it America?" could hardly have been doubtful. Thus, in part, the New York Times, June 27, reported:
The fingers pressed the buttons. The contact was made. Volcanoes of sound burst forth, shrill, unearthly, and horrible. It was a screech of charging squadrons of ambulances and speeding hook-and-ladder trucks, a mingled racket which New Yorkers associate with falling buildings, six-alarm fires, elevated collisions, Black Tom explosions, and other great calamities. Men and women… leaped to their feet and staggered about, shell-shocked. Although the Garden was crowded and seats at a premium, scores rushed out and never came back.2
And no wonder! As the Times reporter observes, "the electric claque had come into its own." One recalls by contrast the conditions under which an earlier political convention performed its duties. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 met in the Pennsylvania State House in
But this, after all, is hardly fair. The
On occasion, it appears, the locale of "deals," as in the following instance, may extend far beyond the "closed doors," and important influence may be exerted by a person having no connection whatsoever with the official nominating agency. We owe to Henry L. Stoddard’s It Costs To Be President this circumstantial account of certain events which took place in connection with the Democratic Nominating Convention of 1932 (the passage is long, but so variously and eloquently suggestive that I hestitate to abbreviate it):
There was just one man who could supply enough votes in a bunch to insure success. That man was William Randolph Hearst. He was sponsor for the John Nance Garner boom. He had persuaded the Texas Congressman into the race and had aided him to carry the
Two hours later Paul Block, the well-known publisher, and I sat in his room for a good-night exchange of opinion. He then said that he had been talking over the telephone with "W. R." and that a deal had been arranged by which the 69 Texas and California delegates, after complimenting Garner on two or three ballots, would swing to Roosevelt. He added that Garner would go on the ticket as Vice-President and McAdoo was to have no opposition in
The news was in confidence. however, for Hearst, of course, had no power to release delegates pledged to any candidate. That was for Garner and McAdoo to do. Hearst, however, undertook to talk with both of them and with Mayor Cermak of
It was by the action of a group of bosses who did not like Henry Wallace that Harry Truman became the Democratic candidate for Vice-President in 1944. Edward J. Flynn, who frankly calls himself a boss, gave his version of the events in his remarkable book, You’re the Boss. Flynn, at the direction of President Roosevelt, got together a sort of committee of bosses and other politicians to consider the candidate for Vice-President. Among them were Robert Hannegan of
It is worth remarking that in the curious ways just related we obtained two recent Presidents whose administrations witnessed, or confirmed, revolutionary changes in our mode of government.
As to the role played by rankand-file delegates to national nominating conventions, we have now perhaps inferred enough to be prepared for the following statement:
In theory the convention delegates who nominate the candidates are the representatives of the party voters, but in practice they are pawns in the complicated game of party politics played by powerful state party bosses.?
The November Choice
The second stage in the current process of selecting Presidents is the November election. In this the people choose, not necessarily the man they would like for their Chief Executive, but the one they prefer among the candidates named by the party conventions. Many make their choice for reasons intelligently and conscientiously arrived at on the basis of adequate knowledge—but few will think that these constitute more than a minor fraction of the voting electorate. Who has not wryly reflected, at one time or another, that the considered decision he registers at the polls is certain to be canceled over and over again by the utterly incompetent? "Reason has small effect upon numbers," said Lord Bolingbroke long ago: "a turn of imagination, often as violent and as sudden as a gust of wind, determines their conduct."8 A. L. Rowse (writing in 1947) describes as the "Rationalist Fallacy in political thinking" the "assumption that human beings largely act in politics upon rational motives and trains of intelligent reasoning." His comment is trenchant: "We in our time, alas, know what fatuous nonsense this is. The whole life of the society of our time is strewn with ocular demonstrations of its falsity."9
The Precinct Worker
Now if anyone has the courage to face universal suffrage at its worst, I invite him to learn about the activities of the party precinct worker in the less prosperous areas of our great cities.¹º This man’s function is to get and hold votes for his party. To this end he labors not merely at election time but the whole year round. Let us glimpse at him on his job.
At one level he has the "responsibility for a certain amount of `entertaining,’ as witness the neighborhood club, the picnics and clambakes, and the free beer." He makes himself the ever-ready friend. He "provides food, clothing, coal, and rent or lodging to his needy constituents. He manifests an interest in children by helping widowed mothers secure pensions, by arranging for the adoption of children, by procuring birth certificates or work certificates"; he serves "as family adjuster, especially when the ways of the foreign-born parent clash with those of his American-born child." He is on hand in illness and bereavement with "warm sympathy and good fellowship," and as he "mourns with his neighbors, so he rejoices with them by attending weddings and sometimes christenings." But enough of such detail. He is, one sees, kindness itself.
Against the hospitality and the benevolence thus far suggested, what can one say? Nothing, nothing at all—apart from the primary, impelling, essentially illegitimate and shameful motive. But there is a lower level. Here the precinct worker, in the interest of his constituents, tampers with the law. One way of doing this is to accomplish a "fix." A "matter particularly subject" to this amiable and brazen art is bail.
The "fix" sometimes starts with the police officers, the janitors of the court, the clerks, or bailiffs. The trail may lead through the ward committeeman to the judge, in all cases depending upon the influence of the fixer and the power of his party. For minor offenses in the local police station, some precinct workers find the promise of a few dollars to an official or the assurance of a job to an ordinary "cop" sufficient to do the trick. When more serious offenses are involved, the judge is reached through the bailiff or by a party representative higher in the hierarchy, who has power to threaten the defeat of the judge in the next election if the "fix" does not go through.
Is there a lower level still? Let the reader judge. In lodging house areas, votes are bargained for in blocks through the owners of the "hobo" hotels…. In
But enough of all this, too. There are things at which one may prefer only to glance—then pass on quickly.
Just how many meaningless votes our big cities cast in an election—votes seduced by good deeds, exchanged for illicit favors, fraudulently manipulated, falsely counted, bought for a price, or extorted by threat of bodily harm (remember the "strong-arm men"?)—one can only guess; but there would seem little doubt that in a close Presidential election they might be quite sufficient, by themselves, to determine our next Chief Executive, and in so doing to shape in no small degree our national destiny.
Such, then, is our present way of selecting Presidents: a nomination of candidates by means that are never to be commended, and that may at times be grotesquely offensive; a popular election in which the outcome may be decided—no one can say how often—by voters who are completely irresponsible.
My title promises mention of a better way. One is entitled to question, I think, whether there could be a worse. At any rate, I consider myself immune to charges of immodesty—particularly so since what I have to offer is no invention of my own but the method devised by no less eminent a body than the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
By this method, the choice of both President and Vice-President is made entirely (save in circumstances indicated below) by electors appointed by the states in such manner as the respective legislatures may direct, each state being entitled to as many as it has senators and representatives in Congress—but no United States Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, can be an elector. The electors meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President, and in a distinct ballot for Vice-President—one of the two not being an inhabitant of the same state with themselves. In accordance with prescribed rules, the results of the balloting are reported to
The Vice-Presidency is not here our special concern, but it may be added that if no one is named for this office by a majority of all the electors appointed, then from the two persons receiving the highest number of votes the Senate, governed by certain rules, makes the final selection.¹¹
If a layman may venture into such a matter, I would suggest that in one respect the Constitutional provision that the electors be appointed by the states, in such manner as the respective legislatures may direct, might well be made more specific. I should like the appointment to be made directly by the legislature (as before 1832 was much done), with the restriction that at least one-half of those chosen should be persons holding no governmental office, federal or state, of any kind. The restriction would bring a completely unofficial, nonpolitical point of view into the selection of Presidents and eliminate one common type of improper influence.
As Provided in the Constitution
My better way is, then, the Constitutional way, with only a minor modification. How is it superior?
Above all, in the hope it inspires that by its use we may obtain, in general, a far higher quality of President than has hitherto prevailed.
The grounds for this hope are many, but chiefly that the method is one of hierarchical selection. The total, unsifted electorate of each of the states selects the members of its legislature. The legislature in turn selects from the state as a whole the Presidential electors. These electors—who may reasonably be expected, in general, to be outstanding citizens, especially informed, intelligent, discerning; and to be honorably sensitive to the trust reposed in them—in their turn select the man who in their belief would best serve the nation as President. The members of the legislature directly, the electors indirectly, represent all of us, so that "the sense of the people" (Alexander Hamilton’s phrase) has come into operation.12 Thus is exhibited in the choice of President the great representative principle—a principle basic in our Constitution."
Apart from its authentic embodiment of this principle, the electoral system designed by the Constitution has, in comparison with the present nominating convention, certain special merits. The electors, meeting in the several states, act (in
But not only would the Constitutional plan tend to give us great Presidents—genuinely educated Presidents, wise Presidents—it would secure at least a half-dozen other advantages.
1. It would keep the executive branch of the national government separate from the legislative branch, and completely independent of it—as was clearly desired by the Founding Fathers. Why else the restriction in the Constitution that no Senator or Representative could be an elector? But what have we now? Let us glance at one item of the record.
In the Republican National Convention of 1920, which of course, in effect; named the next President, "there were 18 Senators who had [had] themselves chosen as delegates from nine states, and 4 more who were chosen singly from different states.—The Senators represented, or assumed to represent, 400 of 984 delegates.—Senator Lodge of Massachusetts was Chairman of the Convention."14
Could there be a more obvious flouting of the spirit of the Constitution?
2. The Constitutional plan would tend to keep the President free from miscellaneous, extra-legislative entanglements, whether originated by his agents and henchmen or by himself. He would have made no promises of office in exchange for financial or other support. He would have placed himself under obligation to no faction or special interest. He would have entered into no preposterous agreement with members of any Thousand Dollar Club contributing to his campaign that each of them "would be taken into the councils of the government."15
3. The plan would put an end to the apparent ease with which a President, competent or not, can bring about his own nomination for a second term. The Constitutionally chosen electors would have no special reason for wanting to continue a President in office, and would be expected to do so only in case he had made an excellent record—a consideration that would work especially to put every incoming President on his mettle. At the expiration of every four years freshly appointed men and women would be at perfect liberty to select from the entire nation—the current President of course included—the man they believed best fitted for the office.
4. The plan would have the effect—a probably desirable one in our system—of enhancing the independence and importance of national party organizations and their leaders. The national party conventions, relieved of the nominating function, disburdened in consequence of a horde of curious spectators, quietly deliberative at last, could devote themselves mainly to the drawing up of their platforms. These statements of policy, no longer competing in the election campaign with the speeches of Presidential candidates, would become centers of a new and vivid interest. Party leaders, in and out of Congress, many now little known to the general public, would be the natural and only spokesmen for their organizations, and in this capacity would enjoy a degree of attention that few would have previously experienced, and fewer still would be likely to resent.
5. The plan would assure at all times a proper emphasis on the highly important state and local elections. As things stand now, every four years the election of a Chief Executive tends to push into the background minor positions and minor issues and so lessen the public attention bestowed upon them. To say that such and such men rode into office on the coattails of a popular candidate for President—what a comment on the soundness, in the instances concerned, of our electoral machinery!
6. The plan would confer on the Presidency an elevation and a dignity which now it can scarcely possess. Its occupant would not have involved himself in pre-convention struggles for delegates (why, incidentally, if delegates are really to deliberate on and choose candidates, should they be induced to commit themselves, months perhaps, in advance?); nor would he have excited animosities in a turbulent and possibly scurrilous campaign. It would thus be easy for him to become, as
I have indicated some of the arguments in support of the Constitutional plan, but thus far I have said nothing of possible—or actual—objections to it.
One of these is doubtless inescapable: it did not work. But to this the answer is easy. As I once heard G. Lowes Dickinson say of Christianity, it was never tried. The electoral college, as the electors have been collectively called, "died before it was born. It never had an opportunity of selecting a President in the way intended. In the first two elections the members did not need to make a decision. In every subsequent election the decision was made for them, and eventually no man was chosen for the job unless he were certain to conform to the dictates of the party."¹7 In the Constitutional Convention, we are told, "there may have been a vague idea of political parties, but certainly there was no conception of the party organization that was to twist to its own devices the carefully devised scheme of the convention."18 Comment would seem superfluous. The latest Cadillac cannot be expected to get you to your destination if you begin by wrecking its engine.
A Utopian Scheme?
Another objection is that the scheme is utopian. "But it is common knowledge," writes a political scientist previously quoted, "that the utopian plan of the framers…."19 Now "utopian" means "pertaining to nowhere," and to call a plan utopian is to say that it is impracticable, a mere product of the fancy, the sort of thing only the naive might be expected to take seriously. What then, one is curious to inquire, can have been the credentials of a scheme that can thus be so casually condemned? Let us see.
Among the distinguished members of the Convention that conceived the plan was Benjamin Franklin, whose reputation for sheer practicality probably exceeds that of any other modern man. Moreover, how the President should be chosen was a difficult question much before the Convention. Of the compromise plan finally adopted it is said that "of all things done in the convention the members seemed to have been prouder of that than of any other, and they seemed to regard it as having solved the problem for any country of how to choose a chief magistrate."²º Even contemporary adverse critics of the Constitution were impressed. "The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the
What Hamilton himself, perhaps the most brilliant man in the entire membership of the Convention, thought of the plan, he has made plain. "I… hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for." And, further: "The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications…. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue."
Somehow, in the face of such credentials as these, it would seem prudent not to dismiss any plan as utopian—especially a plan that has never been tried.
What Democratic Genius?
Another objection is voiced by James M. Beck in his The Constitution of the
As to the democratic genius of the American people, one may fairly inquire, What American people?—inasmuch as our national character has undergone no little alteration in the century and a half, and more, since the framing of the Constitution, and is still in process of change. If the democratic genius referred to is anything like universally present, as one of our marked traits, it must not be confined to the English people but distributed pretty widely among all the races and nations of the globe. However, perhaps a more significant comment on Beck’s melancholy view of the electoral system is a memorable remark he makes fifty pages later in his book. "Time may yet vindicate the theory of the framers," he says, "that the limit of democracy is the selection of true and tried representatives."22 Some of us would venture to suggest that the potential vindication has already taken place.
Again, it may be urged that the President must lead his party, and that this function is inconsistent with the Constitutional plan for his election. A book on American government regards this function as important, and as more or less a by-product of the President’s Constitutional position.23 Now it is not clear that it is important, if by this is meant important to the office of President, and it is less clear that it is a by-product of the President’s Constitutional position. Political parties are unknown to the Constitution and therefore were certainly not considered necessary to its operation; and there would seem to be no law in nature requiring that when parties developed one of them should be led by the man chosen for President. The fact that a certain institution or custom has grown up does not necessarily mean that its growth was either inevitable or desirable, nor that a better might not have developed in its place.
Does Congress Need a Leader?
A further possible objection should be anticipated. The congressional legislative process, to be efficient, requires a degree of leadership from the President, it may be said, which, as the nonpartisan President of all the people I have envisaged, he could not give. The strength of this argument would rest, I think, on two misconceptions: one that the paucity of great leaders in Congress needs to exist or continue, and the other that a nonpartisan President could not exert an extraordinary and effective influence.
James Bryce remarks that our Presidents from
As to the great potential influence on legislation of a nonpartisan President, acting distinctly within Constitutional limits, there seems no doubt. The Constitution directs that the President "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the
Such are some of the objections that have been or may be raised against use of the Constitutional plan—one cannot speak of returning to it—and some of the replies with which they can be met. If we never adopt that plan, it will not be because rational objections to it cannot be rationally disposed of, but, as it seems to me, because of two obstinate facts.
The Force of Habit
One is that the momentum of long use of another system is against it, together with the accumulation of what amounts to vested interests. Political bosses and machines are accustomed to the present procedure, know exactly how to take advantage of the opportunities it offers, and would naturally oppose any other that would deprive them of an important part of their power. Ardent Presidential aspirants are, of course, familiar with its every aspect, including prenomination competition for delegates, and would find, under the Constitutional plan, that any political influence they could exert in their own behalf would be reduced to a minimum or be nonexistent, and that any demagogic appeals to the people they might be tempted to make would be without effect. There would be nothing left for them to do—and this is as it should be—but to devote themselves energetically to their duties, whatever these might be, and perhaps, as leisure permitted and their thought on great national issues matured, to present their political views—Lincoln-like—directly to the public. Their one hope of success would lie in rendering themselves pre-eminently meritorious in the eyes of unusually intelligent, perspicacious, and impartial judges.27
The Trend Toward Democracy
The other and perhaps still more effective obstacle to adoption of the Constitutional plan is the obvious drift, especially for some half century, toward what is thought of as more and more democracy—that is, toward leaving political decisions to direct vote of the total electorate concerned. The substitution, for the Constitutional plan, of choice of the President, in its final stage by the people as a whole, was itself an early move in this direction. The initiative, referendum, and recall (insofar as they have been practiced), the direct election of United States Senators, largely abolishing a main function of the upper house of Congress, and the direct primary (employed in nearly all the states, and including in a part of the states the Presidential primary) are further familiar examples.
Moreover, it is highly significant that while numerous suggestio