I’m reminded on occasion (daily) about the nature of people, as we all are. Whether it’s the stultifyingly obtuse gentleman with a business suit and look of predatory concern not being able to decide what he wants to order after standing in line at the counter for 10 minutes, or the vapid woman wearing clothing inappropriate for her frame in a defiant challenge to the public to notice, people often display questionable wisdom and lean intelligence. The herd mentality guides otherwise bright and good people to follow the direction of those around them.
Public opinion, after all, is a decidedly different animal than personal belief. Peer pressure exudes a force – both in person and in the form of advertising – that is both perverse and fascinating. That’s why celebrity spokesmen work and people buy more books when Oprah places her mark on the cover.
Public opinion can be overwhelming, as people witness others liking something and decide, well maybe I’m wrong, I should like that too. It also works in the negative, as I pointed out in this post.
That’s all right. I’m not judging people, just pointing out something I regard as a universal truth. Being open to others’ experiences can lead to new and exciting moments that help redefine us. Sometimes what’s popular is popular because it’s so darn good. That’s why word of mouth can sell a movie, a restaurant or a car better than any multi-million dollar ad campaign. I’ve taken a chance on things that others like and been very, very pleased with the result.
There’s a flip side to that coin, though.There are a lot of names for the beast that public opinion can become. I prefer the word “groupthink” (apologies to Orwell). You could also call it mass hypnosis. Either way, if a large enough portion of the public buys into an idea then we fail to question it adequately. It’s emotional thinking, and it can cause a lot of problems. It’s why lynch mobs form. It’s what gets some burnt out degenerate to lay down in front of an ambulance while protesting “the Man” and preventing his fellow jobless moron from getting proper medical care.
Some artists have been able to tap into this vein. That’s why Theatre of the Absurd and Theatre of Cruelty are so much darn fun.
However, it’s also why we need safeguards against ourselves. The lynch mob is trumped by the justice system. The degenerate idiot is trumped (and hopefully trounced) by the police. The electorate is kept in check by the Electoral College.
See, I’ve heard a lot of arguments for the popular vote – 1 vote, 1 person, no middle man. I’ve never been a fan of the idea on a national level and I never will be. Nor should you.
The Electoral College was put in place to act as a final safeguard against the British Crown. The founders of our nation knew that one of the best ways to give the colonies back to England would be to put people in power – particularly the Presidency – who could direct the fledgling nation that way. Of course, it also acts to help ensure that the small voices don’t get lost when the crowd’s in a frenzy and adds an extra layer of civility to the whole process.
Further, what many people don’t remember, or were never taught, is that the Electoral College literally has the power to vote against the will of the people. The delegates are not bound by law to do anything but cast a ballot. So, even if a smooth-talking power-mad Crown-loyal Judas did win the popular will of the people, the Electoral College could still stop him from taking office. (Or in modern times, her. Either way, you get the point.)
Naturally, those arguing against the Electoral College fall back on the argument that we don’t have anything to worry about from the Crown anymore, so what’s the difference? Why bother even having the requirement that a natural born citizen serve as President, man? These are different times.
As emotionally appealing as it is to think it fair for one person’s vote to go straight out there, there’s a dangerous and easily exploitable aspect to that. Namely, that popular will is fickle and can be manipulated; just ask any Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez about how easy it is to screw with the popular will until you’re dug in like a tick and can set things in place to make sure you never have to retire.
Setting aside all the other points cited above, let’s first apply the example of American Idol (I’m trying to stay hip for all you youngsters). I know that the voting system for a reality show isn’t a perfect analogy since you can legally cast more than one “ballot” for the best karaoke singer in the nation, but it works well enough for my point. Basically, it shows how the system can be gamed (see Hicks, Taylor). Get enough of a head of steam, mobilize people to the desired result and/or sell the idea of the candidate’s success so well that the easily swayed figure, well, maybe others know something I don’t. It also makes us feel more accepted when who or what we like is in line with the rest of the pack. Hence why people so desperately ‘root’ for their movies/other things they like to be popular and well-accepted. It’s also what gets Dan Brown books sold, because honestly…look, there could be no other reason for that. The guy’s a terrible writer.
I’ve read some articles that ask what the harm could be anyway. If the popular will is what we serve and the voice of the people is what must be heard, then the proper candidate will win in any event.
But there’s an important counter-argument. The inevitable one. The one that everyone likes to trot out and the one that I can’t help but use, even though I hate to use it.Hitler.
Hitler was a non-citizen who rode a wave of tremendous anger and hunger for change, a cry for progress and release from economic stagnation by the German people, while providing a scapegoat on which they could hang their woes. The historical fact that most like to overlook is that Hitler was elected because he was a powerful orator and a popular figure. He promised change and made the Germans hopeful that they could pull out of the stagnation caused by the aftermath of war. Of course, once the horror came to light, it was too late to do anything about it. He changed the rules once he was in power so that he couldn’t be removed. It’s the first rule to keeping power. Game the rules to get there, then change them so that you can keep power legally, and build the bureaucracy around you to act as watcher and buffer.
Now, again this is an imperfect analogy. I know that. I know that Hitler power-brokered his way to the Chancellorship. But the point is, there were enough people who loved him ferociously that those who didn’t were afraid to look like they didn’t. So “everyone” supported him. And this sort of thing feeds on itself.
And so the Electoral College, originally put in place as a last defense against a puppet of the British Crown from taking control in the United States, serves a high purpose. It protects us from the rest of the world (along with that whole “natural born citizen” requirement), but most importantly it protects us from ourselves.
If you’ve ever seen a riot break out, you understand. So let’s keep the fence up and the guards in place to make sure that we make the best collective decisions that we can. Someone who can take the beer from us and ask if we really want to go home with that beautiful stranger.
Even though a well-sold candidate can still get through, the least we can do is give ourselves time to think. Of course, in these modern times when it’s more important to feel than think, I suppose that’s an outmoded way of looking at things.