The Electoral College and Election 2000: A Historical Perspective from Howard Zinn
Interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez • Democracy Now! • December 8, 2000
It’s been 132 years since the Florida Legislature got this involved in presidential politics, but some things never change. The GOP majority wanted to send a Republican to the White House then, and it does now. [includes rush transcript]
Today, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature is holding a special session to try to deliver a presidential victory to George W. Bush. The 140 lawmakers are convening to approve a special slate of 25 presidential electors loyal to Bush.
On the eve of the special session, House Speaker Tom Feeney, the most forceful advocate for the gathering, acknowledged he has been speaking with Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, State Republican Chairman Al Cardenas and former state GOP executive director Randy Enwright. Democrats are accusing Bush’s team of orchestrating the event to guard against losses in the courts.
- Howard Zinn, radical historian and author of “A People’s History of the United States.”
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to historian Howard Zinn. It’s been 132 years since the Florida legislature got this involved in presidential politics, but some things never change. The GOP majority wanted to send a Republican to the White House then, and it does now.
Today, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature is holding a special session to try to deliver a presidential victory to George W. Bush. The 140 lawmakers are convening to approve a special slate of twenty-five presidential electors loyal to Bush.
On the eve of the special session, House Speaker Tom Feeney, the most forceful advocate for the gathering, acknowledged he has been speaking with Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, State Republican Chair Al Cardenas and former state GOP executive director Randy Enwright. Democrats are accusing Bush’s team of orchestrating the event to guard against losses in the courts.
We now turn to Howard Zinn, who we will now ask to shoot from his new hip in Boston. Welcome to Democracy Now!
HOWARD ZINN: Well, thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you feeling? I know you just had a hip operation.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, I’m feeling fine. I mean, you can’t tell on the telephone, of course, what my hip looks like, but I’m getting better every day.
AMY GOODMAN: Good.
HOWARD ZINN: I’ve graduated from two crutches to one crutch to a cane. And someday I’ll be able to maneuver on two legs.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you sound like you’re in better shape than the U.S. election system, so congratulations. At least someone’s worse off than you.
HOWARD ZINN: They need more than crutches.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, as most people know, Howard Zinn is a historian and wrote A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present. It may have sold more copies than the Bible. I’m not sure. But tell us what the Electoral College, why it first came into being.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, you know, the Electoral College came into being, of course, with the Constitution. The Constitution was adopted in Philadelphia, you know, our founding fathers — a lot of paternalism there — and they met in through the summer and early fall of 1787 and adopted the Constitution and debated all of the provisions of the Constitution.
And when they came to the question of how to elect a president, there was a rather lively debate over how the president should be elected and how many years should a president serve and should there be a vice president, and so on. And there were several proposals made that the president should be simply elected by popular vote. And those proposals were immediately knocked down, which was not surprising because the founding fathers were really not inclined to have real popular choice of the people who would run our government. And they decided that they would — in fear, really, of having a popular vote for president — you know, they kept talking about, no, we must have, you know, people who are intelligent, people who are educated, people who — which usually is a shorthand for people of means and people of power and people who are, you know, important people in the community — they’re the ones who should make the decision.
So they finally decided that — actually they gave the job to a committee, and the committee came back and made the suggestion, and they immediately adopted the committee’s report. And the report was that, well, we should let each state legislature choose a group of electors and that these electors will then decide who is the president. There was no thought of popular selection of the president. The idea was that a select group of men — now, you might say doubly select, since the state legislatures themselves, which would select the electors, were at that time not elected by popular vote. There was only one state, Pennsylvania, where the state legislature was elected by popular vote, that is by, you know, universal — well, even male suffrage. In all the other states, the popular vote was, well, severely circumscribed by the fact that you — well, you had to be a white male and you had to own property. That was the case in twelve of the thirteen states.
So you had, right from the start, with the election of the state legislators, you had an undemocratic process, no popular election, and then the state legislators themselves would, without referring to any popular vote, choose the electors. So keep in mind that the same Constitutional Convention decided that the United States Senate would not be elected by popular vote, that the Senate also would be selected by — two senators would be selected by state legislatures.
So if you look at the three branches of government as a whole, here’s what you find. You find that the president is not going to be elected by popular vote. You find the Senate is not going to be elected by popular vote. The House of Representatives will be elected by, well, whatever means the state legislatures decide they will be elected, because voting requirements were left up to the states. And the Supreme Court, of course, will be selected by the president. So you did not have coming from the founding fathers the idea that the people who would run the country would be elected by popular vote.
I mean, what’s astonishing, or maybe not so astonishing, is here over 200 years later, we are still operating with an undemocratic system of electing the president of the United States, a system which not only was flawed from the beginning by the requirements of the founding fathers, but had become more and more flawed as the election process has become dominated by two major parties, which monopolize the political arena, and dominated more and more by the fact that money decides who can reach the American people.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Howard Zinn, I would like to ask you — this is Juan Gonzalez. In your book, People’s History of the United States, you so eloquently document how the gap between the myth that most Americans have of the development of American democracy and the fact that many of the advances in popular rule came as a result of people’s struggles to get them. And, of course, one of the issues that a lot of the media right now are referring back to as the last time we had an electoral crisis of this nature is the Hayes-Tilden battle in 1876. But there hasn’t really been much in-depth look at what were the issues surrounding that and why that was such a seminal point in American history in terms of Reconstruction. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, what’s interesting to me is that while for the first time in a very long time the Hayes-Tilden election has come into the headlines, you know, because of what we’re experiencing now, in all the discussion that I have seen in the press and on television of the Hayes-Tilden election, I haven’t seen anybody in the major media talk about what was behind the Hayes-Tilden compromise. In other words, they talk about it as if it was simply a contest between Republicans and Democrats, and the Democrats won the popular vote, but the Republicans, you know, by their domination of the political process managed to put Hayes into office. But nothing is said about what were the real issues behind that.
The real issues behind that were that there was a kind of agreement made between Republicans and Democrats. And the agreement was that the Democrats would go along with the election of a Republican president, even though they had won — even though the Democrat had won the popular vote — so long as the Republican president would guarantee to bring the federal troops out of the South. Federal troops had been the ones there guaranteeing that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments would be enforced, that black people would be allowed to vote. And so, the agreement was that — and this was called the Great Compromise of 1877 — they would allow a Republican to become president, but in return, the Republican would do in the South what a Democratic president would do, and that is basically return the rule of the South to the plantation owners who had ruled it before and return black people to a condition, if not of slavery legally, of semi-slavery, because they would no longer have the protection of the federal government, no longer have the right to vote. They certainly would have no economic resources. And economic deals were made between really the wealthy interests of the South and the commercial/industrial interests of the North, in order to settle the election that way. But, as I say, what is left out of the discussion is the issue of race and of economics, of race and class.
What that election signaled was that the brief period of Reconstruction, in which black people could vote, black people would be elected to state legislatures, even a black man become senator from Mississippi, that brief — in which segregation began to be pulled apart, that brief period of the early [1870s] was put to an end by the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877. And it’s shameful that none of the discussion around that disputed election has gone into, you know, that fundamental issue. But, of course, this is typical of American culture and the American media, that all issues are discussed at the most superficial level and that the issues behind political decisions, which are issues concerned with wealth, with class, with race, those issues, the most crucial issues in American society, are ignored. And instead, they talk about Republicans and Democrats and votes and the Electoral College. And it contributes to the continued ignorance of the American public about what is behind politics.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, what I’d like to do is ask you one last question, but we have to take sixty-second break. And that last question is your view that the current crisis now, this battle for the presidency, is reflecting any deeper contradictions or struggles that are going on in this society. If you could think about that while we take a sixty-second break.
HOWARD ZINN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’re speaking with historian Howard Zinn, author of, among other books, A People’s History of the United States. We’ll be back in a minute.[break]
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez, as we finish up with historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, and I was asking you before the break whether, Howard Zinn, you thought that the battle that’s going on now, whether it is reflective of some deeper contradictions within American society at this time, or whether it’s just what appears to be a battle between two corporate parties for control of the White House?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, it s a battle between two corporate parties. And what the battle conceals, because all of the emphasis in the media is on, well, will Bush be the president or will Gore be the president, will this corporate representative or will the other corporate representative be the president, what it conceals is the fact that whichever of these two becomes president, we will not have a popularly elected president. That is, we will not have a president chosen by the American people.
Remember, half of the American people who were eligible to vote did not vote. And I would argue that a great many of them did not vote, because they didn’t see any fundamental difference between the candidates. Of those — of that 50% of the population that did vote, I would argue that many of them, and maybe a majority of them, did not vote with enthusiasm for either candidate, but voted for one or the other because those were the only choices they had or the only choices that they felt they had, so that I think what we are seeing is a keeping out of the view of the public the fact that the political process is a corrupt process, that the political system that we have now is not a democratic political system. And to view it totally as a contest between Gore and Bush and make it seem as if the fate of the world depended on it, it’s as if sort of people were having a tennis match on the deck of the Titanic and everybody was transfixed to see who would win the match. And so, that’s how it looks to me.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Howard Zinn, I want to thank you very much for being with us, author of A People’s History of the United States, and so much more. And I hope you are recovering well.
HOWARD ZINN: Thanks very much, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. Howard Zinn speaking to us speaking to us from Boston. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! Howard Zinn, well known for covering people’s movements in this country.
Democracy Now! • December 8, 2000