Does Prager University Understand… Anything?

If you don’t know who Dennis Prager is, then 1) I envy you and 2) you’re not alone. Prager is a conservative radio personality from a previous decade. He’s not as well known as he used to be because he operates at a disadvantage in today’s conservative media market. He’s not batshit crazy.

His current gig is something called Prager University. Don’t let the name fool you, because it’s even less of a university than Trump University. At least, because it’s just a YouTube channel, PragerU is not trying to rob you blind. It’s only an intellectual fraud instead of a criminal one.

I’ll be drawing your attention to one of their videos momentarily. It came to my attention shortly after the 2016 election, when our fustercluck of an election system handed the reins of power and the nuclear codes to a narcissistic man-child with the attention span of a ferret on cocaine, even though said man-child lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a margin of 2.8 million votes. This was the second time in the lifespan of a person not old enough to vote that the Electoral College handed the presidency to the loser of the popular election.

To most rational observers, this would be considered a bug in the system, an unacceptable error rate. To the good folks at Prager University, that’s a feature designed to keep us grubby little voters from getting the government we supposedly chose, because somehow that would just be wrong.

More than a year before the election, Prager University released a video defending the Electoral College, as if presciently aware that it would need defending sometime soon. All but the most obtuse viewer could spot the first problem when they read the title of the video.

“Do You Understand the Electoral College?”

Just let that soak in. Feel the raw condescension dripping from each word. “Oh, you silly little liberal children. Let us conservative adults explain the facts of life to you.”

The video makes several arguments, but the first few add up to a standard conservative canard: “The United States is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic.”

Conservatives like to say this all the time, but it’s like a Bible verse they’ve memorized but don’t truly understand.

It’s true that the United States is not a pure democracy in the strict Athenian sense of the word. We do not gather as a city-state and vote directly on the laws. We have a representative government and we select those representatives through a process called, wait for it, democracy.

In other words, the United States is a democracy in the same sense as every other modern nation that calls itself a democracy.

And it’s not like democracy and a constitutional republic are mutually exclusive concepts. Again, I think conservatives like to throw around the term “constitutional republic” without thinking too hard about what it really means.

If a country is a republic, that means that political power is public property. In the words of our Declaration of Independence, the government “derives its just power from the consent of the governed,” and not from the divine right of kings. Power flows from the bottom up rather than top down. Theoretically, at least.

Constitutional means that the powers of the government are laid out and limited by a written constitution.

You might notice that neither of those terms, alone or in tandem, rule out the concept of representative democracy. If we discarded the Electoral College today and elected the president by a direct popular vote, we would not be any less of a constitutional republic.

Now, before I get to that second point, let me point out that the people involved in making this video were more than fifteen years old. Way more. They were old enough to clearly remember the 2000 presidential election, the last time the Electoral College handed the presidency to the popular vote loser.

Warning: the sheer intellectual dishonesty contained below could give you a nosebleed and a concussion.

Prager University’s other argument is that the Electoral College protects us from someone stealing the presidential election.

I’ll wait to let the smelling salts take effect.

Their “logic” is that with a direct popular vote, someone would only have to steal one election, while with the electoral college, they would have to steal multiple elections and they would have no way at all to know which ones might be decisive.

After all, California used to be a Republican state and now it’s a Democratic state, so you just don’t know!

And Texas used to be a Democratic state and now it’s a Republican state, so you just don’t know!

Except, of course, for the obvious.

Yes, California used to vote reliably Republican. We sent Ronald Reagan to the governor’s mansion and elected Republican governors and senators regularly until demographic shifts changed that. Since 1992, the Democrats have had a vise grip on California and that’s not likely to change soon. Yes, these things change, but not so fast that you can’t see them coming. So, Mr. Prager, we do know.

And, yes, Texas used to be a solid Democrat state because, for a hundred years, southerners would rather have cut off their own arms than vote for the party of Abraham Lincoln. Then came the civil rights movement, and the Civil Right Act, and the election of 1968, and the “Southern Strategy,” where Republicans openly courted disaffected segregationists who felt betrayed by their old party.

So, Texas and the entire South did swing solidly Republican, but not because of a change in the political temperament of the region, but only because the Republican party was willing to spit on the legacy of men like Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Texas isn’t likely to swing blue in the near future (unless a Republican president is so toxic and a Republican senator so unpopular that a Democratic candidate might sneak through the cracks). In other words, Mr. Prager, we do know.

It’s not as if the “battleground” states aren’t known well in advance. It’s been the same few states, give or take, for the last several presidential elections. Also, Mr. Prager is apparently unaware of that new form of political witchcraft known as “polling,” which would help pinpoint close races well in advance, if someone had an eye to electoral chicanery.

I am not about to suggest that the 2000 presidential election was deliberately stolen, but it does serve as a valid illustration of why Mr. Prager is completely full of shit. The vote margin that gave Florida and the whole election to George W. Bush over Al Gore was a mere 500 votes. If someone would have had something up their sleeve, it would have been far easier to snatch away 500 votes in one closely-contested state (where one’s brother was governor) than it would have been to steal 500,000 votes nationwide.

If one buys into to the theory that Russian Twitter trolls somehow swayed the 2016 election, ask yourself this: Would it be easier for those Twitter trolls to move a few thousand votes in Michigan and Wisconsin, or 2.8 million votes across the entire country?

In a close election, rather than make us safer from a stolen or compromised election, as Mr. Prager claims, the Electoral College makes us much more vulnerable to such things.

Another claim in Prager University’s little fantasy piece is that, with a direct popular election, the Republicans could run a Southern-only strategy, ignoring the rest of the country, and still win the popular vote. I don’t believe Mr. Prager did the math on that. It’s true that a good chunk of Republican votes would come from deep red states in the South, the plains states, and the mountain states, but this theory ignores one fact that can’t be ignored. There are Democratic voters in those states and, in a popular election, their votes would finally count. If the Democratic candidate sufficiently energized the voters in those parts of the country, it would cut into the Republican advantage there and mean that the Republicans would have to go outside their normal safe spaces to find votes. But that’s okay, because a direct popular vote means that Republican votes in California and New York would also finally count.

I believe that, with a direct popular vote for the presidency, both parties would have to run something like a 50-state strategy just to be confident they were reaching the maximum number of voters. Focusing only on regions where they’re strongest would be leaving votes they might need on the table.

Mr. Prager also touches on one of the most longstanding arguments in favor of preserving the Electoral College: that it forces candidates to visit the “flyover states” in order to reach 270 electoral votes. This might have been true at one time, but it no longer is. Because the “battleground” states are known well in advance, the vast majority of money, time, and resources after the conventions are spent disproportionately in a small handful of states. If you live in a safe Republican state like Wyoming, don’t count on seeing much of your candidates. The Republican candidate takes you for granted and the Democrat has written you off. Same goes for a rather safe Democratic state like Oregon or Rhode Island.

Let us sum up. The Electoral College makes it possible to win the presidency while losing the popular vote. Even worse, it is mathematically possible (if unlikely) to win a majority of the electoral votes while having only 25% of the popular vote. Also, the Electoral College makes our elections more vulnerable, not less, to some form of election tampering. Finally, it does nothing to guarantee that presidential candidates pay attention to voters in small states if the outcome in those states is a foregone conclusion.

The Electoral College, to paraphrase Edwin Starr, “what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

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