Happy Holidays, Bill: A Case Study in How Ideological Inconsistencies Lead to Political Decay

Well, no sooner did I praise Bill O’Reilly for his insightful comments in a recent interview with Newt Gingrich then he goes and makes me look foolish. The guy is like Beetlejuice; if you say his name three times fast, he’ll show up anywhere and ruin the party.  On a recent O’Reilly Factor, in his “Talking Points” segment, O’Reilly addressed the issue of the “Left” wanting to do away with the Electoral College after the recent election where Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over two million votes but still handily lost overall.  O’Reilly went on to comment that for the Left, this is issue is all about race; the desire to dismantle the “white establishment” in favor of more diversity and minority rights.  His central argument was that abolishing the Electoral College would be harmful to American democracy because a disproportionate amount of minorities live in urban, blue areas and accordingly, the vote of rural areas would be marginalized.  This argument is nonsense, which I will dispel shortly.  The bigger issue here is that O’Reilly’s argument (that centuries of progressive social historical change in disestablishing the power held by a small, white, male, Christian elite, in favor of greater equal rights for all humans actually harms the population at-large and democracy) is an extremely dangerous precedent.  When viewed in combination with O’Reilly’s claim of a Left-wing “War on Christmas,” a logical analysis reveals the fundamental philosophical inconsistencies of these two positions, both commonly held by the Right.  By falling victim to the emotional significance that we have embodied in certain institutions, such as the Electoral College, “white establishment,” or even Christmas, we fail to rationally adapt to the changing world around us.  This is the primary cause of American political decay.

To begin with O’Reilly’s argument that abolishing the Electoral College would marginalize “white working class” voters in smaller states and essentially disenfranchise them, if we examine the status quo, we see that the reverse is actually happening now to a much larger percentage of the total population.  The Electoral College was put into place with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.  At that time, the U.S. population was roughly 3.5 million people, including slaves, per the 1790 Census.  Naturally, slaves were not allowed to vote, but represented as much as much as forty-three percent of the population in South Carolina and nearly forty percent in Virginia.  The disparity between the largest eligible voting populations was between Virginia with 442,117 free-whites and Delaware with 46,310.[1]  In this electoral system, Virginia was given twelve electoral votes and Delaware three.  If we do a quick mathematical equation comparing the voting population of these states to their respective amount of electoral votes and then take the corresponding ratios of those results, voters in Delaware in 1790s Delaware actually had 2.39 times the real voting power of Virginians.[2]  If we fast forward to modern times, the total U.S. population is about 320 million.  The largest state population-wise is California which had 37,254,503 at the time of the 2010 census, with Wyoming being the least populated with 563,767.  If we apply the same mathematical analysis, voters in Wyoming have about 3.6 times the real voting power of voters from California.  So, historically speaking, these numbers have grown even further afield.  The bigger problem is that the difference between populations has exploded.  Virginia’s free-white population was less than ten times that of Delaware in 1790.  California’s population in 2010 was over sixty-six times that of Wyoming, and growing at a much faster rate.  The point of all of this is that the number of people who experience this statistical shortage of voting power from the Electoral College has grown so much as to make the institution equivalent to de facto disenfranchising a significant portion of the population in more highly populated areas.  So when O’Reilly argues that abolishing the Electoral College would be harmful for the population and democracy in general, he is completely wrong.  It would be theoretically harmful for voters in smaller states who would disproportionately lose the artificial voting power the Electoral College currently gives them.  Practically speaking, the abolition of the Electoral College would only level the playing field, yielding an equal amount of voting power for every voter in the country.  This seems so basically fair that we need to ask ourselves: “Must we remain prisoners to the political compromises of the past?”[3]  After all, Thomas Jefferson advocated for each generations’ right to start fresh, politically speaking.

Now, to address the crux of O’Reilly’s argument; I am not fully sure why making our governmental institutions more reflective of the demographic reality of our nation would be a bad thing.  What O’Reilly is really saying with this argument, if we read between the lines, is that the day is fast approaching where the elite, white, man may no longer wield the political clout that he does currently.  This scares the death out of conservatives because the traditional status quo which is been in place for entire duration of our nation may very well be replaced with a new demographic that yields greater representative power to minorities, women, and citizens from the middle and lower classes.  Again, essentially, this would be a levelling-up of political power; which, more or less, could be the cliff notes version of all political history; the struggle of certain underrepresented groups for greater power.  O’Reilly, however, is arguing that the institutions of our government should not represent the nation equally but rather protect the interests of a historically-favored demographic at the expense of EVERYONE else.  This means that if you are not of the demographic currently in power, then you should never be allowed any increase in political power.  The argument is absolutist on its face and wishes to use political institutions to protect a very small minority of the population.  O’Reilly really isn’t concerned with protecting the white working class vote; he is more interested in seeing that the people who represent that vote continue to hold power, even if it is an unrealistic picture of what equalitarian representation would look like.

The kicker here is that O’Reilly has argued in the past that our political institutions should do exactly the opposite of what he is arguing for currently; that is, protect the majority of the citizens against the rights and freedoms of the minority.  On another recent O’Reilly Factor, Bill exclaimed that the “War on Christmas,” something that involved all the atrocities of businesses choosing to be more pluralistic in their holiday advertising, had been won by “the good guys,” with the recent election of Donald Trump.  What I gathered from his “Talking Points” segment was that if a business advertised using specific language embracing a singular view of the holidays as “Christmas” then they were “good,” and if they did not do that, choosing instead to embrace religious diversity, they were “bad.”  So this “War on Christmas” was essentially about the amount of emotional offense people took to businesses and other people not acknowledging Christmas as the exclusive end of the year holiday; if nothing else, this dialogue presents an interesting semantic construction of the word “war.”  At any rate, O’Reilly insinuated that this “war” was now over because with the incoming Trump administration, religious plurality during the holidays will no longer be tolerated and we can all just say “Merry Christmas.”  Wonderful, but what does this have to do with his other argument about the Electoral College?

The entire basis behind the “War on Christmas” (besides ideological whining from a historically-favored, violently oppressive majority that is hyper-sensitive to the erosion of its little comfort bubble) was that political, social, and cultural institutions should be responsive to the desires of the majority of the population.  According to the Pew Research Center, over 70% of Americans are some variation of Christian, while approximately six percent are “non-Christian faiths” and 23%, or so, are unaffiliated.[4]   So, in this case, O’Reilly is arguing that institutions should reflect the reality of the national demographic because it supports what he wants.  But as for abolishing the Electoral College, demographics should be ignored and the interests of a minority of citizens should be protected by government institutions.  I am very confused at this point; should governmental institutions reflect an accurate picture of reality or not; should they protect the interests of minority segments of the population, or not?  O’Reilly wants a win, win.  He wants government to remain small, run by upper-class white, Christian men, and to stay that way; yet, he also wants government to regulate the freedom of speech and religion of minorities (racial, religious, etc.) when their very presence makes him feel uncomfortable or threatened.  Essentially, he is a little child and he wants his toys when he wants them!  On the other hand, I would gladly say “Merry Christmas” if it meant abolishing the Electoral College and giving all citizens equal voting power. 🙂

The larger issue is that when we confuse our ideological prerogatives and make them contingent on our emotional desires in that moment, we become susceptible to what public policy expert Francis Fukuyama calls “political decay.”  In his two volume opus on the history, development, and current state of political order in the world, Fukuyama cautioned that when political institutions fail to adapt to changing circumstances they can enter a phase of political decay.[5]  This happens when “Institutional rigidity takes the form of a series of rules that lead to outcomes that are commonly acknowledged to be bad and yet are regarded as essentially unreformable,”[6] due to what Fukuyama deems as the inherent conservatism of political institutions stemming from our innate desire to endow our institutions with emotional significance.[7]  Whew, there is a lot going on there, so pause for a brief reflection and stick with me.  Good!  Now, among the specific problems and signs of decay Fukuyama lists are: “the Electoral College, the Primary System, various Senate rules, the system of campaign finance, and the entire legacy of a century of congressional mandates that collectively produce sprawling government that nonetheless fails to perform many basic functions, and does other poorly.”[8]  Fukuyama’s argument does not ring of any particular ideological bias, highlights concerns from both ends of the spectrum, and appeals to the common sense of the reader.  By comparison, if we look at O’Reilly’s arguments rationally, instead of emotionally, we can easily see the hypocrisy and inconsistencies. While the Electoral College is a serious issue that impacts the entire basis of the accountability of our political structure, government is often hampered by a million “O’Reillys” crying because someone is saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  No wonder government seems unaccountable and these issues “unreformable.”

I do not think I even need to address the issue of advocating for the advancement of a “white re-establishment” in the United States and the terrible insinuations it makes to infamous historical regimes in South Africa, Germany, and well, the United States up until the 1960s.  Other commentators all over social media have done a fine job speaking to this issue.  I want to focus on what O’Reilly, and many conservatives, really want; security in a self-interested sense.  See, these folks harken back, both fondly and imaginatively, to American society in the 1950s when white, Christian men had cultural hegemony over society and where dissent (whether political, religious, racial, or ideological) was very clearly not tolerated.  This is why O’Reilly’s language and message so was strong, offensive, and polarizing.  The kind of change Fukuyama acknowledged as needing to happen to make government accountable, is the change that will bring a loss of security for O’Reillyites everywhere, albeit while levelling up society at-large.  O’Reilly’s language reflects someone who, desperate for headline-grabbing attention, used race as a rallying call for a larger, fear-based agenda.  The supreme irony is that he accuses his opposition of doing exactly this, while on a deeper level, he is voicing the realization that he soon will be either a dissenter or condoning oppression.  Let’s hope for his sake tolerance of both is greater than it was during historical epochs of the past.

_________________________________________________________________

[1] All of these figures are from the 1790 Census available at: http://www.dcte.udel.edu/hlp/resources/newnation/pdfs/PopEstim.pdf.

[2] Use total population/electoral votes in each state to yield the number of votes per electoral vote, then take those numbers and divide the larger by the smaller to yield the ratio of excess voting power per vote in the smaller state. Example California’s population is 37,254,503/55 electoral votes is 677,355 people per electoral vote.  Wyoming’s population is 563,767/3 electoral votes is 187,922 votes per electoral vote.  677,355/187,922 is roughly 3.6, which represents the amount of real voting power every vote from Wyoming has in proportion to that from California.

[3] I am referring to the Three-Fifths Compromise and the entire debate concerning political power in state versus federal government which took place during the Founding.

[4] Stats from http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/.

[5] Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2014), 27.

[6] Ibid., 35.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 35.

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