The Existential Election

Christopher Malone, Ph.D.

Associate Dean, School of Natural and Social Sciences

Associate Professor of Political Science

Lehman College, CUNY

Lehman College Presidential Forum

November 14th, 2016


First thing I want to say is that most agree that there are about 5–7 million more ballots to be counted, and by the time they’re all done Hillary Clinton may have received 2 more million votes than Donald Trump nation wide — or about 1.5% more of the popular vote.

This will be the 5th time in American history that the electoral vote and popular vote were at odds:

· 1824, when only white men with property were allowed to vote and our presidential elections system looked very different.

· 1876, in an election that effectively ended Reconstruction and ushered in the Jim Crow system across the South.

· 1888, when the Tammany Hall political machine did not turn out the vote for President Grover Cleveland who had been governor of New York

· 2000, when Al Gore received 500,000 more votes than George Bush

· And 2016.

I’ll come back to the Electoral College in a moment but this is something I hope we get to discuss today in Q and A.

But I really want to address something more general and more basic. And more visceral.

Last Wednesday in my Campaigns and Elections class, not 24 hours after the election was over, we were doing an analysis of the voting, particularly in swing states, to figure out what happened.

At the end of that discussion, a student finally said “I’ve been holding this in and I was hoping I wasn’t going to go on a rant but I can’t help it.”

She proceeded to say she was a Sociology major and hadn’t taken Political Science courses at Lehman.

While she appreciated the “slicing and dicing” of the electorate, it didn’t satisfy her.

Then she said, “No offense Professor but Political Science can’t explain this. Because what happened is not logical or rational.” Then she went on to say, “why should I care what white working class voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin think”? And why should they get all the attention?

I felt the need to defend “Political Science” but of course I couldn’t. We Political Scientists can’t even predict the past at times, so predicting the future or even explaining voting behavior fully seems a bridge too far.

I’m not talking about explaining how polls are wrong, or how campaigns are run, or how candidates underperform, or what motivates voters in their choices.

What that student was asking about is deeper: about how people can see the world so differently through the prism and inside the cauldron of a presidential election.

In the end, maybe none of the responses the behavioral sciences of academia give to this question are satisfying.

But as I began thinking about this over the last several days all I could come up with is this:

This election will have significant policy consequences for all of us, good, bad, ugly, which the other panelists are going to address.

But there is a larger point I want to make: We’ve internalized the office of the presidency so much that it now acts as a mirror that we hold up to ourselves every four years. We now take this as a given. Choosing a president has become an exercise in gauging individual and collective identity. We look to the presidential election in order to understand ourselves — “we the people” whomever “we” decide who the “we” is in that equation.

Unlike any day in America, Election Day for the office of the presidency is a rare opportunity for Americans to see what other Americans — nearly all of them perfect strangers — are thinking, as expressed in and through their vote.

To be sure, this election indicates more than most others how “estranged” these perfect strangers really are from one another.

While that estrangement is a reflection of a deeply divided country, it is also a reflection of how much our vote for the presidency has become a mirror to ourselves.

To me that’s very strange — no pun intended.

Let me contextualize it by considering the creation of the office of presidency.

Our first Constitution did not allow for an office of the presidency. It was only created when the Framers saw the weaknesses in not having a president.

There was certainly no precedent for it. Sure there were colonial and state governors, and kings and queens — but the head of state “chosen” by the “people” was something entirely new.

Two things stand out about the Constitution and the office of presidency.

First, the “powers” of the office are vague. There are some things in there about who can be considered qualified to hold the office, how the person is chosen, i.e., the Electoral College, when you must report back on the state of the union, how you are commander in chief and able to grant pardons and nominate judges and appoint ambassadors, and how you will be removed from office if you screw up.

That’s it — The Constitution doesn’t give presidents the power to present budgets or introduce legislation, to declare war, to get us out of economic recessions — or get us into them — to do away with deficits, to take care of us after hurricanes, to console the nation in a time of tragedy, to unite us in a time of crisis, to pardon turkeys during Thanksgiving, to tell jokes at the White House Correspondence Dinner, etc.

Yet over time presidents have been given the task to fulfill all of those responsibilities and more. He/she has become not only Commander-in-Chief, but Economist-in-Chief, Financier-in-Chief, Consoler-in-Chief, Uniter-in-Chief, Comedian-in-Chief.

Political Scientists have a name for the presidency in the 19th century: the Clerk-in-Chief. Because compared to today, presidents did very little with the exception of foreign affairs.

As America became a world power and became embroiled in world wards, as society became more complex and with it government, as modes of communication brought us “closer” to each other, to the office and to the person, — all of these changes and more — the responsibilities and expectations of the office grew.


So the way we see the powers and responsibilities of the office has evolved and grown — and with it the way we see ourselves in relation to our president.

Second, the Framers were committed to ensuring that this person occupying the presidency was as far removed from “the people” — US! — as possible without undoing some basic modicum of representation. Hence the creation of the Electoral College.

Over time the process of presidential selection has changed and brought it closer to the people, yet the vestiges of the Founding period remain.

In one sense the history of the presidency has been the history of fighting against the original intent of the Framers for the office. Fighting against our own Constitution. The Framers wanted presidents to be better than us, wiser than us, more rational than us.

SO DO WE. But in contemporary society we actually also want presidents to be more LIKE us, to have humble origins like most of us, to know what we go through on a daily basis, to understand our trials and tribulations, and yes to look like us. That is a vital element of the way we understand “representation” today.

I think the Framers would scoff at the idea that presidents should be more like us because they didn’t really trust “us” very much…but more importantly: how do you elect someone that is at once like you and feels your pain but is also a cut above you?

Related to this is the idea that candidates now seek our votes, and some would say in the process pander to us mercilessly.

In 1828 Andrew Jackson called himself a “tribune of the people” after he was elected by more white men voting than ever before. Legend has it that on inauguration day so many of the “people” crammed into the White House that much of the furniture was destroyed. You can’t take the American “people” anywhere.

Most of the 19th century it was unseemly to even campaign for president. The “front porch campaigns” of the late 19th century — Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley.

So today we seem to ask our presidents to be so many things to so many people, at the same time we ask them to reflect us in a visceral way that transcends policy disputes.

Which brings us to this election. Which I pretentiously am calling the Existential Election.

There was a piece in before the election by Tommy Craggs titled “This Election Was About the Issues.

Craggs said that the campaign did not necessarily contain the familiar stuff of Washington gridlock, but the most important issues of our time: misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.

We can add to his list class conflict, the divide between urban and rural areas, elites versus the working classes, the snobs in Washington versus the “forgotten classes” out in the heartland, etc.

While all presidential elections are about values, this election in particular was more so than others because it focused on the existential question of “who are we” as a nation and how who we are is reflected in the person we elect as president. Having the first major female candidate and someone like Donald Trump who is who he is and who says the things he said helped bring us to that point.

So it was almost a perfect storm of sorts, where the history of the office combined with the candidates running to bring all of this to the fore. In an existential election, we can’t help but think that the person elected president will go a long way in answering the question of who we are.

Besides the divisive rhetoric and harsh language of this election, which granted was often over the top, the existential election is why the temperature got turned up so high. Because while you might be able to compromise on issues, it is damn hard to compromise on who you are.

2008 was certainly an existential election. And just maybe we are living through the Era of the Existential Election.

Or maybe the problem is that we are asking for the impossible in our presidential elections, and today we just read too much into the selection of our presidents. Maybe we should go back to the Era of the Clerk-in-Chief.

Because no person — and no office — can possibly fulfill what we are demanding.

I understand that won’t make anyone feel differently or better about this election. My hope is that it doesn’t make anyone feel worse. It certainly won’t solve the problem of who we are as a nation, and how the election of president reflects that.

I will just close with one of my favorite quotes:

“What then is the American, this new man…I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

The author is Hector St. John de Crevecouer, a French-American Farmer who wrote these words in 1782 before the office of the president was even created.

Yes, the letter of Crevecouer’s comments would have us only focus on “European” diversity through the prism of the male gender. But we shouldn’t stop there, because it’s spirit is a celebration of ALL diversity — the great “melting” pot — and of those who come here, get into the mix, intermingle with others, work hard, and remake the world.

This is who I would like to believe “we” are. And the best thing about it is that it says absolutely nothing about presidents.