Popularity

When I was in high school, I wanted to be popular.  Though I went to an excellent school that stressed academic achievement, it still was unavoidable — the popular boys were always on the football team.  Our teenaged caste system included a segregated hierarchy of campus real estate — seniors had a lawn which no junior dared set foot on if he valued his life, juniors had a lawn which, of course, seniors could cross but an underclassman had to walk around to get to class, sophomores laid claim to an area known as “the oak trees," and freshmen were like Bedouin, wandering aimlessly about until they found a spot unoccupied by their betters, usually on the asphalt around the pool in the hot Southern California sun.

SFHS junior lawn

The “Junior Lawn” of my high school campus can be seen in the foreground
(with the 100 building and the mountains of the Angelus National Forest just beyond it)

In case there was any doubt who sat atop the social heap on campus, boys on the football team were required to shave their heads.  I mean, now, in 2018, it’s a style, but back in the 80’s — the decade of "big hair" for boys, and for girls — it really made them stand out.  How could I compete?  I was just Dean’s List, National Honor Society, California Scholastic Federation, Editor-in-Chief of the yearbook, Spanish Club, and a co-founding member of P.A.W. (Preserving Australian Wildlife:  a highly secret brotherhood of boys responsible for obtaining enough beer and cigarettes for all attendees of off-campus Friday night parties after the football game, including the girls who came down the hill from our sister school to join us, not that I payed much attention to them).  I could have cured cancer (I guess AIDS would have been a more topical choice for this sentence given the decade), but a brown and gold letterman’s jacket and a shaved head were keys that unlocked doors, commanded unquestioning respect (even if you had zits), and indicated you’d won the teenage sweepstakes.  Whether you, thoughtful reader, reading this are young or old, you know what I’m talking about — in those formative years, when boys discover their penises aren’t just for going wee-wee and girls discover whatever it is they discover, it’s all about popularity.  If you’re popular, you’ve won.

How many times did I sit in Mr. O’Connor’s geometry class in Room 105 in the building above learning how to identify the difference between an isosceles triangle, a rhombus, and a parallelogram asking, “when am I ever going to use this?”, only to be told that it would all become clear one day as high school was preparing me to be a good citizen?  Aside from teaching me to be really good at playing the board game Trivial Pursuit, impressing upon me that it was better to have real estate than not, and helping me realize my penis did funny things when a football player named Chris walked in the room, one of the most important things I learned in high school was if you’re popular, you win.

As for preparing me for good citizenship, not so much.  Let me explain.

With Americans making their choice for President of the United States in November two years from now, applying the popularity principle I learned in high school, it’s safe to assume that figuring out who won the presidential election is a simple case of determining who is most popular, or to put it another way — who got the most votes.  Right?

Ding!  Wrong!  Sorry!  Thanks for playing!  Do not pass ‘go,’ do not collect 200 dollars.

When we think about democracy, we usually imagine electing the candidate who receives the most votes, but cool your jets there turbo — that’s not how it’s done in the United States.  In fact, the current President of the United States was “elected” by winning 2.9 million with an ‘M’ fewer votes than his opponent.  I know!  Crazy, right?

In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention set out to decide how to elect an American President.  James Wilson proposed that the popular vote winner should become president (uh, like duhh!), but James Madison rejected this idea and forgot to use his indoor voice when he said, “There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people.  The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes.  The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”

What does that even mean?  Well, and thank you for asking thoughtful reader, it’s a long and fancy way of saying that since slaves couldn’t vote, the North would wield more political power in a direct election system as they had a larger population of free men who could vote.  In order to satisfy the southern slave-holders that they weren’t getting royally screwed (no pun intended), the US Electoral College was born.

Still have no idea what the Electoral College is?  Let me explain.  After rejecting Wilson’s “popular vote” idea (which can be summarized as:  the one with the most votes wins), the founders designed a system as complicated as the instruction manual for setting the date and time on your Bluetooth-enabled DVR using an app that you first have to download from the manufacturer’s website onto your smartphone after identifying your model and serial number by locating the barcode printed on the bottom of it and then selecting ‘English’ (or Tagalog, or Mandarin, or regional Swahili, or Россия — Russian — which seems appropriate since it’s a US election), only much, much more racist.  Instead of people directly electing the president, it was decided that electoral intermediaries would be appointed by each state to cast their ballots for president.

It gets worse!  To further accommodate slave owners, the founders allowed for slaves to be valued at 60% of a free person’s value, an idea still enshrined in our venerated Constitution as the three-fifths clause.  So the next time some yahoo tells you Antonin Scalia is their hero because he “followed the Constitution,” remember what they are really saying.  If you can get your head around the idea that slaves (ahem, black men and women chained-up, transported thousands of miles away from their homes in deplorable conditions without even a beverage cart or an in-flight movie to pass the time, and then sold as property) were valued for the sole purpose of giving their white owners more political power, congratulations!  You understand the foundation of American democracy, the Constitution.

The number of “votes” (or electors) each state gets in the Electoral College

Okay, I hear you say, but it was a different time then, a smaller country with different understandings of human and civil rights, and slavery ended… so why are we still using the electoral college today?

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