CHICAGO • Lately, when masses of people don't like a long-standing rule or tradition, they believe it should be discarded — until it becomes useful.
After Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly passed away in February and it seemed a Democratic presidential victory was likely, certain Republicans decided that not only should the outgoing president not have the right to appoint a new Supreme Court justice, but neither should the new president — if she turned out to be a Democrat.
It was a bipartisan impulse. Vice President Joe Biden had, in 1992, said much the same when suggesting that a Supreme Court nomination be delayed until after Election Day should there be a vacancy during a presidential campaign. Then, in the days after Donald Trump won the election, there were calls for Democratic lawmakers to obstruct the nomination and seating of any Trump nominee to fill Scalia's seat.
More recently the Electoral College has been a target for extinction.
Immediately after President-elect Trump was declared victorious, calls to dismantle the Electoral College so that elections would be more democratic and mirror the popular vote crescendoed.
But that changed when the Central Intelligence Agency confirmed that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin actively worked to undermine the election by hacking into both campaigns but releasing only Democrats' emails to WikiLeaks, thereby acting to give one candidate an advantage.
The day after the election I observed a classroom of high school students who were emotional and confused — they had no idea what the Electoral College was and why the popular vote didn't determine the presidency. The adult leading the class was unable to explain it and he is not alone.
A 2008 report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes conservative thought on college campuses, found that 34 percent of all respondents to a national survey — and 43 percent who identified as having been elected to a government office at least once — did not know that the Electoral College is a constitutionally mandated assembly that elects the president. One in five of the officeholders thought it "trains those aspiring for higher office" or "was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates."
In this context, it's obvious why the masses don't value the Electoral College — how can you value something you don't understand?
And yet, even the most surface-level understanding of why the Electoral College was put in place underscores its relevance today. To quote the Broadway celebrity of the moment, Alexander Hamilton, from the Federalist Papers: "The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States."
Now the same liberals who a week ago wanted to kill the Electoral College are hoping it will be used to serve its original purpose: Keeping someone who proved popular, but who they think is unfit for the presidency, from taking power.
And that's how traditionalists found common cause with hypocrites.
Some people appealed for calm after Trump's election, hoping it would all turn out OK. But adding a definitive tampering of our elections to the laundry list of craziness that has unfolded since Election Day — and a president-elect who swore our electoral process was compromised but, in the face of evidence, is now claiming that the tampering is a fabrication — is enough to make even the most starry-eyed positive thinker look for the panic button.
The Electoral College was established to protect voters from the influence of outside actors, bullies, demagogues and populism. The electors deserve to be briefed by the intelligence community on the Russian sabotage allegations and, when they meet on Dec. 19, they can make history by selecting a compromise candidate — a level-headed Republican not likely to run our country off the rails sounds great right about now.
Although this unlikely scenario was referred to by The New York Times as a "moon shot," it would cement the Electoral College's utility in this, our messy, American republic form of government.