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Chupidness Gone Mad

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 16, 2007

There are many aspects of Michael J. Williams' letter that are objectionable and patently false (Newsday, November 13). It is not true that each President of the United "was elected directly by the popular vote of the people." Four U S presidents lost the popular votes and were elected president via the electoral system. In 1824, John Quincy Adams received 44,804 fewer votes than Andrew Jackson and was awarded the Presidency. In 1876, Rutherford Haynes lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden by 264,292 votes yet went on to become the president by a one-vote margin in the Electoral College. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote by 95,713 votes to Governor Grover Cleveland but won the electoral vote by 65. In 2000, Al Gore had 543,816 votes more than George Bush but the US Supreme Court interrupted the process, illegally, to award President Bush the elections. George Bush became president with 271 electoral votes having needed 270 to become the president.

It is also the case that in 1801 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Democrat-Republicans, received the same amount of electoral votes despite the fact that Burr was running as a vice-presidential candidate. Jefferson won after 36 successive votes in the House of Representatives. In those days the system was different and in fact led to the passage of the 12th amendment of the US constitution.

Williams advances another bit of sophistry that says "under our Westminster system the prime minister is not chosen by the people. Under 76:1, the president as Head of the States appoints him/her as head of government, and prime minister of all the people, even if more persons voted against him, than for him, as in the just concluded election" (my emphasis). This, of course, is chupidness gone mad.

It is clear that the President could not appoint the prime minister if he were not chosen by the people. In other words, the first condition is dependent (or contingent) upon the second. It stands to reason that the President can only appoint a Prime Minister because the people chose him to become their Prime Minister. The presidential act of appointing him/her prime minister is merely a legal formality that confirms a contingent reality.

To argue that the act of appointing supersedes or takes precedence over the fact of choosing is a falsehood only a person of jaundiced passions could make. It is a difference without a distinction; the kind of sophistry that my mother would categorize as the triumph of book sense over common sense. Scholars call that kind of distinction a vulgar form of binary thinking.

It is understandable why a candidate can lose the popular vote and still be elected president; or how a person in Israel can loose the popular vote and yet become prime minister of that country through the formation of a coalition government. It is a spectacle that Denmark faces today. With five of the 179 seats in Parliament, the New Alliance Party is about to play the role of king maker in the new government (New York Times, November 14, 2007). Incidentally, Denmark's "complex electoral mathematics is driven by the need to form coalitions."

In the United States, the Electoral College was set up because the founding fathers believed that the selection of a president on a popular vote exclusively was too reckless. They settled on an electoral system so that even the smallest state can have a say in how the president is elected. This is precisely what happened when President Haynes was elected by the combined votes of the smaller states.

Traditions are invented rather than blessings sent down from heaven. Thus, it is not an anomaly if the President administered the oath of office at Woodford Square rather than President House. A people make themselves through their actions which eventually form traditions. So that if Patrick Manning decides that he prefers to proclaim his oath of allegiance before ten thousand rather than one hundred persons then he has every right to do so. He is not bounded always to follow a past slavishly. The same is true if he chooses to adopt the national coat of arms as the license plate of the Prime Minister's car if it does not conflict with presidential prerogatives.

Nor is there anything wrong with ushering a new term with "political masquerade" in Woodford Square as Mr. Williams calls it. 'Mas and hosay and the ramleelas are nothing more than forms of open air theatre. They are part of our indigenous traditions as are the steelband and tassa music. We are not Greeks, Europeans nor Americans. If the Queen chooses not to administer Mr. Blair's oath of office in Hyde Park then that's their business. We are Trinbagonians who find our meaning in the carnivalesque and in our open air celebrations. Such displays neither compromise the Prime Minister's neutrality nor dishonor our democracy. It merely confirms our uniqueness as a people; taps into our latent possibilities; and proclaims our ability to luxuriate in our peoplehood.

There will come a time to speak about the appropriateness of an Executive President in Trinidad and Tobago. Let us not cloud that issue with false claims and unnecessary sophistry.

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