Eric M. Adams teaches Canadian constitutional law at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Law.
It has been an unprecedented American presidential campaign of lies, intimidation and menace.
In Donald Trump, the venerable Republican Party has nominated an unfit candidate of almost unimaginable proportions unmoored from conventional political morality and civic virtue. Each passing week has delivered the shocking reality of an inexperienced candidate peddling narcissism, racism and sexism in a bid to hold the highest office of the United States.
Who could possibly have predicted this? As it happens, the U.S. Constitution did. So did Canada’s.
The Electoral College system entrenched in the 1787 U.S. Constitution was designed to prevent the direct election of the president and the national populist turmoil such an election might inspire. The framers of the Constitution were hardly paragons of democracy, given their acceptance of slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, but political theorists such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison did think seriously about the impact dangerous demagogues and conniving charlatans may pose in presidential politics.
Directly electing the president, Hamilton warned in The Federalist Papers, could lead to successful candidates talented only in “low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.” He might as well have been describing Donald Trump.
By contrast, the founders envisaged the Electoral College counteracting what James Madison called the “vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.” In keeping with an emphasis on constitutional checks and balances, citizens would elect (or states appoint) representatives to the Electoral College. Those representatives, in turn, would exercise independent judgment in electing the president (with the second-place candidate becoming vice-president). Such a system, the framers believed, would naturally constrain campaigns.
It did not work. Within a few years, the emergence of political parties and the democratic pressures of citizens transformed the Electoral College into the one that functions today: States allocate their electoral votes based exclusively on the majoritarian preferences of voters.
Canadians designing their own constitutional documents in the 1860s watched the U.S. constitutional experiment closely, especially as the Civil War appeared to tear the nation apart. Several identified the problem as the president holding power without accountability to an elected body of representatives.
“Candidates [for president] come forward,” George-Étienne Cartier observed, “and of course each one was abused and vilified as corrupt, ignorant, incapable and unworthy by the opposite party.” The resulting elections produced a president “not respected by those who had opposed his election, and who tried to make him appear the most corrupt and contemptible being in creation.”
The constitutional solution for Cartier and others was responsible government. Executive power would remain permanently in the Crown, and power only exercised by ministers of a government in possession of the confidence of the elected members of Parliament: a perfect blend of democratic legitimacy, stability and decorum.
Parliamentary systems have their own pathologies and democratic deficits, but the framers of Canada’s Constitution were right in this: Responsible government dampens autocratic tendencies and personality dysfunction among its political leaders. Donald Trump’s scorched-earth policy in relation to the Republican Party and his total disdain for democratic values is simply less likely in Canada given that prime ministers hold power only insofar as they maintain the confidence of a majority of their elected colleagues.
It is true that strict party discipline, majority governments and increasing power in the hands of premiers and prime ministers has diluted the restraint that responsible government imposes. Nonetheless, responsible government in Canada, Australia, and Britain has produced long lists of leaders deposed at the hands of their own parties.
Canadians should avoid the assumption that a Trump could never happen here. The underlying waves of discontent, media fragmentation, xenophobia, economic disenfranchisement and loss of faith in elites that fuel Mr. Trump are present here, too. But as we approach the 150th anniversary of Confederation, there may be reason to find some solace in a constitutional wisdom that makes the ascension of demagogues more difficult.
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