The Popular Vote as a Psychological Coping Mechanism
In 1931, a book was published in German under the title "100 Authors Against Einstein", attempting to refute the Theory of Relativity. By some accounts, when Einstein was confronted with this book, he is reported to have said something along the lines of:
Why a hundred? If I were wrong, one would have been enough."
I have no idea if this is for real. Still, though, it's pretty good, right?
To be clear, Einstein was talking about physics, not politics or philosophy, but even in the social sciences I find myself sympathetic to the spirit of this quote, fake or not, especially when faced with people who harp on an idea like the popular vote.
You know the type. These are the people who like to emphasize that Donald Trump, despite winning the US presidency in 2016, did not win more than 50% of the votes (due to idiosyncrasies in the American electoral system). This is, of course, completely true but also, I suspect, not quite the crushing argument they think it is, given that they would have been, I imagine, strangely silent on the subject if the opposite had been true - if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency with less than 50% of the votes.
No, if that had happened, I suspect they'd be thinking the exact same thing that I'm thinking, which is that the popular vote, while interesting, doesn't matter very much at all.
The same kind of arguments occasionally surface in Canadian politics as well. Stephen Harper, a somewhat reviled Conservative Prime Minister in some circles, never won more than 40% of the popular vote in Canada, despite winning the election 3 times, once with a majority government. Some people like to point this out, while at the same time failing to point out that his rival Justin Trudeau, of the Liberal party, also never won the popular vote.
Because of the way the electoral system works in Canada, it's actually quite common that a party's popular vote doesn't translate into a corresponding number of seats (and hence a corresponding amount of political power). If I were playing devil's advocate, I could point out that Stephen Harper, at the very least, always won his elections with a plurality if not a majority of the popular vote (i.e. the Conservative party under Stephen Harper always won with the most votes, just not more than 50% of them) - something I cannot say about Justin Trudeau (the Liberals won the election in 2021 with 33.1% of the popular vote, to the Conservatives' 34.4%).
To be clear, I am not defending the Conservative Party. I've never voted for them in my life. I am merely pointing out that the popular vote, as a measure of anything, is stupid. A leadership mandate doesn't suddenly become more or less acceptable because you managed to convince just one more person. To be fair, I'm not totally sure what would count as a convincing moral justification for one policy over another - ethics is hard! - but I'm pretty sure that "number of people who agree with it" isn't one of them.
In the case of Donald Trump, I think the reason why people focus on the popular vote so much is because they can't stand the idea of living in a country where most people are Trump supporters - an attitude to which I'm entirely sympathetic. In that situation, focusing on the popular vote, and the fact that Donald Trump didn't win it, functions as a kind of psychological coping mechanism. It means that the country is still worth saving. I do get it, believe it or not.
But let's not delude ourselves. When push comes to shove, if the cause is judged to be important enough, no one, progressive or conservative, really believes that the notion of the "popular vote" means much of anything at all - and this is, frankly, as it should be.