GAZETTE: What is the role of the Electoral College in all of this?
LEVINSON: I would favor moving up inauguration to the Monday before Thanksgiving so all of us would have something to be thankful for. But the reason we can’t do that is the Electoral College, because everybody in the world now knows that we don’t elect our presidents on Election Day. All that Election Day does is to elect electors, and they don’t even meet until mid-December, and their votes aren’t counted until the beginning of January. This is crazy. We need to get rid of the Electoral College, but so long as we’ve got the Electoral College, then that inevitably structures when inauguration can take place. One could say why can’t inauguration take place the day after Congress certifies the president, which is on Jan. 6. The reason for that is that we have to look at the Electoral College as an overall system. This is a terrible system, and that’s why, in essence, it takes so long to inaugurate the winner.
GAZETTE: In terms of Inauguration Day, what do other countries do?
LEVINSON: I’d like to begin with the American states, in part because a lot of Americans say, “Who cares how they do it abroad? We’re exceptional. We’re America.” Well, America consists of 50 states, and you discover that no state takes as long to inaugurate its governors, and there’s one overwhelming explanation of that: No state elects its governors on the basis of an Electoral College. Hawaii and Alaska, the two newest states, inaugurate their governors on Dec. 1. Several states, such as New York and California, inaugurate their governors in early January. You look around the United States and you discover that no state uses anything like an Electoral College because no state thinks it’s helpful to wait so long to inaugurate its new governors.
Then you look abroad: The favorite example is the United Kingdom, where a newly elected prime minister takes office literally the day after election; it really is as simple as that. Sometimes there’s a deadlocked Parliament, or so-called hung Parliament, and there have to be some negotiations. But once the negotiations are resolved, the prime minister moves into Downing Street the next day, and it’s all over. In other parliamentary systems, it may take considerably longer. Belgium went literally a year and a half with no government because of negotiation problems. In presidential systems, which is really what we’re talking about, it’s very unusual. I think Taiwan takes a long time to inaugurate its president. Most countries don’t because frankly, at best, it’s unclear what the advantages are, and, at worst, it’s a clear danger.
GAZETTE: What are other drawbacks of holding Inauguration Day on Jan. 20?
LEVINSON: For me, it is a drawback that it adds to what I think is the dangerous tendency to turn the president into an elective monarch. That is to say, we vote for presidents having only the vaguest idea of whom they might actually appoint to the government. In parliamentary systems, parties run with cabinets; you don’t merely vote for a prime minister, you generally vote for a shadow government. We, I think, carry that to an exaggerated degree. Americans have created the whole myth of “the transition,” in which the newly elected president announces, often with quite a bit of surprise, who the new secretary of state will be, and who the new attorney general will be, and so on. Frankly, I’d like to know when I vote for them, because the president, however important, is to some extent the Wizard of Oz. Real policies and real decisions are often going to be made by the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of state, and the attorney general.
But we build up the president into this truly mythic figure, and I would like to see us demystify the presidency. This long hiatus just adds to the excessive focus we put on this one person, including Joe Biden. I think Biden’s cabinet’s perfectly all right, but I would have liked to have known in advance who the key appointments would be. I think that is also part of the problem.