While the paternity of George Bush and Al Gore has never seriously been questioned, American political talk has lately turned to the possibility of installing an illegitimate president in the Oval Office. Both scions of US political dynasties are clamouring for the right to the "will of the people" and in the battle, their aides are feeling free to sling phrases such as coup d'etat and "siege warfare". They have not been shy in evocating images of recent Serbian street protests. Charges of attempts by both sides to seize power have become common currency on the airwaves, computer screens and in the newspapers, here in the erstwhile beacon of unalloyed democratic purity. Issues of constitutional law have even begun to compete with the highlights of the current NFL football season in discussions around office water coolers, and one can scarcely begin a conversation without becoming embroiled in a debate over the finer points of Floridian ballot design.
It was truly beyond my wildest expectations that this election could have become such a gripping drama after the plodding, lacklustre and endless campaign that preceded it. At some point around 3 a.m. the night of the election I went to bed confident in the somewhat unwelcome prospect of a Bush presidency. After he had been declared the winner by all the major television networks, I descended into an alcohol soaked fog of resignation, and reached slumber facing four more years of nightly seeing the drawling drooler from Texas as my "freely-chosen" leader. It was, therefore, with great surprise that I awoke the next morning to be informed by the murmurings of my radio that the presidency was still undecided. That day, I began receiving calls from my friends in Europe. They spoke of that strange (and uniquely American) institution known as the Electoral College-a phrase (and institution) that seemed to raise as many questions as it answered-and asked "What's going on there?" their voices a mix of genuine confusion and concern.
As I sat down to write this, I received an e-mail pointing me to a web site containing a long list of nationwide protests aimed at demanding a recasting of votes in West Palm Beach, Florida, where an allegedly bewildering ballot has been alleged to be the source of some 19,000 votes invalidated by being punched for both Democrat Al Gore and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. As the margin between the two candidates in the final, deciding state may be a matter of a few hundred votes, the legal validity of the Palm Beach vote has loomed large in the resulting controversy. As the above Web site informed me, "The nightmare has come true: A candidate has won the popular vote but lost the White House." Although this particular night terror has never been prominent in my own pantheon of fears, it was intriguing that what had been a fairly bland choice between two center-right candidates with a bare sliver of ideological difference between them had quickly become constructed as a battle for the soul of the republic.
As I write, the re-count of the Florida vote is incomplete, and it appears that days will pass before absentee ballots are counted and a nominal victory for either side can be officially claimed. Despite this fairly obvious fact, the Bush campaign is already moving into transition mode. Bush appeared to believe that the presidency was his birthright throughout his campaign, and his premature grasps for power smack (in a distant, farcical sense) of Napoleon's reaching out to crown himself emperor. Teams of lawyers are descending on the Sunshine State, lawsuits have been filed, and recounts in Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexico-where Gore won narrow victories-have been mooted by Bush's lackeys. Gore's backers send out a clarion call castigating the "thwarting" of the "will of the people." Talk radio is abuzz with conspiracy theories and partisan claims of fraud and electoral theft. In a nation renowned for its disengagement from politics, there is a lingering sense of limbo and a media frenzy that have finally found a real story after months of commenting on the minutiae of the candidates style, clothing and verbal mannerisms.
Curiouser and curiouser.
On what passes for "the left" in America, the knives are out as liberal Democrats turn on Ralph Nader, calling him a "spoiler" and accusing him of "wrecking" the election of Al Gore. Arguably, had Nader absented himself from the race, the current debates would likely be moot, as in some crucial states (including Florida) the Nader vote seem to have tipped the balance toward Bush. However, the reason why Nader or his supporters should feel guilty for the (possible) defeat of the Democratic candidate eludes me: after all, the main raison d'etre of the Nader campaign was to confront the Hobson's choice at the heart of the American political system. Nader's rejection of the "lesser-evilism" that has kept the left silenced for two decades and allowed the Democratic Leadership Council (progeny of the 70s-era group known as Democrats for Nixon) to turn the putative "liberal" party into even more of a right-of-center corporate lackey than it had ever been, was premised on the idea that it really makes little difference which side of the establishment coin wins the national toss up.
Many Naderites dispute the label of "spoiler." First, the Green Party Nader represents is not a wing of the Democratic Party and thus owes it no fealty. Second, if Al Gore was unable to crushingly overcome the asinine frat-boy antics of George Bush while Gore enjoyed the position of emerging out of a "successful" eight-year period of Democratic rule, then he doesn't deserve the highest office in the land. Both arguments are consistent with long-stated principles of Nader's campaign, one that had its very legitimacy questioned ever since its inception. "How dare he run," the Democratic loyalists said, "and take the chance on giving the election to Bush." Now that it appears he may have just done that (along with some deeply confused but liberally-intentioned voters in Florida - there may yet be something in the "Democrats - Too Dumb to Vote" slogans cropping up in Florida's Republican heartlands), Democratic fury is turning on a man who has been an effective, popular and consistent voice in progressive politics for nearly four decades rather than against a party that put up a poor candidate who couldn't even run an effective campaign against a man with a thin resumÚ and only a glancing familiarity with English.
The other side of the Green/Nader argument, that a more progressive and left-leaning program would bring greater electoral success for the Democrats, is more questionable, judging by the apparent enthusiasm of the American public to elect one of two men who spent no time debating or even acknowledging the progressive causes of the Nader campaign. The drug war, the lack of fairness in much of the criminal justice system, a serious engagement with the issue of globalization and its discontents, campaign finance reform: all of these were key to the Nader platform, and they seem to have resonated with less than one-twentieth of the American electorate: a three-percent Green vote after a vigorous Nader run (in distinction to his lackluster non-campaign of 1996) is not exactly something to celebrate or-from the perspective of Realpolitik-for the Democrats to adopt as a new direction. (As a declaration of interest, I was one of that three percent.) It has rarely been clearer that building a viable leftist presence in America is a long term project, most likely, and not the sort of thing that will happen as a result of quixotic charges in the quadrennial identity parade in which we choose our national father figure.
More than the name-calling and Constitution waving that currently fills our living rooms, the election and its controversies has managed effectively to point out the generally shabby shape of American democracy. Behind the rhetoric of "the will of the people must be respected" is what appears to be a creaking and antiquated electoral system, an uninformed electorate and rampant political corruption. According to Associated Press reports, the Florida recount has shrunk Bush's lead by some 1,400 votes. Allegations of widespread voter intimidation directed against African Americans continue to mount (and appear to have an historical basis in previous Florida elections). Ballot boxes "disappeared" and then "reappeared." Large numbers of ballots have had to be discarded because voters misunderstood them. Democrats are accused of trading cigarettes for votes from homeless men. Perhaps what is most damning is the realization that things such as this go on all the time. A Republican apologist I heard on National Public Radio suggested that 19,000 discarded ballots are not important. In fact, the story becomes even worse when one considers that a further 10,000 votes were discounted for being 'unmarked', which may merely have been insufficiently firmly pressed for the machines to read. Hence the Gore campaign's calls for a hand recount. Adding possibly mistaken votes for Pat Buchanan, it may be that some 30,000 votes out of slightly over 430,000 total cast went astray. Even those who argue for the sovereignty of the 'will of the people' present the nullification of the votes of nearly seven per cent of the local electorate as merely a matter of course and a product of the confused elderly. Talk of re-counts in other states is mounting, and allegations of other "voter irregularities" continue to spread.
Very little thought, and less talk, appears thus far to be given to the remarkable suggestions, by our political elite no less, that there might be something seriously rotten at the heart of US democracy. It is only because of the current impasse that the frailty of the system has become apparent to those whom it was designed to serve. First, the electoral college: a vaguely aristocratic vestige of the early republic aimed at putting a break on the volatility of the popular will, the same presumed voice of the people that is now being used as a screen for the power struggle between two parties indistinguishable in both politics and desperation for government control. The College seems unlikely to be abolished anytime soon, since that would require a constitutional amendment, an arduous political effort that has historically been reserved for more weighty topics such as abolishing slavery, granting women the right to vote and instituting (and then reversing) a ban on the production or consumption of alcohol. There are many arguments on either side of this debate; however, the key problem with such reform is that while the current closeness of the vote is taken by many to mean (always expressed in breathless heart-warming tones) that "every vote counts," the result of the electoral college is that only the votes in "close" states count for anything at all. Here in Maryland, where the Democrats could be assured of a victory, I saw not one campaign advertisement (which is not exactly a complaint) and we were rarely graced with either candidate's precious time. Whereas, in states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and California-the so-called "swing" states-television stations were saturated with campaign rhetoric, so much so in at least one district of Florida stations stopped accepting any more ads. The thousands of Republican votes in Maryland are as meaningless as the thousands of Democratic votes in a state such as, say, Georgia.
Then there is the chaotic voting system, staffed by volunteers of varying quality and plagued by a myriad of voting methods, booths, forms and rules. Talk of creating a nationally coherent and identical voting system is seen by many vocal opponents as the intrusion of "big government" into the liberties of our nation's people to have to cope with antiquated punch card systems (as in Florida) when far more modern systems are available. Combine this with a registration system that leaves many voters confused, frequent shortages (according to recent stories) of adequate voting facilities in economically deprived neighborhoods, the fact that millions of (largely minority) Americans are deprived of their voting rights for being imprisoned for serious crimes, a media too focused on style to really concern itself with substance, chronically low voter turnout hovering now around 50%, and the peripheral (though often crucial) prevalence of fraud and deception, and one is left wondering very bemusedly about how this "voice of the people" is actually to be translated. Even were the voting process cleaned up, there remains the influence of money ("speech" in the eyes of the Supreme Court and thus constitutionally protected) that drives American political campaigns, dependent as they are on the purchase of television advertising.
The Democrats and Republicans are not so much separate parties, but in some ways two segments of the same party, a relationship summed up during the debates by the way that both Bush and Gore were falling over themselves to claim that they "agreed" with the point of view expressed by their opponent on a wide range of foreign and domestic policies. Special interest money (mainly from corporations-the right-wing bogey man of "big labor" was outspent by about 10 to 1) is the equivalent of political heroin to two parties addicted to binges of massive campaign spending: modern American politicians are on a constant circuit of fundraising from the moment they enter office, and the favors that result from such largesse largely drive the nation's political direction and momentum.
The screen that the rhetoric of election rituals places over the mechanical and philosophical aridness ofreal, existing democracy has been largely effective and opaque; it is only pulled aside at moments of particularly narrow votes and political crisis. The glib ability of both political parties to unashamedly cloak themselves in the "will of the people" and be taken seriously only shows how bad things have gotten. This tendency perhaps shows the extent to which the American capacity for irony has collapsed upon itself to create a new form of ersatz political earnestness. That this might be so is signaled the following facts. On the Republican side, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III-no stranger to "validating" crooked elections in foreign dictatorships friendly to the United States-speaks of the "rule of law" on behalf of the Bush campaign. On the other side, William Daley-son of the notoriously corrupt late mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley whose political machine has become a byword for political trickery-trumpets the glories of "adherence to the rule of law and democratic process."
I only hope this stops before I laugh myself to death.
Of course, there were serious issues raised in this campaign, but curiously enough the main candidates themselves did not raise them. They have been stamped on the agenda by the very rottenness of the system itself. Despite the hand wringing of self-described patriotic Americans urging a quick "solution" to the current mess, the absurdities of the current "crisis" may in fact be the only salutary consequences of the Gore/Bush contest. Whoever "wins" the 2000 election will do so at the conclusion of a struggle that is deeply divisive; however, it is a struggle that is not about ideology (that was short-circuited by the triangulations of both sides during the campaign) but about raw power: the power to have first pickings from the corporate trough that Washington has become. The chance to see the workings of this democratic farce stripped of their more august robes may in fact be the first step toward making their reform more possible.
Then again, an "illegitimate" president may only bring calls for making the system run more "efficiently," rather than it running any more democratically.