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Deconstructing the Election | The Nation

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Deconstructing the Election

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The Foucauldian mode of analysis does not meet with any approbation or sympathy from the Vice President's wife. In fact, she goes on to say that Foucault's ideas "were nothing less than an assault on Western Civilization. In rejecting an independent reality, an externally verifiable truth, and even reason itself, he was rejecting the foundational principles of the West." Therefore it seems a pretty good joke on her that it turns out to be the perfect mode for analyzing how Republican Party strategy in Florida was developed and implemented.

About the Author

Win McCormack
Win McCormack, former publisher of Oregon Magazine, is publisher and editor in chief of the literary quarterly Tin...

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De-Foucaulding the GOP

New York City

Win McCormack's sophisticated examination of conservative tactics in the last election was fascinating ["Deconstructing the Election," March 26]. Such sophistication is not necessary to an understanding of conservative intellectual resilience in defending the interests of the dominant economic powers. 'Twas ever thus. There is only one consistency in conservative analysis of the role of government: It is to follow its historical role of protecting the dominant interests and transferring wealth from those who have little to those who have much.

FRED GREENBAUM


St. Louis

I'm glad the web-based version of your magazine is free. Otherwise I'd be forced to ask for a refund, not to mention punitive damages for the waste of my time (and, undoubtedly, a number of brain cells) caused by reading this article. I'll spare you my opinions and critique. Let's just paraphrase Foucault and say that this is the kind of writing that gives bullshit a bad name.

STEVE HINCHCLIFF


Gunnison, Colo.

I am sympathetic with Win McCormack's applying poststructural analysis to the presidential election, but he makes a glaring mistake. The quote he attributes to Michel Foucault, that Derrida is "the kind of philosopher who gives bullshit a bad name," was in fact uttered by UC Berkeley professor John Searle, who made the statement in a 1983 article in the New York Times Book Review.

DANIEL HARRISON


New Haven, Conn.

I hope I may be pardoned if I quibble, in prepostmodern fashion, over a minor point. I have it on good authority that the wonderful remark on Derrida being the sort of philosopher "who gives bullshit a bad name" comes not from Foucault but from Richard Rorty. But, of course, if the interpretation and recounting of all "texts" really is indeterminate, it perhaps doesn't matter all that much anyway.

JOSHUA L. CHERNISS

The "bullshit" quote is postmodernly elusive. Richard Rorty is fairly certain he never said it. John Searle admits to using it but not to originating it. In his article, McCormack relied on the rarely correct Dinesh D'Souza, who attributed it to Foucault. Scholars pronounce it "un-Foucauldian."
      --The Editors


St. Peter, Minn.

I enjoyed Win McCormack's review of the Florida debacle and appreciate seeing the crisscrossing issues brought together in one place. But I was annoyed by his harping on "irony" and hints that Baker & Co. were secret advocates of the "postmodernism" Lynne Cheney castigates. Two errors: 1. Foucault's rejection of objective neutrality is premised on the principle that there's no such thing as objectivity independent of somebody's constructive work--nothing counts as "neutrality" in that sense; rising above subjectivity is an essential impossibility, not one based on human fallibility. This isn't at all the same as James Baker's claim that people are fallible and cannot arrive at objective truth, which nevertheless exists and is better approximated by nonpartisan machines than biased people.

2. There's nothing ironic about Republicans behaving the way they say they don't. It's a nifty example of Foucault's power theory, but you'd hardly expect Lynne Cheney to embrace Foucault. Not unless you find it "ironic" that capitalists are still behaving the way Marx said they do even as they pronounce Marxism dead and discredited. That's what Marx said they'd do. Lynne Cheney writes in a way Foucault anticipates even as she attempts to discredit him. Nothing ironic there.

RICHARD A. HILBERT


Austin, Tex.

Win McCormack's article reminded me of Nixon winning elections by calling his opponents communists and later saying he knew they weren't communists but he had to win. As someone who was at the Inauguration protests in Washington and in several other protests, I was especially interested in the parts about the paid Republican protesters in Florida. I encountered Republican protesters here at the governor's mansion during the election fiasco--nasty, horrible, meanspirited people. When we protested the presence of the Fortune 500 group and Vicente Fox at U Texas, we were held back by a horrifying force of police in riot gear. Our protest community is notoriously peaceful, but no one was protecting us. The police got to try out their new toys--like rubber bullets--against some college students at Mardi Gras, causing several injuries and terrifying us all. Despite strong objections at a city council meeting, the police got a large raise, a toothless oversight committee, no civilian review and were sent on a junket to Seattle to learn crowd control! If we protesters had tried anything nearly as threatening as what Republicans staged in Florida, the police would have caused a bloodbath, and the media would have blamed us.

CINDY BERINGER


Chicago

Win McCormack effectively conveys the tendentiousness, hypocrisy and even demagogy that characterized the Republicans' strategy in Florida. But I take exception to his claim that we require Foucault's concept of "a battle among discourses" to properly understand this historical event. Tendentiousness, hypocrisy and demagogy have characterized political rhetoric since well before the birth of poststructuralist philosophy. They have been analyzed with great acuity by, among others, Machiavelli, who advocated deploying them prudently, and Jürgen Habermas, whose ethics of discourse repudiates them.

McCormack wrongly invokes the term "discourse" to describe the position of one party in a two-party or multiparty controversy. Discourses for Foucault are analogous to what we might call the "paradigm" (Foucault would say "discipline") within which a controversy occurs. A Foucauldian approach to the Florida deadlock, therefore, would involve studying the underlying social, political, economic and cultural relations of power that determined which truth claims were accepted as valid.

It is true, as McCormack notes, that a subjectivist or relativist epistemology underlies this approach to the study of the relationship between power and ideas. But the fact that James Baker raised the problem of "individual subjectivity" on the canvassing boards in no way confirms Foucault's theory of power, as McCormack claims. To assert that election officials may be subjective is a far cry from demonstrating the validity of the proposition that everything is subjective. At most, McCormack may be able to claim that widespread acceptance of Baker's argument would demonstrate that some number of people have embraced a Foucauldian theory of power. This, of course, would no more confirm the theory than does Baker's charge of bias on Florida's canvassing boards.

Ultimately, we do not require Foucauldian concepts to understand what happened in Florida. George Bush personified hypocrisy by contesting the constitutionality of a voting procedure he signed into law in Texas; the US Supreme Court's justification for stopping the manual recount was manifestly tendentious; and Baker's claim that a prolonged electoral struggle would undermine US international standing was demagogic. Foucault can help us understand how networks of power determine whether these discursive acts come to be accepted or rejected. But to understand the corruption that pervaded GOP strategy in Florida, we need only to have been paying attention.

JASON NEIDLEMAN


Oxford, Ohio

McCormack turns out to be prophetic of future postmodernisms by the more right-wing elements of the Establishment. Writing for an undivided Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas informs us, "It is clear from the text of the [Controlled Substances] act that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception"--a nice reminder that "power is knowledge."

The idea of different lenses through which history can be viewed and refracted (and twisted) was satirized by E.M. Forster in his seminal (hell, downright ovular) 1909 dystopian satire "The Machine Stops"; and the malleability of the past and the social construction of knowledge and the universe would be no news to George Orwell's O'Brien in 1984 or to the Stalinists, Nazis and other totalitarians he represents. No one knew that power is knowledge better than the authoritarians and totalitarians of the first half of the twentieth century, and later.

What's postmodern now is the degree to which "the best lack all conviction": the degree to which twenty-first-century intellectuals lack the ontological and epistemological foundations from which to argue that Congress might just, concerning medical marijuana at least, be in error, cruel and--in a nontheoretical formulation--full of shit.

RICHARD D. ERLICH


D'outre-Tombe [Beyond the Grave], France

Imagine my post-mortem shock at seeing my name on the cover of The Nation, somehow linked with the slogan "History Is Entirely Subjective." Am I not among those who pointed out in the 1960s that "Man" is a recent invention, and one fast approaching its end? If you want a slogan from my work, how about this one, spoken by an anonymous voice at the end of The Archaeology of Knowledge: "Discourse is not life; its time is not your time. In it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said. But don't imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he." "Entirely subjective" indeed!

MICHEL FOUCAULT,
Author-Function


McCORMACK REPLIES

Portland, Ore.

I am gratified by the voluminous amount of mail that arrived in reaction to my article. I will respond to only one point, as I think that will enable me to expand and clarify my central thesis.

It may be true, as Jason Neidleman contends, that ultimately we do not need to deploy a Foucauldian intellectual apparatus to grasp the basic structure of what happened in Florida. However, I was more concerned with Republican or conservative intellectual superstructure. Conservatives have for some time now been claiming that their movement possesses a moral and intellectual integrity superior to that of their political and ideological adversaries and have repeatedly cited the widespread embrace of "decadent" postmodern (by which they mean poststructuralist) theories in liberal academia as partial evidence of that. Convincing the public of this putative superiority is much of what they have in mind when they speak of fighting, and winning, the "cultural wars" and is the very goal of tracts like Lynne Cheney's Speaking the Truth and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. In that context, the fact that their behavior in Florida, from the rough-and-tumble street level all the way up to the hushed, august chambers of the Supreme Court, reveals them, on their own chosen terms of discourse, to be intellectually and morally inconsistent and bankrupt seems more than noteworthy and was, ultimately, my real point.

WIN McCORMACK

In fact, I might suggest that if Michel Foucault had not confected them already, his concepts of "discourses" and "a battle among discourses" ultimately to be decided by power would have to be invented before this signal event of American political history could be properly understood.

When former Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Florida on November 10, 2000, three days after the election, dispatched there by Lynne Cheney's husband to take charge of the Bush campaign's effort to secure the state's Electoral College slate and thereby the Oval Office, George W. Bush's initial lead of 1,784 had already been reduced by an automatic machine recount to 327, and the Gore campaign had requested manual recounts in four Democratic-leaning counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia. It appeared self-evident, from the tales both of the Palm Beach butterfly ballot and of the difficulties encountered by minority voters in getting to the polls and attempting to cast their ballots, that by the intention of Florida voters who had gone to the polls, if not by the actual counted results, Gore had won the state (which, of course, is why the media had awarded it to him early on election night in the first place), and it seemed a lot more likely than not that manual recounts in counties favoring Gore, or even a full statewide manual recount, would alter the actual results in Gore's favor, despite the fact that the absentee ballots, which usually favor Republican candidates, were yet to be counted. On top of all that, Gore was leading in the national popular vote, and it came as news to many Americans that a presidential candidate could win the popular vote and lose the election. (Prior to Election Day, Bush campaign strategists, believing it likely that George Bush would win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College, had developed a strategy to try to discredit the Electoral College, and thus perhaps gain support from Democratic electors.)

Clearly, what Secretary Baker had to do in order to insure Bush's election to the presidency was to stop the requested manual recounts, or any manual recounts, from taking place. Since Florida election law explicitly permits manual recounts, and there is a long history of them being conducted in the state for elections to offices at various levels (though not previously the presidency), including one race of Republican Senator Connie Mack, and given the situation just described above, what Baker encountered first of all in Florida was a severe public relations problem. In advance of Republican lawyers making a legal case in various courts against the manual recount process, Baker had to make a case to the American public as to why a perfectly legitimate process that had been employed many times before in Florida and elsewhere across the United States to decide close electoral contests, should not be used to resolve the closest Electoral College contest in 114 years. He needed to participate in what in Foucault's word is a discourse, by presenting an alternative to and challenging the Gore campaign and Democratic Party stance that the Florida vote was so close and so rife with proven and potential irregularities that only careful manual recounting could decide it fairly, as well as what we might call the underlying and perhaps more threatening Democratic contention that Gore had actually won the election and required only the additional step of targeted manual recounting to prove it.

The discourse (in the looser sense of a narrative) widely presented by Secretary Baker at his first press conference, on November 10, had several parts. He immediately tried to convey the sense that George W. Bush had already effectively won the election. "The American people voted on November 7. Governor George W. Bush won thirty-one states with a total of 271 electoral votes. The vote here in Florida was very close, but when it was counted, Governor Bush was the winner. Now, three days later, the vote in Florida has been recounted. Governor Bush is still the winner," he began. Wielding that assumption as his predicate, he attacked the Gore campaign for attempting to "unduly prolong the country's national presidential election," introducing the phrases "endless challenges" and "unending legal wrangling" when the election dispute was all of three days old. Then he attacked the process of recounting itself, particularly manual recounting, saying that "the more often ballots are recounted, especially by hand, the more likely it is that human errors, like lost ballots and other risks, will be introduced. This frustrates the very reason why we have moved from hand counting to machine counting." He stressed the importance of getting "some finality" to the election and accused the Gore campaign of "efforts to keep recounting, over and over, until it happens to like the result." Finally, he argued that a continued struggle over the presidential election would jeopardize America's standing in the world. By November 14, he was tying it as well to the stability of American financial markets.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Baker's equivalent in the Gore camp and someone no doubt unfamiliar with the writings of Foucault (and therefore not having the term discourse at his disposal), referred to Baker's argument about America's standing in the world as a "self-serving myth," and Baker did not raise this canard again. Neither did he again raise the matter of endangering US financial markets.

The next day, November 11, at a press conference announcing that the Bush campaign had filed suit in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida to block the manual recounts requested by the Gore campaign, thus becoming the first of the two campaigns to initiate "legal wrangling" (a number of private lawsuits related to the election had already been filed but none yet by the Gore campaign itself, something Baker took pains to submerge), Baker dramatically escalated his attack on manual recounting. For a number of reasons, it is worth quoting the central paragraph of his formal statement in full:

The manual vote count sought by the Gore campaign would not be more accurate than an automated count. Indeed, it would be less fair and less accurate. Human error, individual subjectivity and decisions to "determine the voter's intent" would replace precision machinery in tabulating millions of small marks and fragile hole punches. There would be countless opportunities for the ballots to be subject to a whole host of risks. The potential for mischief would exist to a far greater degree than in the automated count and recount that these very ballots have already been subjected to. It is precisely...for these reasons that our democracy over the years has moved increasingly from hand counting of votes to machine counting. Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats--and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased. [Emphasis added.]

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