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Deconstructing the Election | The Nation

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Deconstructing the Election

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Thus did a Republican Party strategy to delay the manual recounting of votes in Florida as long as possible finally achieve its goal by furnishing the rationale for a conservative Republican Supreme Court majority to stop the recount process there for good. Thus did a Supreme Court majority that had been pursuing an aggressive states' rights jurisprudence prior to this decision intervene in a matter of state law in a heavy-handed and unprecedented way; in a category of dispute, furthermore, whose ultimate resolution the US Constitution unambiguously gives to Congress; and in a situation, finally, that even a modicum of "judicial restraint" would have called for it to avoid. Thus did a group of conservative Republican judges--unelected judges, to use a well-worn Republican refrain--choose the Republican candidate for President over the Democratic one, rather than the voters of Florida or the American people. Thus was James Baker's discourse--his "regime of truth"--finally imposed.

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

A further irony here is that the behavior of the Democratic judges who were involved in the Florida presidential election struggle overwhelmingly refuted Republican predictions of reflexive ideological bias. County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, a Democrat, twice ruled in favor of Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the first time upholding her enforcement of the certification deadline of November 14, the second time upholding her decision to declare a winner without including any hand recounts. Circuit Judge Nikki Clark, who handled the lawsuit involving the question of whether to throw out some 15,000 absentee ballots in Seminole County because of technical violations of the law by Republican canvassing board officials and operatives, had been particularly impugned by Republican commentators. She was black, she was a former legal aid attorney, she was not only a registered Democrat but had been an aide to the state's former Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles, and she had recently been passed over for a promotion by Governor Jeb Bush. But in the event she ruled decisively against throwing the ballots out, as did her fellow Democratic judge who handled a similar case concerning absentee ballots in Martin County. The November 16 decision of the Florida Supreme Court, all Democrats except one independent, to allow manual recounts in Palm Beach County (and tacitly allow the effort already under way in Broward County to continue), was unanimous; but the December 8 decision ordering manual recounts of all the undervotes in the state was a 4-3 split, and the court unanimously upheld virtually all the lower court decisions that went against Democratic interests, with the single exception of the finding by Circuit Court Judge Sauls rejecting the Gore campaign's contest. (Sauls, advertised as a Democrat, is actually a Republican appointee who switched registration from Democratic to Republican, and has run as a "nonpartisan" candidate for re-election in Democratic Leon County.)

"What must underlie petitioners' entire federal assault on the Florida election procedures is an unstated lack of confidence in the impartiality and capacity of the state judges who would make the critical decisions if the vote count were to proceed," Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent in Bush v. Gore. "Otherwise, their position is wholly without merit. The endorsement of that position by the majority of this Court can only lend credence to the most cynical appraisal of the work of judges throughout the land." [Emphasis added.] According to a January 22 article in USA Today detailing the lingering bitterness between the two opposing factions within the Supreme Court over the Bush v. Gore decision, at an election night party on November 7, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor became "visibly upset" when network anchors first awarded the state of Florida to Al Gore. The story went that her husband was heard explaining the couple wanted to retire and that his wife preferred that a GOP President appoint her successor. The paper said that people close to the Justices had confirmed the essence of the story (which was also reported in the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek). Justice O'Connor, it would seem, experienced difficulty rising above her circumstances.

I am not an adherent or admirer of the theories of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Stanley Fish or their associated movements. On the contrary. I received my education before these theories came into vogue, at a time when it was still commonly if not universally assumed on campus that the purpose of academic study was to acquire useful and verifiable knowledge in a variety of fields, not excluding literature and politics (my two fields of study). I personally believe that literary texts, while they can (and will, if they are any good) have subtleties and profundities and even contradictions that will stubbornly resist one-dimensional analysis, do have meaning--and that the better the writer, the clearer that meaning is. I believe that while the world and human nature are infinitely complex, there is, within limits, such a thing as objective truth. Since first hearing of the ideas of deconstruction and Foucault, I have counted myself among their skeptics and detractors.

So I did not undertake to write this essay to demonstrate, as it might seem, that the Republican War for Florida in all its aspects--in its ideology, in its concrete actions and, perhaps above all, in its success--lends credibility to these theories, though it has been most interesting to discover the extent to which it does. No, I am far less interested in the remarkable symmetry between what happened in Florida and the theories of Foucault and Derrida about how history and the social construction of reality work, than I am in the stunning asymmetry between Republican Party statements and actions there and the professed ideological principles of American conservatism.

In Florida, to win the presidency, the Republican Party betrayed what its intellectual spokespeople allege are among conservatism's highest ideals. To discredit the manual recounting process that they feared would result in the election of Al Gore, Republican representatives like Jim Baker propagated, in effect, the doctrine that human beings are incapable of being fair and objective in their interpretations of reality. To discredit judicial decisions that went (or simply might go) against their interests, they propagated, in effect, the doctrine that law does not have even a dimension of neutrality or disinterestedness but is from beginning to end an exercise of raw political power in disguise. Both of these are doctrines that their intellectual spokespeople like Lynne Cheney claim to oppose and despise--doctrines that according to her, are nothing less than "an assault on Western Civilization." And, to compound the moral dilemma they were creating for themselves and their movement, these representatives proceeded to conduct themselves in ways that lent support to the validity of these same cynical, anticonservative doctrines. A party that for a long time has professed adherence to principles of states' rights and judicial restraint played federal judicial intervention as its trump card to insure the election of its candidate. Will it ever be possible, in our generation anyway, to take its intellectual pronouncements seriously again?

As a proximate result of its relentless War for Florida, America's conservative party has taken control of the presidency and all the powers attendant on that office. We shall see what comes of that. But as another, perhaps longer-lasting result of that implacable war, the intellectual and moral pretensions of contemporary American conservatism lie in tatters, like so many discarded chads on the floor of a county canvassing board meeting room.

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