There's an easy way to take your own pulse, and that of anyone you know, concerning the vertiginous events of the night of November 7. Was the apparent non-outcome really a "mess" or a crisis? Or was the pre-existing system a sordid mess and a crisis waiting to happen? If you choose the second explanation, then the meltdown of all the fixers and self-appointed gatekeepers and pseudo-experts, as well as being a source of joy, is also an unparalleled opportunity, an occasion for a long-postponed national seminar on democracy and how to get it.
At the very beginning of the election season, when it was already obvious that the soft-money forces had decided they had everything wrapped up, I wrote a column calling for international monitors and observers to come and certify whether this "process" could be described as free and fair ["Our Rigged Elections," November 15, 1999]. I specifically cited the untrustworthiness of computerized voting machines, the limiting of ballot access, the disfranchisement of those with felony convictions, the role of bribery in the selection of mainstream nominees and the denial of access to the media for alternative parties or viewpoints. I also mentioned the Electoral College racket. This whole undemocratic shambles is now, if we are lucky and also voluble, discredited beyond any chance of repair.
Look what Gore and Lieberman did, in "normal" conditions, to try and win Florida. The Vice President sided with fanatics and kidnappers in the Elián González affair and encouraged local and state officials to defy the federal courts. Senator Lieberman, a week or so before the vote, went to collect some dough from the Cuban-American National Foundation and then laid a wreath on the grave of Jorge Mas Canosa, one of Miami's most notorious mobsters. Meanwhile, an appalling number of adults--disproportionately African-American--are deprived of the vote because Florida disfranchises those guilty of nonviolent narcotics offenses. And earlier challenges to the tampering with computerized voting machines were stonewalled by the local DA--one Janet Reno. These banana-republic conditions were all shrugged off as irrelevant by most Democrats and many liberals, because the main thing was to "get out the vote" for Gore, and the only alternative was Bush. But the fools, the fools, the fools... they reckoned without about 95,000 free and independent-minded Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader. And as a result, Gore and Bush have both lost, and have both been exposed as the ciphers that they are, and if we are lucky there will never be an "election" like this one--a $3 billion disinformation campaign--ever again.
It has been disgusting to see and hear the thuggish remarks made by those who were quite content with that "normal" status quo, and who vilify Ralph Nader for doing exactly what a radical is supposed to do, namely, challenge the assumptions of the system. The authoritarian intolerance of some Democratic hacks has been insufferable. Pat Buchanan with his likely 1 percent was just as capable of inconveniencing the GOP in a close contest, but I did not read one conservative or Republican call for his withdrawal, let alone any attacks on his right to run. A few liberal dolts have been going around saying in an ominous manner that they "won't forget" what Nader did; well, guess what? Some of us won't be forgetting the Stalinist mentality of those same dolts, either.
Nader can't be blamed for the Democrats' wretched lack of success in Congressional races (or, of course, he would be), but at least we can look forward to a delicious period of stalemate on the Hill. The interval should be employed in pouring through the door that Nader has forced open. The Electoral College system should be scrapped, even if Mrs. Clinton does suddenly say so. The Oregon system of voting by mail should be adopted, allowing for a transparent "count" and also demolishing the unelected and arrogant exit-pollsters. Restrictions on ballot access for third parties should be removed. The presidential debates "commission" will probably be destroyed by Nader's pending lawsuit, but corporate sponsorship of party conventions should likewise be confronted and done away with. Soft-money crooks should be prosecuted and jailed. Poll-tax type restrictions on the franchise should be challenged state by state. The institution of runoff voting, already advocated by many Greens and others, would undermine the already rotten two-party duopoly and remove the grotesque arrangement whereby a third-party vote can "objectively" only benefit the individual voter's least-desired candidate.
It wasn't just the ballot-deprived ex-felons who were in a "prisoner's dilemma" all this year. Every thinking person was told, day in and day out, that any independent exercise of the mind or the imagination, let alone of the franchise, would lead to the worst possible result. The New York Times in three bilious editorials even inverted the customary Voltairean cliché, disagreeing not so much with what Nader said as with his right to say it. Consensus criticized became consensus hysterical.
As the complacent victor in the cold war, the United States managed to avoid its own period of glasnost and perestroika. The opportunity to inaugurate such a moment now presents itself. But even this chance would have been hopelessly missed if a few hundred thousand electors had not decided to ignore or defy the routine, dogmatic propaganda of lesser-evilism, that lifeless, brainless mantra of an expired system. As I write, we may yet be looking at President Bush, who failed his first test of statesmanship--peevish, rattled, spoiled, inarticulate and stupid-looking--even before he started. His rival--don't let's even start on his rival. Both these failed salesmen believe in a government of lawyers, not men. But now they, the shoddy product of their anonymous backers and donors, look like the exhausted, broken puppets that they always were. If they were not such pygmies, we would be justified in calling Ralph Nader a giant-slayer. It's now up to us to insure citizenship and self-government, where neither pygmies nor giants will be necessary.