News and Features
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.
For years many of us have called for a national conversation about what it means to be a multiracial democracy. We have enumerated the glaring flaws inherent in our winner-take-all form of voting, which has produced a steady decline in voter participation, underrepresentation of racial minorities in office, lack of meaningful competition and choice in most elections, and the general failure of politics to mobilize, inform and inspire half the eligible electorate. But nothing changed. Democracy was an asterisk in political debate, typically encompassed in a vague reference to "campaign finance reform." Enter Florida.
The fiasco there provides a rare opportunity to rethink and improve our voting practices in a way that reflects our professed desire to have "every vote count." This conversation has already begun, as several highly educated communities in Palm Beach experienced the same sense of systematic disfranchisement that beset the area's poorer and less-educated communities of color. "It felt like Birmingham last night," Mari Castellanos, a Latina activist in Miami, wrote in an e-mail describing a mammoth rally at the 14,000-member New Birth Baptist Church, a primarily African-American congregation in Miami. "The sanctuary was standing room only. So were the overflow rooms and the school hall, where congregants connected via large TV screens. The people sang and prayed and listened. Story after story was told of voters being turned away at the polls, of ballots being destroyed, of NAACP election literature being discarded at the main post office, of Spanish-speaking poll workers being sent to Creole precincts and vice-versa.... Union leaders, civil rights activists, Black elected officials, ministers, rabbis and an incredibly passionate and inspiring Marlene Bastiene--president of the Haitian women's organization--spoke for two or three minutes each, reminding the assembly of the price their communities had paid for the right to vote and vowing not to be disfranchised ever again."
We must not let this once-in-a-generation moment pass without addressing the basic questions these impassioned citizens are raising: Who votes, how do they vote, whom do they vote for, how are their votes counted and what happens after the voting? These questions go to the very legitimacy of our democratic procedures, not just in Florida but nationwide--and the answers could lead to profound but eminently achievable reforms.
§ Who votes--and doesn't? As with the rest of the nation, in Florida only about half of all adults vote, about the same as the national average. Even more disturbing, nonvoters are increasingly low-income, young and less educated. This trend persists despite the Voting Rights Act, which since 1970 has banned literacy tests nationwide as prerequisites for voting--a ban enacted by Congress and unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court.
We are a democracy that supposedly believes in universal suffrage, and yet the differential turnout between high-income and low-income voters is far greater than in Europe, where it ranges from 5 to 10 percent. More than two-thirds of people in America with incomes greater than $50,000 vote, compared with one-third of those with incomes under $10,000. Those convicted of a felony are permanently banned from voting in Florida and twelve other states. In Florida alone, this year more than 400,000 ex-felons, about half of them black, were denied the opportunity to vote. Canada, on the other hand, takes special steps to register former prisoners and bring them into full citizenship.
§ How do they vote? Florida now abounds with stories of long poll lines, confusing ballots and strict limitations on how long voters could spend in the voting booth. The shocking number of invalid ballots--more ballots were "spoiled" in the presidential race than were cast for "spoiler" Ralph Nader--are a direct result of antiquated voting mechanics that would shame any nation, let alone one of the world's oldest democracies. Even the better-educated older voters of Palm Beach found, to their surprise, how much they had in common with more frequently disfranchised populations. Given how many decisions voters are expected to make in less than five minutes in the polling booth, it is common sense that the polls should be open over a weekend, or at least for twenty-four hours, and that Election Day should be a national holiday. By highlighting our wretched record on voting practices, Florida raises the obvious question: Do we really want large voter participation?
§ Whom do they vote for? Obviously, Florida voters chose among Al Gore, George Bush and a handful of minor-party candidates who, given their status as unlikely to win, were generally ignored and at best chastised as spoilers. But as many voters are now realizing, in the presidential race they were voting not for the candidates whose name they selected (or attempted to select) but for "electors" to that opaque institution, the Electoral College. Our constitutional framers did some things well--chiefly dulling the edge of winner-take-all elections through institutions that demand coalition-building, compromise and recognition of certain minority voices--but the Electoral College was created on illegitimate grounds and has no place in a modern democracy.
As Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar argues, the Electoral College was established as a device to boost the power of Southern states in the election of the President. The same "compromise" that gave Southern states more House members by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation (while giving them none of the privileges of citizenship) gave those states Electoral College votes in proportion to their Congressional delegation. This hypocrisy enhanced the Southern states' Electoral College percentage, and as a result, Virginia slaveowners controlled the presidency for thirty-two of our first thirty-six years.
Its immoral origins notwithstanding, the Electoral College was soon justified as a deliberative body that would choose among several candidates and assure the voice of small geographic areas. But under the Electoral College, voters in small states have more than just a voice; indeed their say often exceeds that of voters in big states. In Wyoming one vote in the Electoral College corresponds to 71,000 voters; in Florida, one electoral vote corresponds to 238,000 voters. At minimum we should eliminate the extra bias that adding electors for each of two senators gives our smallest states. As Robert Naiman of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, allowing each state only as many electors as it has members in the House of Representatives would mean, for example, that even if Bush won Oregon and Florida, he would have 216 and Gore would have 220 electoral votes.
Today its backers still argue that the Electoral College is necessary to insure that small states are not ignored by the presidential candidates. Yet the many states--including small ones--that weren't close in this election were neglected by both campaigns. Some of the nation's biggest states, with the most people of color, saw very little presidential campaigning and get-out-the-vote activity. Given their lopsided results this year, we can expect California, Illinois, New York, Texas and nearly all Southern states to be shunned in the 2004 campaign.
§ How are their votes counted? The presidency rests on a handful of votes in Florida because allocation of electoral votes is winner-take-all--if Gore wins by ten votes out of 6 million, he will win 100 percent of the state's twenty-five electoral votes. The ballots cast for a losing candidate are always "invalid" for the purposes of representation; only those cast for the winner actually "count." Thus winner-take-all elections underrepresent the voice of the minority and exaggerate the power of one state's razor-thin majority. Winner-take-all is the great barrier to representation of political and racial minorities at both the federal and the state level. No blacks or Latinos serve in the US Senate or in any governor's mansion. Third-party candidates did not win a single state legislature race except for a handful in Vermont.
Given the national questioning of the Electoral College sparked by the anomalous gap between the popular vote and the college's vote in the presidential election, those committed to real representative democracy now have a chance to shine a spotlight on the glaring flaws and disfranchisement inherent in winner-take-all practices and to propose important reforms.
What we need are election rules that encourage voter turnout rather than suppress it. A system of proportional representation--which would allocate seats to parties based on their proportion of the total vote--would more fairly reflect intense feeling within the electorate, mobilize more people to participate and even encourage those who do participate to do so beyond just the single act of voting on Election Day. Most democracies around the world have some form of proportional voting and manage to engage a much greater percentage of their citizens in elections. Proportional representation in South Africa, for example, allows the white Afrikaner parties and the ANC to gain seats in the national legislature commensurate with the total number of votes cast for each party. Under this system, third parties are a plausible alternative. Moreover, to allow third parties to run presidential candidates without being "spoilers," some advocate instant-runoff elections in which voters would rank their choices for President. That way, even voters whose top choice loses the election could influence the race among the other candidates.
Winner-take-all elections, by contrast, encourage the two major parties to concentrate primarily on the "undecideds" and to take tens of millions of dollars of corporate and special-interest contributions to broadcast ads on the public airwaves appealing to the center of the political spectrum. Winner-take-all incentives discourage either of the two major parties from trying to learn, through organizing and door-knocking, how to mobilize the vast numbers of disengaged poor and working-class voters. Rather than develop a vision, they produce a product and fail to build political capacity from the ground up.
§ What happens after the voting? Our nation is more focused on elections now than it has been for decades; yet on any given Sunday, more people will watch professional football than voted this November. What democracy demands is a system of elections that enables minor parties to gain a voice in the legislature and encourages the development of local political organizations that educate and mobilize voters.
Between elections, grassroots organizations could play an important monitoring role now unfulfilled by the two major parties. If the Bush campaign is right that large numbers of ballots using the same butterfly format were thrown out in previous elections in Palm Beach, then something is wrong with more than the ballot. For those Democratic senior citizens in Palm Beach, it was not enough that their election supervisor was a Democrat. They needed a vibrant local organization that could have served as a watchdog, alerting voters and election officials that there were problems with the ballot. No one should inadvertently vote for two candidates; the same watchdog organizations should require ballot-counting machines like those in some states that notify the voter of such problems before he or she leaves the booth. Voters should be asked, as on the popular TV quiz show, "Is that your final answer?" And surely we cannot claim to be a functioning democracy when voters are turned away from the polls or denied assistance in violation of both state and federal law.
Before the lessons of Florida are forgotten, let us use this window of opportunity to forge a strong pro-democracy coalition to rally around "one vote, one value." The value of a vote depends on its being fairly counted but also on its counting toward the election of the person the voter chose as her representative. This can happen only if we recognize the excesses of winner-take-all voting and stop exaggerating the power of the winner by denying the loser any voice at all.
When George W. Bush spokesman James A. Baker III termed the fight
over the Florida vote recount "a black mark on our democracy," he
couldn't have been more wrong. At the time he said it on Sunday, Bush was
ahead in Florida by a mere 288 votes, and of course the full recount,
required by Florida law, is in order, as a federal judge ruled Monday.
Anyway, since when is political tumult and democracy a bad mix? Never
in our recent history has the vitality of our democracy been on such
splendid display, and it's disheartening that there are so many
frightened politicians and pundits panicked by this whiff of controversy.
What's wrong with a bit of electoral chaos and rancor? The
post-electoral debate over a rare photo finish is just the stuff that
made this country great. People should be outraged if their votes were
improperly counted--the founding fathers fought duels over less.
We have lectured the world about the importance of fair elections, and
we cannot get away with hiding the imperfections of our own system. Not
so imperfect as to require international observers for a full-scale
investigation under UN supervision, yet controversial enough to fully
engage the public. An election that once threatened to be boring beyond
belief has turned into a cliffhanger that is now more interesting than
reality-based TV entertainment. Indeed, it is reality-based TV
Never since John F. Kennedy eked out a suspicious victory over Richard
M. Nixon in 1960 has the proverbial man-in-the-street been so caught up
on the nuances of the electoral process. People who didn't even realize
we had an electoral college are now experts on it. But instead of
celebrating an election that people are finally excited about, driving
home the lesson for this and future generations that every vote counts,
the pundits are beside themselves with despair.
What hypocrites. They love every moment of increased media exposure
for themselves, while darkly warning of the danger to our system. Their
fears are nonsense. What is being demonstrated is that the system works:
Recounts, court challenges, partisan differences are a healthy response
to an election too close to call.
The fear-mongers hold out two depressing scenarios, one being that the
people will lose faith in the electoral process, and the other that
whoever wins the election will be weakened for lack of a mandate.
As to the former, the electoral process has never seemed more vital;
some who voted for Ralph Nader may be second-guessing their choices, and
states such as Florida and Oregon with primitive voting systems will no
doubt come into the modern age, but apathy has been routed, and next time
around, the presidential vote count will be the highest ever.
True, the candidate who finally wins will be weakened. He should be.
An election this close hardly provides the winner with a compelling
mandate, particularly if it is Bush, who may win the electoral college
majority while Al Gore is declared the winner of the popular vote. If
that turns out to be the case, Bush ought to tread with caution.
Compromise is good when not only the President is without a mandate
but so, too, the House and the Senate because of their razor-thin
outcomes. The country has come through eight incredibly prosperous and
relatively peaceful years, so why the rush to march down some new
uncharted course? Later for privatizing Social Security, a huge tax cut
for the super-rich and a $160-billion missile defense system--three mad
components of the core Republican program.
As for the Democrats, with or without Gore as President, it will be
the season for nothing more ambitious than damage control. With Gore, the
main weapon of reason would not be bold new programs that Congress would
ignore, but rather the threat of a veto to stop Republican mischief.
Without Gore, the responsibility will fall on the Democratic minority in
both branches of Congress to engage in a principled holding action
preparing for a congressional majority in 2002.
Odds are that Bush will be the President presiding over a nation that,
by a clear margin in the popular vote, rejected him for Gore. If Bush
wins the office, his challenge will be to prove that the moderate face he
presented during the election is truly his. If it isn't, and he attempts
to be a hero to the right wing of his party, he will wreck the GOP.
Clearly, future political power resides with the vibrant big cities and
modern suburbs, the sophisticated hot spots of the new economy, which
went for Gore, and not the backwater rural outposts that turned out to be
Bush country largely because men remain obsessed with their guns.
Ralph really ran. Against the record of his own faux campaign of 1996, against the expectations even of friends who said he lacked the candidate gene and against the calculations of Democratic strategists who were forced to go from dismissing him to clumsily attacking the Green monster, Ralph Nader mounted a presidential campaign that in the closing days of the election defied the pundits' tendency to consign most third party candidacies to endgame obscurity.
As political players began counting down the hours to voting day, Nader was thrust into the national spotlight by media that had long disregarded his candidacy. The man who had been prevented even from attending three dismal debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush found himself portrayed by a New York Times editorial as the "wrecking-ball" of the postdebate campaign. There was Nader, just days before an election to which he was supposed to have been an asterisk, staring ABC newsman Sam Donaldson in the eye and asking, "Do you think Gore is entitled to any votes? Do you think Bush is entitled? Am I entitled to any votes? We have to earn them. If Gore cannot beat the bumbling Texas governor with that horrific record, what good is he?"
Conscious of the Nader threat in states that had been securely married to the Democrats as far back as 1988 but began swinging in 2000, mainstream environmental and abortion rights groups diverted late-campaign energy and resources to scaring Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin Nader supporters into stopping Bush by abandoning the Green for the Gore. But the a-vote-for-Nader-is-a-vote-for-Bush drive ended up buying Nader millions of dollars' worth of free media attention. And what voters saw was a Nader far removed from the stiff scold who launched his Green bid last winter. After watching Nader joust with news anchors desperately seeking to get him to abandon his critique of both parties and declare some hidden sympathy for the Democrat, conservative commentator George Will was heard asking when it was that Nader evolved into so able a candidate.
Nader's focused, fact-based, unapologetic appearances were no surprise to hundreds of thousands of students, renegade trade unionists, angry family farmers, environmentalists, organic-food activists, campaign finance reformers, dissident Democrats and leaderless Perotistas who packed Nader's "superrallies" from Oakland to Minneapolis to New York City. Those modern-day hootenannies raised some of the more than $5 million with which Nader's campaign hired staff in virtually every state, developed a network of 900 campus coordinators, bought a few television ads and papered every coffee shop bulletin board from San Francisco to Boston with Green literature. For their contributions, those who rallied were treated to inspired performances by Nader backers Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder, crowd-rousing appeals from Jim Hightower and Michael Moore, arguments for a split from the Democratic Party by such progressive icons as Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich, and Nader addresses that bore less and less resemblance to college lectures and more and more to the populist orations of William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette.
On a Friday night in Iowa City, just days before the election, Nader arrived to find the University of Iowa Memorial Union overflowing with more than 2,000 cheering supporters. "The two parties have morphed together into one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup," the candidate declared. The line was dutifully picked up by the Iowa City papers, which, like most local media, lavished front-page coverage on the man drawing some the biggest political crowds of the year. Unfazed by criticism from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and comedian Al Franken, who had appeared in town that day at a hastily scheduled Democratic rally, Nader said, "These frightened progressives say I'm undermining my own legacy of reform. What they don't know is that the Democratic Party has already done it."
Nader was introduced by one of the most prominent Democrats in Iowa, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, who explained, "I have worked for the election of Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman in 1948. I have received three presidential appointments from two Democratic Presidents. I have run for Congress from Iowa as a Democrat. I have served the Democratic Party at every level from local precinct chair to a Democratic National Committee task force. So it's not easy for me, this endorsement of a Green Party candidate. But the corporate corruption that engulfs both major parties has now reached the stage when we cannot afford to wait any longer."
But where does such a leap take Nader backers? If their candidate polls 5 percent or more of the national vote, the Green Party will receive at least $7 million in federal campaign funds. As Election Day approached, however, even some in the Nader camp worried that 5 percent earned at the price of a Gore loss might lead to a damning of the Greens that would make party-building difficult, if not impossible. In the final weeks of the campaign, Nader's closest advisers debated whether to tailor their schedule to states where the race was not close--such as New York, where Gore is a prohibitive favorite--or to return to swing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where a strong Nader could undermine Gore. Pleas from swing-state Nader backers tipped the decision in favor of the go-for-broke strategy--even as vote-trading schemes like www.nadertrader.org promised Nader fans who agreed to trade Gore votes in states like Oregon and Washington for Nader votes in New York and Texas that they could get the best of both worlds: President Gore and 5 percent for the Greens.
But a good many Nader voters were disinclined to become election day-traders. Their enthusiasm had less to do with party-building than with raising a banner of protest and, perhaps, of faith in a vision of democratic participation. In the crucial swing state of Wisconsin, the village of Belleville took a pre-election break for its UFO Parade, an annual commemoration of a supposed Halloween visit by aliens some years back. Bush and Gore backers were no-shows. But there, between the Brownies and the Belleville Dairy Queen, were forty Nader supporters, almost all of them from nearby farm towns. They carried a banner reading ralph nader is out of this world and handed out packets of seeds with a reminder to "plant a seed for democracy on November 7."
Grandmothers grabbed the seeds, children cheered "Nader!" And Dr. Cynthia Haq, the local physician, clapped as they passed. Torn between Gore and Nader, she said, "I know we're supposed to be worried about Bush, and I am worried. But it makes me feel good to see the Nader people. There's something that feels right about voting for what you believe, as opposed to voting against what you fear. I think that's why a lot of people are sticking with Nader--no matter what."
The plane crash that took the life of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan on October 16 appears to have been a disaster for the Democrats, not only in the Show Me state but nationally. "It means we lose any chance of winning the Senate," laments Russell Hemenway, who runs the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), the nation's oldest and most effective liberal PAC. Here's why:
Carnahan was running against GOP Senator John Ashcroft, one of the four Republican incumbents rated as highly vulnerable (the others: Minnesota's Rod Grams, Delaware's Bill Roth and Washington's Slade Gorton). The NCEC expects Democratic losses in Virginia--incumbent Chuck Robb--and Nevada, which has an open Democratic seat. Even if the Democrats hold on to their open seats in New Jersey (a lock), New York and Nebraska (less certain) and pick up the open GOP seat in Florida, without Carnahan that means "we lose two and pick up four, max," Hemenway says. Should Joe Lieberman be elevated to the vice presidency, Connecticut's Republican governor would fill his vacancy--probably with popular GOP moderate Congressman Chris Shays, who'll be hard to dislodge--further reducing the chances of a Democratic majority.
Carnahan was, by all accounts, a pretty straight shooter as politicians go. A Southern Baptist from a small rural town, he was a relentlessly driven officeseeker as he climbed the greasy pole to the Statehouse but not overly gluttonous of publicity once in power, an effective administrator and a cautious centrist--but with flashes of heart. He picked his fights carefully, vetoing a ban on "partial birth" abortions (a veto that the Democratic-controlled legislature, including many Dixiecrats, overrode) and leading a successful campaign to defeat an NRA-backed referendum to permit the carrying of concealed handguns. But Carnahan walked away from this year's Fair Elections referendum to provide 100 percent public funding on the Maine model (while raking in nearly as much soft money for his Senate campaign as Ashcroft). And he refused to meet with representatives of the gay community for most of his tenure as governor.
Ashcroft, on the other hand, is a hard-core cultural and political conservative from Springfield, in the southwestern part of the state (known as the Buckle of the Bible Belt). His father was president of Evangel University there, run by the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal sect known as "holy rollers" for their practice of writhing on the floor while speaking in tongues. A popular governor before becoming senator, Ashcroft was so straitlaced that he banned liquor and dancing from the Statehouse. In 1997 Ashcroft tried to parlay his religiosity into a presidential candidacy, positioning himself as the candidate of the religious right. "He really damaged himself here, because in running for President, he showed just how extremist he really is," says Grant Williams of the state's Service Employees International Union. In a state with 350,000 union members and a rich labor history, Ashcroft has a viciously antilabor record: As governor he tried to pass a right-to-work referendum, and as senator he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the Fair Labor Standards Act by permitting employers to work their wage slaves sixty hours a week with no overtime pay. The darling of business lobbies, Ashcroft has been a master of the cash-for-votes trade: For example, he sponsored legislation to extend for five years the patent on the anti-allergy drug Claritin--a measure worth billions in profits to its maker, Schering-Plough--and two months later pocketed a $50,000 campaign contribution from the company, which earned him a tart St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial branding him "the Senator from Claritin." All this, plus Carnahan's popularity as governor, had made the Senate race a dead heat.
But with Ashcroft now unopposed by a live candidate (it's too late to get Carnahan's name off the ballot), Democrats are scared to death about turnout. To counter the GOP's expected majorities in rural Missouri, especially in the southwest, they'd been counting not only on energized union voters but on a better-than-usual black vote. Ashcroft is perceived, as a leading black state legislator, Rita Days, puts it, "as a racist." Ashcroft led the Senate fight against confirmation for a federal judgeship of Ronnie White, the first African-American member of the state's Supreme Court. In his abortive presidential campaign Ashcroft gave an interview to the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, praising "Southern patriots" like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson and adding, "We've all got to stand up and speak in [defense of their memories] or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda." Last May, he gave the commencement address at and received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University.
But with no possibility of defeating Ashcroft, there's not much to motivate an expanded black turnout. The Democrats have a white-bread ticket for other statewide offices, headed by gubernatorial candidate Bob Holden, the state treasurer, a centrist with a charisma bypass and little visibility in the black community.
Even before Carnahan's death, senior Democrats were describing the party's get-out-the-vote drive as "OK, but not great." Toby Paone, a veteran political op who now works for the state's NEA, explains: "We've been in power eight years--we've gotten too comfortable, there's some apathy. And don't forget that Carnahan had virtually no race four years ago." The liberal former mayor of St. Louis, Vince Schoemehl, says, "Carnahan was the Democrats' firewall--he was going to run 3-4 points ahead of Gore, and Democrats do better downticket when people start splitting their ticket at the top." With Carnahan out, the Democrats could even lose one or both houses of the state legislature, where their majorities are slim (two in the Senate, seven in the House), endangering the party's control over future redistricting.
Moreover, says a veteran Democratic politician, "here the party apparatus is controlled by the governor--they're all Carnahan's people. Now they've lost their leader, they're in mourning, discombobulated." Magnifying this body blow to the party's campaign just three weeks before the election was Gore's aggressive performance in the St. Louis presidential debate. Even though Carnahan and Ashcroft despised each other, in their one televised debate just one day before the plane crash they were very gentlemanly. "I just don't think Gore's debate performance played well at all with Missourians," opines State Representative Steve McKluckie, a leader of the legislature's progressive caucus.
Carnahan was the motor driving the Democrats' Missouri campaign. With that motor now silenced, Gore, too, has much to worry about. And Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election this century save one.
This presidential race leaves an odd sensation among those of us not having a television. Like the much-cited Kennedy-Nixon race, in which the camera was generally thought to have given Kennedy the visual edge, the Gore-Bush debates played very differently with the visuals suppressed. Listening to them, Gore sounded stilted, yes, and Bush sounded unbelievably evasive, no surprises there.
What's more interesting, however, is that the day after the first debate, I found myself unable to understand any of the follow-up commentary in the rest of the media. Matching suits? Jerking? Smirking? Orange lighting? Had Al Gore really been made up to look like Ronald Reagan? Even the now-famous sigh was mostly a visual event--a camera angle, a gesture of exasperation; it hadn't come across at all on radio.
I felt as though I'd missed out on some weird national Halloween party. Who had the best costume? Who won the monster mash dance contest? And who in the world was all this playing to?
I suppose that's why the candidates ended their campaign playing to undecided Missourians. You can't get more middle than that. No one in Harlem, where Gore started his campaign, is undecided. No one at Bob Jones University, where Bush began his, is undecided. And so the race ended with the contestants sashaying down the runway in a mock Mr. America contest, attired like the Blues Brothers in identical suits and ties, each spouting platitudes about education and the moral fortress that is marriage, each playing down differences so as to appeal to the kind of centrist whose taste runs no further to the right or left than boiled as opposed to mashed potatoes.
But as someone who listened rather than watched, I am really shaken by how little attention has been paid to what substantive disagreements there are between Gore and Bush. There was, for example, that revealing moment when Bush was pushed about affirmative action--not the right-wing version that equates affirmative action with quotas, but the actual, conservative version permitted by the Supreme Court. Bush responded with some nonsense about what he called "affirmative access," which as Gore pointed out, has no legal or political meaning. When Bush was asked directly whether he would support affirmative action without quotas, he retorted, "If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it." This was the kind of repeated evasion at which Bush is very practiced, but the kind of evasion that in fact speaks volumes. There are, I repeat, big differences between Bush and Gore when it comes to the issues about which most people are rarely undecided: race, gender, labor and environmental issues.
I suppose that most everyone except undecided Missourians understood that such games were being played in the debates. What worries me is the degree to which the recognition of this as masquerade has made some forget that it is also a game with high stakes. Impatience with the game-playing leads some to want to opt for someone who speaks passionately. But let's face it: Neither Nader nor Buchanan nor any other third party candidate has a prayer of winning this election. That's a mathematical certainty, folks. It's not the world I like--I wanted Bradley. But for now there are two choices given, and one will rule our lives.
We are choosing the world's most powerful leader. It is not an opinion poll, it is not a popularity contest and it is unlikely ever to be the vehicle for launching a progressive revolution. I find it distressing to see polls predicting that Nader voters will help Bush take Washington and Oregon. And I think voters in New York and Massachusetts are naïtve when they say they will vote for Nader because they feel their states are overwhelmingly Democratic anyway, so nothing will be lost if they register a protest vote for Nader. This is an election, not a market survey.
I get alarmed when I hear people say that maybe it will be better for progressives if Bush is elected. What kind of progressive wants a Bush appointee heading up the Office of Civil Rights? A Bush appointee deciding the fate of habeas corpus? A Bush appointee delivering the FDA to biotech companies? And will the progressive revolution occur before or after Bush hands over the last American wilderness to loggers and oil companies?
None of this means that I don't wish we had a wider range of pragmatic options. But I'll express that dissatisfaction by working for campaign finance reform. I'll work to see the infamous case of Buckley v. Valeo reversed (that's the decision that equated speech with money, thus making campaign spending a form of expression protected by the First Amendment). I'll work to see the inclusion of third party candidates in future debates. (And speaking of barring third party candidates from the debates, wouldn't it have been more interesting to have given Missourians who support Nader and Buchanan the chance to grill Gore and Bush?)
I wish all kinds of things were different--that we had more cumulative voting in the United States, that we entertained adopting certain features of parliamentary systems. I too find this offend-no-one, appeal-to-the-middle of a race infuriating. But it's also true that this campaign has been waged like the Gulf War. We the citizenry watch a big screen filled with talking heads holed up in the Baghdad Hilton--or a school auditorium in Iowa--but we must know that real missiles are exploding on the Rush Limbaugh Show or in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post or through the Christian Coalition's televangelized appeals. Within those forums, Republicans are not at all evasive, but mounting a frontal assault that equates public service with corruption, diversity with lowered standards, public schools with race wars, private schools with free enterprise, free enterprise with civil liberty, choice with self-segregation and the segregation of whites from blacks with opportunity. In the end, Pat Buchanan represents very little threat to George Bush because the right is smart enough to know which side its bread is buttered on. This is one heck of a moment for what's left of the left to allow itself to be divided and conquered by wasting a vote.
A new poll has found that strong majorities of Americans have high
levels of interest and concern about a range of issues that are rarely
being discussed in the current political campaign. And on several key
issues where candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore basically agree--the
benefits of international trade and increased military spending relative to
other priorities, for instance--the public does not.
The poll, commissioned by The Nation magazine and the Institute for Policy
Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that:
§ Despite the booming economy many Americans worry about the
disenfranchised: they show concern for the many Americans without health
insurance (91%) and the gaps between rich and poor (74%). An overwhelming
majority (81%) supports an increase in the minimum wage.
§ While both candidates express enthusiasm for the growth of international
trade, a huge majority of voters (83%) wants to see this growth moderated
by other goals--protecting workers, the environment and human rights--even if
this means slowing the growth of the economy.
§ While both candidates are speaking in favor of increases in defense
spending, a strong majority (63%) is interested in the possibility of
redirecting defense funds to education and other priorities.
§ A clear majority considers it "very important"
or "somewhat important" for the candidates to debate some of the foreign
policy issues that are rarely being discussed, such as the comprehensive
test ban treaty (80%) and contributing to international peacekeeping
operations (86%). An equally strong majority (81%) wants the United States
to work with other countries through the United Nations.
"These results suggest a disconnect between the rhetoric of the political
campaign and the reality of public concerns," says Katrina vanden Heuvel,
editor of The Nation.
The poll was conducted in late September by the Center on Public Attitudes
(COPA), an independent social science research center closely associated
with the University of Maryland. It asked questions that had been asked in
previous polls over the last several years by the Pew Research Center; ABC
News; the Center's own Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA, a
joint program with the Center on Strategicl and Internationa Studies at
the University of Maryland); Newsweek; and CBS News/New York Times.
These questions were asked again to see if the current political campaign
has made much difference in public attitudes. Surprisingly, The Nation/IPS
poll found that voter views and levels of interest on these issues are
generally about as strong as they were in mid-1999--even though many of the
issues tested received scant attention during the last 12 months of
"Despite the assurances of politicians that times have never been better at
home and that globally we're in a new era of Pax Americana, we see that a
majority of voters are, in poll after poll, worried by unfettered free
trade, growing inequality at home and abroad, and U.S. unilateralism. They
are out ahead of one or both of candidates Bush and Gore in believing fair
trade is more important than free trade, supporting cuts in military
spending and reinvesting in other programs, and wanting the U.S. to play by
the rules through the United Nations," says John Cavanagh, Director of the
Institute for Policy Studies.
On the eve of the first presidential debate, a new poll has found that strong majorities of Americans have high levels of interest and concern about a range of issues that are rarely being discussed in the current campaign. And on several key issues where candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore basically agree--the benefits of international trade and increased military spending relative to other priorities, for instance--the public does not. The poll, commissioned by The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies, found that:
§ Americans are concerned about the disfranchised, including the many without health insurance (91 percent) and gaps between rich and poor (74 percent). A large majority (81 percent) supports an increase in the minimum wage.
§ Both candidates express enthusiasm for the growth of international trade, but 83 percent of the public wants trade combined with other goals--protecting workers, the environment and human rights--even if it means a slowing economy.
§ Both candidates favor increases in military spending, but a strong majority of the public (63 percent) is interested in redirecting some military funds to education and other needs.
§ A clear majority (80 percent) wants debate on foreign policy issues like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; 81 percent say they want the United States to work with other countries through the United Nations.
Majority views and levels of interest on these issues are generally about as strong as they were in mid-1999, even though many of the issues tested have been out of the spotlight over the past twelve months of campaigning.
The poll was conducted by the Center on Policy Attitudes, an independent social science research center. For full results: www.thenation.com, www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org or www.ips-dc.org. Or call IPS: (202) 234-9382, ext. 258.
To Nader or not to Nader, that is the question. A debate over whether Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a savior or a spoiler has raged for months among progressives. Neither argument satisfies, however, because both are partly right. Votes for Nader instead of Al Gore in a close election really could elect George Bush, with negative consequences for women, minorities, workers and the environment. Yet without Nader, centrist Democrats could bury progressivism even deeper.
Given Nader's remarkable career and the potential of his campaign to build on new movements for fair trade, fair elections and fair wages, the very debate over his campaign reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated electoral rules: Voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. Providing the means to express one's real views and insuring majority rule are basic requirements of democracy. But our current system badly fails these tests.
Fortunately, the British, Australians and Irish have a simple solution: instant runoff voting (IRV). They share our tradition of electing candidates by plurality--a system whereby voters have one vote, and the top vote-getter wins--but they now also use IRV for most important elections. Mary Robinson was elected President of Ireland by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London. The Australian legislature has been elected by IRV for decades. States could implement IRV right now for all federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal law or the Constitution.
IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they also indicate their second, "runoff," choice and subsequent choices. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, the election is over. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. The eliminated candidate is no longer a "spoiler" because the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.
Imagine this year's presidential race with IRV. Nader supporters worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and Gore second. Suppose Bush won 45 percent of first choices in a key state, Gore 44 percent, Nader 9 percent and the rest 2 percent. Under current rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant runoff, his supporters would propel Gore above 50 percent and defeat Bush. Rather than contribute to Gore's defeat, Nader could help stop Bush, while delivering a message to Gore: Watch your step on trade, political reform and the environment.
Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could more easily gain access to the presidential debates, inform and mobilize a progressive constituency and win more votes. Higher turnout and increased attention to progressive issues could move the political center and help Democrats retake Capitol Hill. The Green Party could gain a real foothold. In other words, his campaign would be a win-win, rewarding the energy of young activists, whose belief in electoral politics would be put at risk by a weak Nader performance.
Surveying past elections, it's intriguing to consider what might have been. What would have happened with IRV in 1968, when the anti-Vietnam War movement was left without a champion in the general election and Richard Nixon narrowly edged out Hubert Humphrey? Might Jesse Jackson in 1996 have pursued his proposed independent candidacy, forcing Bill Clinton to justify his moves to the right? What might socialists Norman Thomas and Henry Wallace have achieved in the thirties and forties?
Of course, IRV isn't only for liberals. This year it could have encouraged John McCain to ride his Straight Talk Express over to the Reform Party, and in past years it could have boosted Ross Perot. IRV has no ideological bias, as has been proven by its shifting partisan impact in eight decades of parliamentary elections in Australia. Its virtue for all sides is that it doesn't punish those ready to challenge the status quo.
At the same time, IRV is proving a winning argument for both Democrats and Republicans when they are confronted with potential spoilers. Worried by the fact that strong Green candidacies have split the Democratic vote in two of the state's three House seats, prominent New Mexico Democrats are backing IRV, and the State Senate decided in 1999 to give voters a chance to enact IRV for all state and federal offices. In Alaska the Republican Party, also beset by split votes, has made a sweeping IRV bill for all state and federal offices its number-one legislative priority, and advocates have already collected enough signatures to place IRV on the statewide ballot in 2002. Vermont may hold the most immediate promise. Boosted by public financing, a progressive third-party candidate is mounting a strong challenge in the governor's race, and an impressive coalition from across the spectrum supports IRV for statewide elections. Public financing and IRV are indeed well matched: With IRV, clean-money candidates could run from across the spectrum without inviting spoiler charges.
Cities are also good targets for IRV campaigns. A charter commission in Austin, Texas, has recommended replacing two-round runoffs with IRV. Voters in Santa Clara, California, and Vancouver, Washington, recently approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit option in their charters.
For all IRV's benefits, ours remains a majoritarian system, and minor-party candidates aren't likely to win office much more than under plurality rules. To achieve truly fair representation would require other reforms, such as campaign finance reform and proportional representation for electing legislators. But IRV is the best way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses candidacies--and the debate and participation they could generate. If progressives learn one lesson from campaign 2000, let it be that the next presidential campaign should be conducted under fairer rules. Real democracy needs a rainbow of choices, not the dull gray that results in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the democratic world.
Eased into governance by years and years of conservative ideology, the corporations of America today effectively oversee the Congress, the regulatory agencies and indeed the presidency itself.
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