This election may jolt Americans out of a passive acceptance of civil mythologies.
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.
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.
As rain dances used to serve certain primitive tribes and scripture still serves true believers, the two-party system serves as the religion of the political class. Never mind that more than 50 percent of Americans may not share the civic religion, answering yes to pollsters when asked if they would prefer more than two choices (and that includes many regular voters as well as the bulk of habitual nonvoters). Nevertheless, every new party that has ever tried to establish itself has been treated by the political priesthood as a blasphemer--an evil force that inevitably contributes to the disastrous victory of the more detested of the two major candidates. Perot elected Clinton. Nader elects Bush.
The real culprit in the current election imbroglio is the two-party system itself and the state laws supporting it. These laws exist to discourage new parties. Florida has come in for special attention because of the current crisis, but Florida is typical among states. The beautiful irony is that the laws written to discourage third parties have proved to be a double-edged sword, cutting for the moment against those responsible for the existence of those laws.
Consider first how the laws work against all new parties. It is not Providence that takes an energetic social movement and crushes it as soon as it chooses to advance its goals through elections. It is the laws of the state here on earth that keep the party system on life support by preferring two parties above all others. The key example will be found in the laws of the states and Congress that mandate the single-member district system of representation plus the plurality or first-past-the-post method of election. Another historic example is provided by the "antifusion" laws in all but a half-dozen states, which prohibit joint nomination, whereby a third party seeks to nominate for its ticket the candidate already nominated by one of the major parties. Even the Supreme Court has approved such laws with the argument that having the same name in two places on the ballot would confuse the poor, defenseless voters.
Add to all this the new gerrymandering. Traditional gerrymandering was at least a genuine struggle between the majority parties to dilute the vote power of the other party by concentrating a maximum of their voters into a minimum of districts. The new method takes advantage of the Voting Rights Act by benign race-conscious gerrymandering in order to keep minorities within one of the major parties. In practice, blacks are guaranteed one or more additional Congressional or state legislature seats within the Democratic Party, while Republicans gain strength in districts from which the minority voters are evacuated.
Then there are the countless state laws that prescribe higher thresholds for the number of correct signatures required on third-party nominating petitions than for regulars on two-party ballots. Even the laws that apply equally to all parties are discriminatory, because they are written in such detail that ballot access for third-party candidates requires expensive legal assistance just to get through the morass of procedures. That mind-numbing detail is doubly discriminatory because the implementation of these laws thrusts tremendous discretion into the hands of the registrars, commissioners and election boards, all staffed by political careeristas of the two major parties, whose bipartisan presence is supposed to provide "neutrality with finality"--but it is common knowledge that they can agree with each other to manipulate the laws for the purpose of discouraging the candidacies of smaller and newer parties.
The same principles help explain why less than 50 percent of the electorate turns out to vote. Most of the blame goes to the forbidding proceduralism of registration, enrollment and eligibility and the discretionary power of local and county officials in implementation. And don't forget the gruesome timing of state election laws that restrict voting to one ordinary workday. The duopoly has a stake in low turnout. Virtually all expansion of the electorate (to include women, 18-year-olds, blacks) and the easing of restrictions on registration (judicial enforcement of the "motor voter" law) have been imposed on the state two-party systems from the outside by national social movements and federal courts.
Now, as poetic justice would have it, this legal structure is cutting the other way. Just look at the havoc it has wreaked: Loused-up ballots. Machine versus manual recounts. A lawyers' field day and the threat of court intervention that could cause a constitutional crisis or take Florida out of the electoral vote altogether. The Florida crunch can happen in any state where the results are extremely close and the outcome can change the national results.
That's because the two constituted parties cooperate well as a duopoly so long as market share is stable, with decisive election results. But whenever there is an extremely close election, the two parties become vicious antagonists, and the high stakes make it profitable for each to use its control of the electoral machinery as a weapon of mass destruction against the other. No war is more destructive than a civil war, and ordinarily the two parties have incentives to keep civil war from happening. Civil war in 2000 has broken out because two-party competition has turned from a public good to a public evil. The two-party system has at the moment become a menace to the Republic, made worse by the overwhelming weakness of the parties' presidential candidates and the impossibility of choosing between them when the only way to vote no for the candidate you hate is to vote yes for the one you can barely tolerate. And forget about having a good option when you hate both equally.
With Nader in the race, a lot of things got said that otherwise wouldn't have--no matter that the leading candidates excommunicated him. Making issues out of nonissues is what third parties are about, but those issues obviously did not create the stalemate we now confront. Stalemate is putting the case too mildly; mutual assassination is more like it. The crisis will not end with a certified recount in Florida. The civil war will continue, and the two parties will give us competition literally with a vengeance. Forget about smooth transitions. The FBI won't be ready with its security checks of top appointees, and the Senate will look at them with far greater than average scrutiny, even if the President's party is in the majority, because the Senate is run by sixty antifilibuster votes, not by mere majorities. That will apply in spades to judicial vacancies. Get ready for a Supreme Court of eight, seven, even six members, because as the vacancies occur, there'll be a majority against any nominee, even ones as mushy and fuzzy as President Bush or Gore will nominate. (The Constitution does not require any particular number of Justices on the Supreme Court.)
No exit? We have to turn the civic religion on its head and lionize the principle of a multiparty system, because its presence on a regular and expanded basis would relieve the two major parties of the need to be all things to everyone in order to get their phony majorities. We don't do that by inviting third parties to join the major parties on legal life support--as government-sponsored agencies. We do it by deregulating our politics. Hey, guys, deregulation. If you really meant it all these years, you Republicans and you Democrats, then be honest and deregulate yourselves. Take away the two-party safety net, by legislation and better yet by judicial review, and the democratic revolution can begin.
On Tuesday, November 14, exactly one week after Election Day (and with no President yet in sight), a notable though little-noted disclosure was made to the public. I do not mean the news that the federal judge in Florida had turned down the Republicans' stop-the-hand-count motion, or the news that Bush's lead in Florida was now 388 votes, or the news that a Florida state judge had waffled on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's decree that no county votes would be counted if reported after the 5 pm deadline that afternoon, or, for that matter, anything else that was happening in the murk of the Sunshine State. I mean the news that, according to a poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News, 45 percent of the public wanted George Bush to become President whereas only 44 percent wanted Al Gore to become President (6 percent wanted "neither," 4 percent had no opinion and 1 percent wanted "other"). The claim was all the more striking in view of the hard contemporaneous fact that in the most recent count of the actual vote of November 7, Gore led Bush by a nationwide margin of 222,880 votes.
If anyone ever had doubts that politics in the United States is dominated by polling, this poll should put an end to them. A major poll was, in a manner of speaking, calling the election a full week after the vote--and reversing the known results.
The polls had been mercifully silent since the election. Many had good reason to be. Five of seven major ones had been "wrong" about the outcome of the election. That is, their final counts had failed to reflect the winner on Election Day (though some, it's true, were within the margin of error). The New York Times/CBS "final" poll, which put Bush at 46 percent and Gore at 41 percent, had the margin wrong by more than five points and Gore's final tally off by eight points. The Battleground poll, which gave Bush 50 percent to Gore's 45 percent, likewise got the margin wrong by five points. Others were more modestly in error. CNN gave Bush 48 percent and Gore 46 percent; in the Washington Post it was Bush 48 and Gore 45; and in the Pew Research Center poll (with undecided voters counted), it was Bush 49, Gore 47. Only the Zogby poll, which put Gore ahead in the popular vote by 48 to 46 percent, and a CBS election-morning tracking poll, which gave Gore 45 percent and Bush 44 percent, picked the right winner in the popular vote, and with a margin close to the actual result. All in all, Gore's victory in the popular vote came as a surprise. Of course, it's not literally true that the polls were wrong, since there is a margin of error, and people can change their minds between the day of the poll and the election. On the other hand, election results are the only check on the accuracy of polling that there is--they are to polling what experimentation is to scientific hypothesis--and there is no reason to suppose that a poll whose final measure is 8 percentage points off the election result is not 8 percentage points off year in, year out.
Considering the decisive importance that polling had throughout the race in every aspect of the campaign, including media coverage, fundraising and campaign strategy (in the last few weeks of the election, hearts were lifting and falling on single-point fluctuations in poll numbers), these discrepancies deserved much reflection. The reason they did not get it was that on election night the magicians of public opinion went on to make even more egregious and momentous errors, by prematurely predicting the winner in Florida twice and the winner of the national election once. (The election-night calls made by the television networks, which in turn are based on exit polling done by a single, nearly anonymous firm, the Voter News Service, are not quite the same as opinion polling, since they record a deed--voting--rather than an opinion, but their use of sampling techniques to predict outcomes places them in the same general category as other polls.)
The last of these mistakes, of course, led a credulous Gore to concede the election and then, minutes later, to retract the concession. For a few hours, the networks and the candidates appeared to have assumed the power to decide the election between them. There is every reason to believe, for instance, that George Bush would now be President-elect if, moments before his concession speech, Gore had not got the news that Florida had been declared undecided again. If Gore's concession had gone unretracted, Bush had made his acceptance speech and the country had gone to bed believing it had made its decision, it is scarcely imaginable that the close results in Florida would have been contested. Even now, many observers await a concession by one or another of the candidates as the decisive event. But it is not up to either the networks or the candidates to decide who is to be President; that matter is left under the Constitution to the voters, whose will, no matter how narrowly expressed, must be ascertained.
Then a week later, the polls that had played such an important and misleading role in the election were weighing in again, this time on the Florida battle. The poll that brought the startling, seemingly counterfactual news that Bush led Gore in the public's preference also revealed that six out of ten voters were opposed to legal challenges to the Florida results--possibly bad news for Gore, who had been considering a legal challenge to the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County. However, observers who did not like that conclusion could find comfort on the same day in a New York Times/CBS poll, which reported that another 6 in 10 were unworried about a delay in finally deciding upon the next President--good news for Gore, who had been relying on time-consuming hand recounts to erase Bush's narrow lead.
If, however, the arts of reading public opinion helped get us into our current mess, perhaps we can take comfort from the hope that they can also help us get out of it. Many observers have suggested that by failing to produce a clear mandate, the ever-changing vote-count of the year 2000--let's call it the Butterfly Election--will cripple the presidency of the winner. They need not worry too much. In our day, it is not only--perhaps not even mainly--elections that create mandates, once every four years. It is polling data that, day in and day out, create our impressions, however incompletely or inaccurately, of what the public wants. Let the new President act in a way that the public approves, as determined by a poll or two, and he will have all the mandate he needs to govern.
While Bush says counting votes by hand's unfair,
Gore gains--a bubbe here, a zayde there.
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.