Bush v. Gore may have superficially resolved a short-run political crisis, but it has triggered a deep intellectual crisis.
We shall see very little of the charmingly simian George W. Bush—the military—Cheney, Powell et al.--will be calling the tune, and the whole nation will be on constant alert.
The election reveals a deep need for voting reform.
Some debatable assumptions underlie their use by the press.
The Supreme Court was determined to make George W. Bush the winner of the election.
I write from shipboard, on the Nation cruise. The boat has just pulled away from port and chugs toward the horizon, leaving land behind. We are fourth in a line of cruise ships departing the harbor at sunset, all glittering in a blaze of orange and pink and turquoise. I look back at the shore and think: America. What a beautiful, rich, blessed land we live in. What more than the land itself could Coronado and Ponce de León have been seeking? Why gold? Why youth? Why even piña coladas? The pure pleasure of this place ought to have been enough.
And yet... it is a mixed sensation, for I am also relieved to see the land receding just now, suspended as we are in the tense limbo of this, the first week of December 2000. It is good to leave behind Rush Limbaugh's meanspirited radio transmissions, the foaming attacks on Jesse Jackson, the use of insulting stereotypes of black people to attack Al Gore and Bill Clinton. It is a relief to take a break from the contemptuous public disrespect for the function of courts, the role of lawyers, the intentions of voters, the requirements of process. As Florida slips beneath the horizon, and CNN's signal crackles and grows fuzzy, I feel like a black-single-mother version of Henry David Thoreau, only standing at the brink of a much bigger and much deeper pond: "To me, away there in my bean-field at the other end of the town, the big guns sounded as if a puffball had burst; and when there was a military turnout...I have sometimes had a vague sense all the day of some sort of itching and disease in the horizon."
What a time we live in. On November 7, I stayed up late like everyone else, listening to National Public Radio on my Walkman. I fell asleep with the headphones on sometime in the wee hours of November 8, exhausted by the flummoxed newscasters' frantic flips and flops. Gore was winning when I lost consciousness. When I awoke hours later, the tinny sound in my ears had changed: A sneering, gleeful voice was making fun of Florida's elderly and "NEEE-gro" voters. I lay frozen. What I didn't know was that NPR is only a hair's bandwidth away from The Howard Stern Show and that in my sleep I had apparently flipped and flopped as much as the results, enough to move the dial a fraction. So it was that my first waking thought was: "Dear God, George Bush won, and they've taken over NPR. The revolution has begun."
It's been all downhill from there. Over the days and weeks since, we have witnessed an eerily exact re-enactment of the tie that led up to the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1876, as a result of which the federal government pulled troops out of the post-Civil War South. This in turn led directly to the collapse of Reconstruction and the vengeful reassertion of that brand of separatist white supremacy so vividly depicted in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
In the weeks since, we have heard George Bush say that it's the executive's job to interpret the law, an idea that Augusto Pinochet surely would endorse. We have watched another Ryder truck (remember Timothy McVeigh?) make its way into the annals of American history. We have shared yet one more "O.J. moment," as Floridians lined the streets to watch the truck speed by, cheering, hooting and taking photos. And given that America's most precious natural resource turns out not to have been gold but rather the entertainment industry, we have been graced with enough material from which to spin conspiracy plots for years and years to come. I see blockbusters like Elián's Revenge, Jeb Jimmies the Lockbox, and of course, The South Shall Rise Again.
In the weeks since November 8, my cruel British friends have had a field day. So soon after the last fiasco, so soon after the spectacle of the Inquisition-style moralists who tried to impeach Bill Clinton, I find myself explaining American peculiarities yet again to the exceedingly upbeat English. They twitter on in the most condescending way about former colonies that simply aren't ready to govern themselves. I try to be serious and explain the Electoral College. They say they are quite informed about American history, thank you very much, and could I please explain why only three-fifths of Florida's electorate was counted while at the same time three-fifths of the people who have declared George Bush a winner are related to him? Is it fuzzy math or fuzzy brain that keeps Americans from noticing that Bush's margin of victory is about the same as the number of people he has executed in Texas?
"You lot got your knickers in quite a knot this time, eh?" gloat the Cruel British Friends.
"A real atomic wedgie," I concede.
In the postelection weeks, my sleep has been troubled by strange visions. I dream that Al Gore and George Bush are standing in the ring at Madison Square Garden, Gore bouncing up and down in his Harvard boxing shorts and nice new leather gloves, Bush trying to look presidential while wearing a Hell's Angels vest, swinging a chain and hiding a switchblade.
Another night I dream that Bush is President, and, first thing, the neural pathways for Croatians and Koreans get crossed in his brain. He ends up thinking they're all "Corians" and while his advisers are out finding floor samples, he drops bombs on the nearest thing he can find on a map--which would be those poor doomed Grecians. World War III breaks out, world markets plunge and the sublimina-limina-lominable hordes sweep down from the north, south, east and west.
Other times I dream I am arguing before the Supreme Court, and Bush appointee Kenneth Starr is our new Chief Justice. The United States Constitution is a jewel, I say, whose multifaceted brilliance takes time, polishing and the infinite honing of years of courtroom argumentation by the finest minds dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, blah, blah, blah. The dream always ends with just that: blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, back onboard the Nation cruise, I turn my attention to preparing my remarks for the first morning's panel, titled--I restrain myself from comment--"The Nation At Sea: Where Are We Headed?" I furrow my brow and chew my pencil. I stare at the blank white paper. "Paris," I write at last.
The election results reveal what may be an "emerging progressive majority."
It took George W. Bush a matter of days--if not hours--to prove that he doesn't believe his own different-kind-of-Republican rhetoric and that he is leading a squad as loaded with partisan hacks as the other team. He doesn't trust the people--at least, the people of the recount counties who want to make sure every chad counts. (The Bush-league spin that manual recounts are less accurate than Ouija boards was demolished by computer scientists and voting-machine experts, who maintain that well-managed hand counts are without question more accurate than machine feeds.)
Bush also shows his promise to be a unifier, not a divider, to be counterfeit. Relying on the impression created by the networks' false projection of him as the victor--a call first made by his cousin the vote projector at Fox News--Bush and his lieutenants portray every move that works against them in Florida as part of a conspiracy to "steal" the election from the rightful winner. This is the way to foster unity and healing? The Bush camp then played an ugly card by accusing Democrats, who were following the traditional practice of carefully vetting overseas absentee ballots, of seeking to disfranchise the men and women of the armed forces. What of the men and women who serve as firefighters, inner-city teachers and ER nurses in the disputed counties--did the Republicans care about registering their votes?
Al Gore was pegged as the candidate who would say or do anything to win, but clearly Bush is willing to do whatever it takes to score in Florida. Yes, the Democrats assaulted Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, but imagine the fury of Republican spinmeisters if a Democratic state official tied to the Gore campaign had voided a Bush-requested recount.
Given the closeness of the election and the rampant problems with vote-counting in Florida and elsewhere, neither Bush nor Gore can be a clear winner. A system of counting 100 million votes cannot be expected to be accurate to within 0.001 percent. But beware the drawers of lessons, those voices from on high who pronounce this split decision a mandate for centrism. Both candidates ran toward the center, and neither achieved a majority. (If one combines the Ralph Nader and Al Gore vote, there's a 52 percent center-left majority; but given the differences between Goreism and Naderism, could that be a workable majority?) Moreover, campaign centrism again failed to inspire most Americans. Nonvoters outnumbered Gore or Bush voters. Under such circumstances, a pundit-approved mandate would be a figment of the political class's imagination. With roughly half of Americans choosing not to choose, the winner can claim only slightly less than one-quarter support. Had Bush or Gore won by 5 percentage points, he still wouldn't have a popular mandate.
The no-decision election of 2000 may result in sorely needed electoral reforms. But will it convince the next President and the pols to rethink the notion that the center is all? Doubtful: The sad fact is that even more than in previous years, the winner of Campaign 2000 will no doubt be fixated on his re-election as the way to legitimize his very iffy win--and re-election mania breeds caution. After this contest, it's likely that the permanent campaign will become even more permanent. The election of 2000 will very possibly not be settled until 2004.
There's been a lot of talk in recent days about "disfranchisement." Jesse Jackson has invoked memories of the bloody battles for voter registration in Selma; elderly Jews in Palm Beach, upset that they might have voted for an anti-Semite, have sworn that they were "disfranchised" by a butterfly ballot. The Republicans have lamented the disfranchisement of overseas soldiers for want of a postmark. Even the justices of the Florida Supreme Court got into the act.
The rhetoric is overblown, but there is a point: One byproduct of our election-turned-lawsuit is the revelation of the many ways people can be prevented from voting and having their votes counted. Thanks to the spotlight on Florida (focusing beams elsewhere as well), we now know that it is routine for states and counties to toss out tens of thousands of ballots because they are imperfectly marked; for countless people to arrive at the polls to find that their registration forms have been lost; for voting machines to have error rates that would be unacceptable in the grading of SATs.
The most extreme case is outright legal disfranchisement. Since the dramatic advances in voting rights of the 1960s, straightforward legal barriers apply only to two large groups of adults: noncitizens and felons. Noncitizens, numbering 15 million, have not always been excluded from the franchise, but the last state to allow aliens to vote (Arkansas) did away with that practice in the 1920s. Although a few communities permit resident aliens to vote in local elections, there has been a notable absence of debate in the United States (in comparison with Europe) on the proposition that people should be able to vote where they live and work.
Felons are permanently disfranchised in some states and temporarily barred in most others. (On November 7 Massachusetts brought a long, progressive history to an end by voting to disfranchise convicted felons.) Disfranchised felons and ex-felons now number roughly 4 million, most of them black or Hispanic. The link between the commission of a crime and the deprivation of political rather than civil rights has always been tenuous, and the constitutional legitimacy of such laws resides in a dubious interpretation of a phrase in the Fourteenth Amendment that tacitly permits the states to deprive men of the right to vote because of their participation in "rebellion or other crime."
Voters can also be prevented from voting (or having their votes counted) because they are tripped up somewhere along the elections-procedure obstacle course. In most states, advance registration is required; in many, no voting cards are issued, and (as happened in Illinois and elsewhere this year) people who thought they had registered at motor-vehicles bureaus discovered on Election Day that their registration was never recorded. Ballots are sometimes bewildering, assistance at the polls is scarce and problematic, and polling places migrate, often without notice.
In some states, it can be difficult, or even impossible, to vote for a candidate who happens not to be a Democrat or a Republican. In North Carolina, for example, Ralph Nader was not on the ballot (because he lacked enough signatures on a petition last spring), and write-in votes for Nader were not counted because he was not an "official" write-in candidate. (Since that fact was not advertised, many people did write in his name and had their ballots thrown away.) Meanwhile, the Electoral College dilutes the presidential votes of large-state residents, and minority voters are still subject to harassment in parts of the South.
This unhappy state of affairs has complex origins. Some of our institutions, such as the Electoral College, were created in an era when there were few believers in democracy. Many regulations date to a resurgence of antidemocratic sentiment in the late nineteenth century, a time when the two major parties colluded to suppress the threat of third-party insurgencies and when complex registration schemes were adopted both to minimize fraud and to reduce the electoral participation of blacks and immigrant workers. Over the past century, election rules have been forged through partisan rivalry, with spells of conflict ending truces and compromises that permitted the parties to mobilize their most loyal voters while imposing burdens on everyone else. That's how we ended up with Republican officials correcting the absentee-ballot forms of their voters, while their Democratic counterparts were instructing voters in Duval County (erroneously) to put a punch on every page. So much for the voice of the people.