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What Election?

12.19.2000 | POLITICS

On December 11, the Supreme Court heard Bush v. Gore, a case wherein the Democrats put forth a vigorous states rights argument, asserting that the Florida Supreme Court had a sovereign right to order or not order vote recount as it saw fit. The Republicans, not to be outdone, countered with a long argument that asserted the right of the federal judiciary to intervene in Florida's affairs, and urged the court to do just that. It was, on the whole, a rather remarkable sight: the nation's two major political parties, standing before the nation's highest court, and essentially repudiating their basic philosophies of government. A cynical person, watching the whole episode unfold, might wonder just how much those philosophies are really worth.

Of course, a cynical person might be otherwise distracted, given the calvacade of cozy Republican bedfellows who seemed to be ushering George W. Bush into the White House. It began with John Ellis, the Fox News reporter and Bush cousin who on election night first called Florida for the Governor. Ellis, a onetime Boston Globe columnist, had resigned from that paper last year after acknowledging that he found Bill Clinton "loathsome" and could not be objective about George W.'s candidacy (none of this troubled Fox, of course, and Ellis made his Florida call after regularly conferring with George and Jeb).

The fiasco then moved onto Katherine Harris, appointee of Bush's brother and co-chair of W's Florida campaign, who oversaw the recount. Ms. Harris' job, as it turns out, was being abolished at year's end, and one could reason that a Bush partisan looking for government employment might not be the best person to objectively oversee the counting of votes. She disagreed, but in a sign of media priorities was castigated less for conflict of interest than for applying her makeup with a trowel. After a cataclysm of litigation, it all got trundled up to the Supreme Court, where Clarence Thomas (a states-rights advocate whose wife, a Heritage Foundation employee, had spent the past month screening resumes for Bush administration employees) and Antonin Scalia (a states-rights advocate whose son is a partner in the same law firm as Bush's lead attorney) joined a two-vote majority that ended Al Gore's sputtering run for the White House.

So now we wonder if our president is "legitimate." He did not, after all, win the popular vote, and whether he won the electoral vote will be forever shrouded in doubt. This is certainly a pressing issue. The question of legitimacy is real. But it has nothing to do with the nonsense in Florida.

Half of all Americans did not vote. Almost three percent on top of that did not vote for a major party candidate. Bush and Gore battled over 47 percent of the United States, and exit polls, as Jim Hightower has pointed out, show that almost half of both Gore and Bush's votes were cast simply to block the other guy from winning. Al Gore and George Bush, then, each managed to inspire about 12 percent of the country's citizens. Lead on, MacDuff....

Nonvoting has long been an American problem. Most people attribute it to the inward-looking nature of our society, and the myriad private distractions that sequester us from public life. Pollsters have returned countless times with results that show that in good times politics simply doesn't hold the nation's attention--that obligations of work, family, and leisure will always supersede.

But that explanation isn't quite adequate for what happened in 2000. Even in good years, close races usually elevate voter turnout. It is elections whose conclusions seem foregone, such as 1984's massacre of Walter Mondale, or the whomping that Bill Clinton handed Bob Dole four years ago, which tend to depress suffrage. A tight race at least generates interest, and interest brings people to the polls.

In 2000 that sense of urgency was lacking, no matter the efforts of talking heads, spin doctors or other long-winded blowhards. People didn't care. And the lion's share of the blame for this apathy belongs to the Democrats. The real tragedy of this 36-day post-election soap opera is that will give the Democrats the mantle of victimhood, when in reality they buried themselves by burying first those whom they purport to represent. We could call it a 36-day corruption of memory, and one hopes that time will put in proper context where the real betrayal took place. History will show 2000 to be a landmark in electoral jurisprudence, to be sure, but if done justly it will also show this election to be a watershed year for the influence of money in politics.

Put simply, the Democrats came into this year's election facing a choice. After eight years of moving toward the center, they had to decide whether to swing back toward the liberalism their party had historically espoused, or to maintain the centrist position that won them the White House in two consecutive elections. They chose to continue being centrist.

There is an idea that centrism attracts more voters, on the grounds that moderation is more appealing than calls for drastic change. This is fine, but for a liberal party it's an interesting choice, since the idea of centrism is in itself conservative. Drastic change, after all, is unappealing mainly to those who are happy with the status quo. By courting those people, the Democrats were, in effect, courting people who would otherwise be Republican.

It's a marketing strategy, and a difficult one to argue with, because the centrist voting bloc (which is essentially suburbanites--remember the rush for the soccer moms?) is also the consuming voting bloc, and programs which benefit it also benefit a consumption-driven economy. In other words, the more you move to the center, the more money corporations cough up. During the Clinton years, Democratic fund-raising went through the roof, and it wasn't just because Slick Willie is charming (though that helped). Clinton pursued policies that were beneficial to corporations, and most suburbanites, to one degree or another, are part of the corporate economy.

Framed in those terms, being moderate seems a win-win situation. But the Democrats allowed themselves, in their pursuit of the existing market, to believe that the market could not be expanded. Centrist voters make up the majority of those who vote. They do not make up a majority of the country. 100 million people did not vote for president in the year 2000, and according to Harvard University's Vanishing Voter project, a vast majority of those people earned less than $50,000 a year, and most of them far less than that. You can bet, for instance, that the 31 million people who were hungry in 1999 made up a good chunk of the nonvoters. These are the people who do not consume, who exist in the vast obscurity beyond the new economy. They were once the core constituents of the Democrats, but the Democrats gave them up, and gave up on them. They went after money because money wins, and winning is everything.

The less privileged among us have paid a high price for Democratic victory. During the Clinton-Gore years the gap between rich and poor has widened faster than at any other time in history. The death penalty, which is arguably racist and most certainly classist, has been strengthened. Welfare has been gutted. The minimum wage has fallen compared to the cost of living, and trade agreements that depress blue collar jobs have sailed through Congress. The word "poverty" does not even appear in the Democratic platform. This is the apathy of America, and it may someday become its unrest: a growing lower class that watches as people who live in another republic fight over prizes they can never have. Eventually, unsurprisingly, they stop watching. If politics doesn't care about them, why should they care about politics?

Did Al Gore get hosed by the system? Yes. But he was destroyed by something he helped create. He had the chance to change the system, and he didn't. He let money talk, and the Republican money talked louder. He argued with Bush over details and numbers, never over broad philosophies and big ideas. So the people who should have been his voters didn't vote.

You could ask why I blame the Democrats. The Republicans, after all, more virulently support the same policies, raise even more money, more ardently defend the status quo. My answer is that it is difficult for an adversary to let you down--that is what adversaries do. Those who have less never expected help from the Republicans. It was the Democrats who were supposed to be their friends.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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