Bedtime for Democracy

The voting booth has become the abattoir of the national will

Photo by Jack GouldWas that a little wake-up slap or what? Are you sufficiently outraged? If this putsch of an election had happened in a Central American nation, wouldn't we be sending in the Marines right now to restore democracy, at least if leftists had won?

The election outcome reminds me of the tale about the steel-driving competition between John Henry and the steam engine. At the end the contest, John Henry had driven one more spike than the machine, at which point the man fell dead from his exertions. It's an inspiring story about human willpower, if you ignore the outcome of the guy being dead and the machine going on to rule the age.

And we come now to the situation where humans elected Al Gore, but machines made George W. Bush president.

Still trying to sort out what happened in the past two months? Gore won the popular vote in the country, which in a democracy would make him president. Add the few percent who voted for Ralph Nader, and there is a distinct majority of Americans who did not want the man who is now their president. Fair enough: we only got Clinton rather than Bush's dad because of Ross Perot.

But the new president-elect is only that because the electoral college (an outmoded institution with no place in a modern republic) majority was handed to him by voting machines.

The margin of error of the Florida vote-counting machines (3 percent to 5 percent) was greater than the difference between the candidates' vote tallies (.016 percent), begging a manual recount. Gore's people moved to have recounts in Democratic-leaning counties where the voting irregularities were particularly egregious, and Gore graciously offered not to contest any similar recounts Bush might request—an offer rejected because Bush's handlers preferred his being the choice of machine-count error to the uncertainty of an actual tally of citizens' votes.

Among the anomalies Republicans weren't troubled by: thousands of votes miscast in one county due to a confusing ballot, with the detestable outcome that persons who lived through the Holocaust may have mistakenly voted for a man who has downplayed the Holocaust and thousands of black and poor voters disenfranchised by old, faulty voting and tabulating machines. They may not get separate drinking fountains anymore, but they do get separate, inferior voting equipment.

Attempts to redress these wrongs were derided as trying to change the rules after "the game" was over by persons who can't see that this isn't a game, but rather a solemn undertaking thwarted. While they recited the big-lie mantra that the votes had been counted three times, and each time Bush won, they knew tens of thousands of votes were never counted and now only will be counted by historians to help confirm for future generations that the voting booth has become the abattoir of the national will.

Other election-tossing events: even when votes were recounted, Florida's secretary of state, co-chairperson of Bush's Florida campaign, cynically found ways to exclude them. Meanwhile, thousands of absentee ballot applications had been illegally—the law reads "felony" —doctored by Republican operatives. When this went to court, Bush lawyers tried to have one "liberal" judge disqualified on the grounds that she might be biased because Bush's brother Jeb had overlooked her for a promotion. (She wasn't disqualified and ruled in Bush's favor.)

This gets interesting when the decision between Bush and Gore was made for us by the Supreme Court, two of whose members Gore had directly voted against confirming in the Senate. Antonin Scalia, meanwhile, only has two sons working for law firms that work for Bush; one of his son's partners was even the lawyer arguing Bush's case before him. Judge Clarence Thomas, appointed by Bush's dad, has a wife working on the Bush transition team. Recusal anyone?

It's curious, too, to see a states-rights candidate turn to a states-rights court to get them to intercede in a state's laws and to see the court render a sharply divided ruling based on "equal treatment under the law" that seems very concerned with the niggling technicalities of disparities in recount procedures from county to county, while ignoring the rather graver unequal treatment of thousands of votes never being counted at all and the White House going to an unelected president.

Justice John Paul Stevens dissenting comment will ring for years: "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

So what do we do now? Unless there's a domed city in the Marianas Trench where we can go sit out the Bush presidency, we deal with it.

After the Supreme Court decision, I was talking the other night with my old friend Kim, who wasn't facing the prospect of a Bush presidency and a possible quarter-century of Supreme Court obstructionists with a particularly upbeat outlook. She sees the darkness gathering, a return of the Reagan era, of the public slumbering through eight years of cynical greed doped up with Happy Meal public relations.

Well, yeah, having Texas oilmen with CIA ties at the helm when decisive action on global warming and alternative energy is needed isn't a best-case scenario. At a time when world peace hinges on careful diplomacy, we also now have a president with, apparently, a pontoon bridge where his synapses should be. Having one who at least notices he's standing in front of a thicket of microphones before he starts calling people "assholes" would be preferable. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It doesn't look good.

But maybe the Bush Mach II years form the dark, dense planet our democracy needs to curve around—like a space probe—in order to reach maximum velocity. As Nader put it, when the times cry out for activism, whom would you rather have in office: A sedative or an irritant? Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, and I think more people are waking up to that.

Will environmental laws be gutted, and corporations rampage like foxes too long denied the henhouse? Not so easily, I think. Citizens are more wary now, more active. The WTO protests wouldn't have happened in the '80s. Things are getting interesting, and the very fact that an unelected president will be residing in the White House will be a daily reminder of that.

We in Orange County can hope that Newport Beach congressman Chris Cox doesn't wind up with a cabinet post, like Secretary in Charge of Looking Smug.

Bush is coming in under a dark cloud, not with Reagan's "morning in America" mandate. I betcha the economy is going to tank during his watch—not his fault, but because it's riding on speculation—and that's not going to help him. People are going to have many occasions to remember that this president wasn't the one we wanted.

Even people who are crowing now about the Supreme Court decision deep down have to feel how unwholesome it is and will be wary of future extremes. And the Supremes may very well soon have to eat their words on elections and equal treatment under the law, when their precedent is brought up in cases dealing with the racial and economic inequities in our voting procedures, and guess who wins next time as a result of that?

My friend Kim also sees things in terms of dark forces at work, of the same sort of rich, cynical, power-hungry assholes calling the shots that have been doing so since feudal times. With ever-increasing riches and influence continuing to flow to the richest 1 percent, there's a case for that.

But there is also this: they are human, as subject to fear and love as the rest of us, as possibly open to change. They don't want to poison their kids or pack them off to a new Ice Age unless there's enough profit in it. Maybe it isn't that they are doing such a good job of ransacking the planet and spoiling elections as it is that the rest of us aren't doing such a good job yet of convincing them otherwise. It is morning in America, folks; it's just kind of a shitty morning, with no one around but us to make it better.

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