>Back to the civil rights barricades >What's at stake in Florida is nothing less than the right to vote and to >have it count. And once again an angry, elitist GOP is on the wrong side. > >By Todd Gitlin (from Salon.com) > >Dec. 4, 2000 | What is really driving conservatives wild with selective >indignation? Why did Republicans put aside their law-and-order scruples to >run riot at the Miami-Dade County Building during the on-again, off-again >manual recount the day before Thanksgiving? What drove a Republican Wall >Street Journal columnist to commend this "bourgeois riot" (his words) on >the grounds that conservatives had belatedly learned from liberals that >they had to get tough? > >Why does the National Review cover scream, "Thou Shalt Not Steal"? How is >it, when the diehard opponents of judicial activism are the ones who took >the fast lane to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of George W. Bush, when >the opponents of hand recounts in Florida want a hand recount in New >Mexico, when the sticklers for election law who demand acceptance of >thousands of absentee ballot applications completed by Republican >operatives, that Al Gore is cast as the candidate who will do anything and >say anything to win? Why do both Democrats and Republican faithful now >tremble with rage? > >Repeatedly during the endless 2000 campaign we were told that fat and happy >Americans were indifferent to these candidates whom prosperity drove >helplessly toward the center. We watched rival brands Gore and Bush, forced >to differentiate themselves at the margin, showing off their respective >woofers and tweeters in the form of rival prescription drug plans and the >like. But the core partisans understood that the campaign was not the coded >dumb show the candidates were performing. > >Hardcore conservatives, especially in the reconstituted Confederacy that is >the base of their base, well understood that Dubya was their guy. The press >forgot, but they did not, that Bush was the good ole boy who dropped in at >Bob Jones University and the fella who supported South Carolina's right to >fly the Confederate flag. On the other side, most of the Democratic base, >especially blacks and union voters, however unenthusiastic about Gore, >understood him to be the only alternative to Republican indifference, and >turned out for him with pragmatic glee. > >The campaign took place in front of a curtain, but backstage, behind the >masquerade, the center-leaning "positioning" and the closely guarded talk, >a muted battle was in progress. > >It is muted no longer. It is the latest episode of the social-cultural >civil war of the '60s. It is indeed "a war for the soul of America," in the >1992 words of one of its most passionate exponents (and the unwitting >recipient of thousands of Jewish and black votes in Palm Beach County), Pat >Buchanan. It is back in earnest and with a vengeance. > >It has a lineage. To the right, Gore is Clinton with the polish stripped >away. (No wonder he acts wooden.) To Southern and Western conservatives the >vice president is the Big Green Monster in Waiting, ever and always a >hardcore environmentalist who is soft on labor and liberals (while the left >only wishes that might turn out to be so). The centrist Gore's left-wing >bona fides are confirmed by his association with President Clinton, the >walking, talking personification of everything conservatives hated about >the '60s: the smart-mouthed Ivy Leaguer; the draft-dodging, noninhaling, >minority-loving, gay-embracing, Hillary-marrying sumbitch who got the girls >and had the gall to win the presidency. > >They loathed him long before they or anyone else heard of Whitewater or >Monica Lewinsky. In the early months of 1993, the first days of Clinton's >first term, a right-wing publisher was already selling a calendar called >"365 Reasons to Hate Bill Clinton." They seized chance after chance to >disable him, only to flop. In 1994, Newt Gingrich handed them sweet revenge >by taking back Congress for the GOP, only to overreach badly. Enter >Lewinsky and Ken Starr, whereupon an unscrupulous gang of the right fought >like crazy, scored many points, tied Clinton up in knots, only to lose again. > >The right still hates the Clintons -- and Gore by extension -- with a >virulence that, if it came from the left, would be viewed as felonious. >Just a few weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi was >heard wondering darkly whether Hillary Rodham Clinton would make it to the >Senate -- "she might get hit by lightning" -- just as, after the 1994 >Gingrich victory, Jesse Helms said that if President Clinton wanted to >visit North Carolina, he "better have a bodyguard." > >Right-wingers like Lott and Helms understand, far better than the holdout >left, that the Clintons' centrism was liberalism chastened, liberalism >picking itself off the floor after more than a decade of ignominious >defeat. The Clintonian Third Way was a moderate means to a radical end -- >terminating the Republican dominion that kicked in with Richard Nixon and >solidified with Ronald Reagan, threatening to mire the country in >tax-cutting, deficit-building, anti-government paralysis for decades to come. > >Since Reagan's glory days, of course, it has been downhill for members of >the far right. Sure, they held the White House for 12 years, but couldn't >take Congress, or Hollywood, or the networks, or the universities (not to >their satisfaction, anyway). In 1994, they captured Congress for a man of >the '60s, Newt Gingrich, but still had no president. The wily Clintons >outsmarted them at every turn. Finally, in the affable empty suit of young >Bush, they came upon a candidate who for a time seemed like he could be the >Clinton of the GOP -- sufficiently raffish to make them look like the party >of fun, sufficiently mealy-mouthed to reassure the uncommitted center -- >but in their hearts they knew he was right. They had been thirsting in the >desert for a long time, and at long last they were about to taste the >elixir of revival. The cup was on its way to the lip ... > >Then look what happened. > >No wonder they're furious enough to riot over Florida. So far, they have >turned to the streets in numbers greater than the Democrats. Whatever they >say about the unimportance of Washington, they know perfectly well where >the power is. Talk about entitlement. > >Thus our current passion play. The issues are legal and technical, but the >passions welling up are familiar, fierce, fundamental. We may be tired of >the '60s, but they're not tired of us, because the collision of principles >that took place then is still producing aftershocks. > >For the left, the stakes are evident, or should be: Let the people decide. >This slogan of Students for a Democratic Society was an abstraction, but in >the background was knowledge -- knowledge of the terror and oppression that >befell huge swaths of America when people were kept from deciding their >political fate. What could be more fundamental for a democracy than the >right to vote and to see one's vote count? > >Defending idiotic electoral arrangements, smirking at subliterate Florida >voters (the Weekly Standard's Matt Labash called the agitation about the >Palm Beach ballot "the dance of the low-sloping foreheads"), the partisans >of the right now reveal themselves to be the lovers of oligarchy we always >feared they were. Like the John Birchers of yore, they are essentially >insisting that this is a republic, not a democracy. Against this hauteur, >the left clamors for the right to vote and the right for votes to be >counted. Many pent-up passions collide now. > >Long overdue. We had become rather casual about civic boilerplate, with >roughly half the voting-age population apparently indifferent to the >exercise of the franchise. But the issue of the franchise -- that it be >universally available and authentically tallied -- is bedrock. Not so long >ago, the country trembled because the civil rights movement properly >recognized that the right to vote is a foundation of democratic >self-government. This is not ancient history. Within the lifetime of the >next president of the United States, people took their lives into their >hands for trying to vote. In Florida alone, on Christmas night of 1951, >Harry Moore, the head of the state NAACP, and his wife, leaders of a voter >registration campaign in Jacksonville, were murdered, their house blown up >by a bomb. These murders, along with others throughout the old Confederacy, >were never solved. > >Since Election Day, the NAACP has conducted lengthy hearings in Miami, >mainly out of view of the press, collecting much testimony to the effect >that African- and Haitian-Americans had their right to vote systematically >infringed. Now the Justice Department is belatedly investigating. Newspaper >after newspaper -- on Sunday, it was the Washington Post -- has shown ways >in which the ballot problems that plagued Florida hurt minorities and the >poor far more than the white and affluent. It's clear why the Bush campaign >has resisted all efforts to count Florida votes more effectively: A >computer model used by the Miami Herald shows that if the many >well-documented ballot problems hadn't plagued the state on Election Day, >Gore would have won by 23,000 votes. > >And where Democrats defend the hitherto disenfranchised, Republicans stand >up only for overseas soldiers, some of whose ballots without postmarks >weren't counted. Invoking the military, the GOP makes it seem as if antiwar >demonstrators were once again burning the American flag, all over Florida. >Familiar battle lines are being drawn. > >Although the 24/7 chat shows obscure it, we have returned to a core and >classic political divide between right and left: the question of who >decides. But politicians on both sides have largely booted it. For decades, >political incumbents threw up obstacles in the way of reforming archaic >voter registration laws and procedures. (What, me worry? I'm in office.) >Much lip service was paid to the sanctity of the right to vote, while >ignoring the declining number of voters who chose to exercise it. >Institutions were indifferent. A motor-voter law passed -- finally signed >by President Clinton after two vetoes by Bush pre -- but enforcement >lagged, most of all at the state and local level much beloved by GOP >rhetoricians. This could be the election that confirms what many nonvoters >say when asked why they don't vote: "My vote doesn't count." If it turns >out the apathetic are right, and dutiful voters are wrong, look out, >democracy. > >If it takes seriously the battle cry of democracy, the left, in other >words, has a chance to overcome the pettiness of recent years, the >identity-group infighting, the Nader nihilism, and go to the heart of the >matter, giving Rush Limbaugh and George Will something truly to worry >about. The hand count is the perfect metaphor. The GOP is in the >politically tough position of defending the rights of machines, not people, >to count ballots; of arguing that the convenience of bureaucrats matters >more than the rights of the people when setting election deadlines. But >despite their entitlement, choosing our leaders is not their prerogative, >no more than it was in 1776, or the 1960s. > >Isn't it clear that the patriots are those who refuse to consign power to >either machines or mobs of various descriptions -- the ones who smile >through congressional lobbies, or the ones storming the Miami-Dade County >Building? Isn't it clear that democracy is no idle piety -- that as a >nation we are either committed to it or not? > >Perhaps we tremble a bit now because we sense what is deeply at stake. > >- - - - - - - - - - - - >About the writer >Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York >University, and the author of "The Sixties," "The Twilight of Common >Dreams" and a new novel, "Sacrifice."
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