The Empire Has No Clothes The Globe & Mail, December 15, 2000 America has been the world's democratic role model until this election stripped our illusions and revealed the naked lust for power that passes for politics by Todd Gitlin Canadians may reasonably wonder whether Americans have gone smash out of their minds. In recent weeks the same question has been frequently posed by chad-addled Americans themselves, as they struggled to invoke the sense of downright weirdness that poured over the land. Some high- (or low-) lights: The selfsame scion of a blueblood political family who insisted that he "trusted the people" and not "Washington" delegated as his power- brokers his father's former secretary of defence, his father's former secretary of state and campaign manager, and, as his future chief of staff, Washington's top auto-company lobbyist and servant of the globe- is-not-warming brigade. A tribune of "progressivism" declared that a government headed by two men from big oil companies who are unconvinced the globe is warming would be no different than a government headed by a man who had tried, and failed, as Vice-President to impose an energy tax against the unremitting opposition of oil companies and their hired representatives in the Republican Congress. Misled and bewildered, unable to get the on-site help guaranteed under the law, Palm Beach County Jews cast thousands of ballots for the most anti-Semitic presidential candidate of the century. To cap it all, fervent defenders of states' rights appealed not once, but twice, to the U.S. Supreme Court in far-off Washington, where steadfast self-proclaimed proponents of judicial restraint shut down Florida's hand vote-count, a count that had been ordered by Florida's own Supreme Court, claiming that this legal exercise in democratic procedure was perpetrating "irreparable harm." Conservatives lauded the Rehnquist Five for daring to stand up for equal protection of the law to shut down a partial recount when it was the Bush camp that had steadfastly resisted a full state-wide version. "Rarely," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting (and conspicuously not taking the traditional trouble to do so "respectfully"), "has this Court rejected outright an interpretation of state law by a state high court." This rarity was the measure of what was at stake. Power was at stake. It was, it always was, as simple as that. The comedy is not that the country took so long to produce a president-elect, but that the establishment's post facto rituals of reassurance will, for a time, persuade some Americans, while to others these rituals are laughably transparent. What matters is a tragedy: The Supreme Court judged George W. Bush's risk of "irreparable harm" more significant than voters' risk of not getting their ballots counted. Five justices declared that time had run out for democratic procedure, after the Bush team did everything they could to run out the clock, appealing to the federal courts, stopping the vote every time they could, blasting Mr. Gore for availing himself of legal rights to protest and contest the results, whereupon the justices were shocked, shocked to discover that there was no time to count all the votes. "The majority effectively orders the disenfranchisement of an unknown number of voters . . .," wrote Justice Ginsburg. There is the nub of the matter: disenfranchisement. This is the real drama: The rest is smoke and mirrors. One achievement of the recent passion play is the revelation (not nearly well enough reported) of evidence of violations of law and democratic practice on a tremendous scale in Florida and elsewhere before, on, and after election day. Before election day, many Florida voters' names were purged"cleansed" is the nice word used by the Republican-run company hired by the State of Florida, with Katherine Harris, Bush delegate, presiding over frequently false claims that they were felons and thus ineligible to vote. On election day, many eligible Florida voters found their names missing from the registration rolls. African-American precincts were saddled with obsolete voting and list-checking machines, while white districts had state-of-the-art laptops to smooth their way. This was segregation by technology. Some were stopped on the way to the polls on pretexts all too familiar from the long history of racial oppression in the South. Haitian Americans, promised Creole translators, did not get them. Later, in Miami, a vote count in progress was shut down by a "bourgeois riot" the term of choice in the Wall Street Journal, including prominently Republican officials who jetted down from the North. Now the bourgeois rioters take power behind a screen of bipartisanship. Repeatedly during the endless campaign we were told that fat and happy Americans were indifferent to these candidates whom prosperity drove helplessly toward the centre, so that rival brands Gore and Bush were 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. Hard-core 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 Jr. 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. Behind the masquerade, there is a muted war going on. It is the latest episode of the social-cultural civil war of the Sixties. It is, indeed, "a war for the soul of America," in the 1992 words of one of its most passionate exponents and unwitting recipient of thousands of Jewish votes in Palm Beach County. It is back in earnest and with a vengeance. On one side, Mr. Gore is Bill Clinton with the polish peeled away. (No wonder he acts wooden.) Mr. Clinton is the walking, talking personification of everything conservatives hated about the Sixties: the smart-talking, Ivy-Leaguing, draft-dodging, non-inhaling, person-of-colour-loving, gay-embracing, Hillary-marrying, sumbitch who not only got the girls, he had the gall to win. And on the other side, in the person of the easy-schmoozing, empty suit George W. Bush, a candidate sufficiently rightish to gladden their hearts, and sufficiently raffish to make the Republicans look like the Party of Fun, but at the same time sufficiently mealy-mouthed to win, their very own Bill Clinton. They had been hungry for a long time, and at long last they were about to sup. The cup was on its way to the lip. Then look what happened. No wonder they pulled out the stops, the states-righters in the Supreme Court riding in at the last minute, a naked cavalry, shedding their robes of judiciousness to intervene against, a vote count. The Court divided on a question of principle. What could be more fundamental for a democracy than the right to vote and to see one's vote count? For five justices, order, Republican order. For four, the right to vote. What a civics lesson! We had become rather casual about civics, with roughly half the voting-age population apparently indifferent to the exercise of the franchise. But the issue 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. Within the lifetime of the next president of the United States, people took their lives into their hands for trying to vote, in Florida, too. Bipartisan wishfulness will coat the nation's airwaves, and it remains to be seen whether activists on both sides succeed in returning to the classic political divide between right and left, the question of who decides. For decades, such lip service was paid to the sacredness of the vote while institutions were indifferent. While electoral shoddiness and corruption were widespread, no one cared much. Incumbents remained incumbent and the big elections weren't so close. The word "disenfranchisement" seemed to have passed into the graveyard of textbooks. Now, with abundant evidence of vote-tallying malfeasance on a hitherto undreamed-of scale belatedly surfacing, we shall see whether partisanship crystallizes around the essential issue: Whose democracy is this, if anyone's? The rejuvenated NAACP is organizing statewide hearings on extending the franchise -- 35 years after the Voting Rights Act was supposed to settle the matter. Politicians will resist, maneuver, co-opt. Who knows, dormant populations may come to political life. In any event, the conflict deserves to be stark, far starker than Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore wish to make it. Those who extended executive and judicial hands to stop the count chose the convenience of bureaucrats and politicians over the rights of the people. The question now is whether, at this clarifying moment, America will get the partisanship it deserves. ---- Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, is the author of Sacrifice: A Novel, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and other books.
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