The Great US Election Disaster

Hal Foster

Who would have thought it? George W. Bush as President. I almost forgot what nauseated disbelief was like: I had not felt it so intensely since Reagan won in 1980. You look around, dazed and confused, and wonder: how did this happen? What is this country that elected this man as its President? (That is, if it did elect him: we still don’t know what happened in Florida, and we may never really know.) Back then, even if you despised Reagan for his politics, you had to acknowledge his charisma, or at least that others felt its sway. It’s the same with Clinton today: even if you loathe him for his duplicity, you have to admit his intelligence. Media puff-pieces aside (why is it that so many journalists are soft on Bush? Do they still cower before the accusation of liberal bias? Where are the liberal media? Will this be another Teflon Presidency?), George W. has neither the charms of Ron nor the smarts of Bill. But he may have enough of both to make him more than effective as a demagogue. We know this person from high school or college, the privileged guy who seemed easy to get along with because he already had it made. Although some resent the type, others identify with it – extravagantly.

Many on the Left argue that there are no real differences between Bush and Gore. Both are dynastic politicians, party creatures and corporate men, it is true, but they do differ significantly: on social security (which Bush would open to the vagaries of the stock market), on Medicare (which his tax cuts might endanger – his record in Texas hardly reassures here), on abortion rights (this remains the Republican test), on the environment (of the 50 states Texas is ranked 49th in pollution control), on public schools (can tax vouchers for private schools be far away?), and so on. Gore also talks in sentences. With so much in the balance, not doing so is a minor sin, but can the English language survive another Bushwhacking? The difference between ‘peacemaker’ and ‘pacemaker’, a typical mangling of words on the campaign trail, is not ‘only’ a matter of language. Nor are the names of foreign countries and leaders. Apparently George W. has travelled outside the country twice – once to Saudi Arabia (no doubt on oil business) and once to Mexico (a third trip to distant Canada is disputed). A great part of the nauseated disbelief about the election lies here: how can so many people support a person with so few interests, let alone achievements? After Clinton, do we want our Presidents dumb? But again, George W. is not dumb – narrow yes, facile certainly, but not dumb. Nor are his managers: to watch James Baker, Secretary of State under George I, work the courts and manipulate the media in Florida is to witness a pro at work. And Dick Cheney is the very definition of a veteran operative.

Nevertheless, high on his resumé is the fact that Bush gave up drinking at forty (this is an allegory of moral fortitude, we are told), that he kicked around the oil industry of Dad and cronies (this counts as a ‘vision thing’ quest, I guess, because the company failed), that he was the managing partner of a middling baseball team (this crony tour is presented as a big success because a new stadium was built – with public funds – helping Bush to make a profit of $18 million when he sold the team), that he has presided for several years over a state so suspicious of government that it requires its legislature to meet for only four months every two years. Of course it was sheer hypocrisy for George W. to run against ‘Washington DC’, given his proximity to power in the Reagan-Bush years (as we know, this hypocrisy is structural to the Right: it loathes the government whose power it covets), but now he has to run ‘Washington DC’.

So how did he get elected, if that is indeed the case, or the word? A glance at the electoral map on television tells the tale often heard in the last ten days. Gore won the North (save conservative New Hampshire), several upper Midwestern states, and the Far West, all coloured in blue on TV. Bush won the South (with Florida coloured in undecided white) and the Plains states, all coloured in red. The Bush camp complained that the Gore challenge to the Florida count might divide the country, but the electoral map shows that it was already split. Indeed, if you swap red for Rebel grey, the map looks like the Civil War resumed and extended across the board, with an obvious geographic divide that reflects an awful racial divide. Very few regions with much urban density are coloured for Bush (except for Ohio, Georgia and his own Texas); most of the coasts are blue, and most of the interior red (a friend quipped, nastily, that we could call Bush the President of the Redneck States). ‘I’m a uniter, not a divider,’ said George W., the candidate who spoke at the segregated Bob Jones University. Not according to the map: the division preceded the vote, but the vote confirmed it.

The results also show a gender gap. Thank God women have more sense than men; too bad there aren’t more of them, or they can’t vote twice. Bush rode squarely on the shoulders of ‘white males’, a group from which I would like to resign. Again, what do all these men see in this guy? Obviously for some it’s a sharing of financial self-interest; for others it’s a relief that a good ol’ boy can still be elected President; for others it’s the moral mumbo-jumbo about ‘integrity in the White House’ that does the trick. Maybe also at work is the ‘Harold Carswell factor’, which I name in honour of a mediocre Southern judge nominated by Nixon for the Supreme Court, a nomination defended on the grounds that he would provide a much-needed voice for lots of other mediocre people too. These kinds of identification suggest what voting often means in the US today: people vote for substantive reasons, it is true, but they also rely on an imaginary relationship with the candidate. Especially for ‘the undecided’ (‘the clueless’ is less euphemistic), voting becomes a matter of identification or its opposite with this manner or that quirk. (Of course desire is in play, too, and my remarks suggest that I am not very different here.) Throughout the campaign people spoke ad nauseam of how stiff Gore was, or, if you liked him, how informed, and how smooth Bush was, or, if you disliked him, how smarmy. As the election drew near, the guy who won the popular vote pleaded with us not to take it as a popularity contest. But too many of us do just that: we pick our favourite, and play the fantasy game of ‘America’ – we select from the two mythic versions on offer, and make-believe we are somehow a part of it. As a friend points out, the two campaigns spent millions of dollars on the middle of the electorate, the land-of-no-conviction-at-all, and fought to a statistical draw. In this light the equal split looks almost inevitable.

Today national politics tends to swing between two extremes of address. On the one hand, we are addressed as individuals (your taxes, interest rates, neighbourhood streets); on the other, we are globbed together as ‘America’ (‘A City on a Hill’, ‘A Thousand Points of Light’, ‘A Place Called Hope’), with vast entities like social security, both concrete and abstract, suspended over our heads. About the only other institution allowed to mediate these extremes, indeed to be mentioned at all, is the Family, and it is invoked with ritualistic obsession. To refer to much else is somehow to call for Big Government or, even worse, Class Warfare, mention of which violates the foundational myth that class does not exist here. It is this myth that allowed Bush to accuse Gore of such warfare when he objected to a tax plan that benefits the mega-rich – a tax plan that is class warfare. In short, the notorious Thatcherite claim that society does not exist sounds more accurate every day, and four (or more) years of Compassionate Conservatism might just prove it. If the model of the election was Big Brother or Survivor – last to be voted out wins – this kind of game show may be taken to represent our new kind of non-society as well: scheme-and-plot, double-talk, play-the-polls, screw-your-buddy, winner-take-all, no-one-is-left.

Election night was gut-wrenching, like extra-time in a soccer match that will not end. Although there were nice victories along the way, as when Hillary Clinton won her Senate seat in New York with great ease, or when the liberal Democrat Jon Corzine won his Senate seat in New Jersey albeit only after having spent massive amounts of (his own) cash, they seem more like consolation prizes now, and make the apparent Bush win taste all the more sour. The other consolation, we are told (by the schoolteacherly Gore among others), is that the election was a great lesson in civics. With the popular count and the Electoral College split, we are forced to reflect on the difference between the two counts (in the Electoral College each state is allotted one elector per Congressional district, plus two others; the candidate who wins the state wins all its electors in all but two small states; the winner of the Electoral College wins). Already the debate has begun. Some, mostly Democrats like Hillary, want to abolish the Electoral College, naturally enough, though it was Gore who stood the better chance of wining the electoral and losing the popular vote. Others argue that the Electoral College forces the candidates to speak to regional concerns in specific ways that they might otherwise duck. Like campaign funding reform, however, the issue is likely to be kicked around, then dropped.

Another lesson, especially for the young, is the vaunted importance of every vote. But the message here is mixed, to say the least, as ‘voting irregularities’ are foregrounded: antiquated machines broken in New York, voting hours extended in St Louis, polling areas menaced in Florida, television projections that were premature, and so on. Florida was called for Gore when the polls in its western panhandle, located in another time zone, were still open. Did that keep Gore voters away? Bush voters? (It sure kept CNN viewers where they were.) Although hundreds of thousands of ballots are ‘lost’ in every national election, the usual margins render this sad fact less significant than it is in this race. Of course, with a 300-vote difference in the Florida count (out of more than six million), attention has focused on 29,000 ballots in Palm Beach County, 19,000 of which were double-punched and so voided by the vote-reading machine, and 10,000 not punched through and so not read by the machine. Notoriously, the ballot paper in this county was unclear: for one thing the hole for Pat Buchanan appeared opposite the word ‘Democratic’. Clearly many voters in this county, rich with Jewish retirees, voted for Buchanan by mistake, or voted twice and were disqualified (a projected 56 per cent of the double-punched ballots were marked for Buchanan and Gore). Buchanan received 3400 votes in Palm Beach County, three times the number he got in any other county and ten times the number of Reform Party voters registered there. In a rare gesture of nobility, or a not-so-rare gesture of anti-semitism, or simply to pique the Bush camp, Buchanan has disclaimed these votes. But one sad irony of the election may be this: in the words of the Massachusetts congressman Barney Franks, Bush may become President ‘because of the involuntary existence of a group known as “Jews for Buchanan”’.

In this great land we vote by shading circles, checking boxes, pulling levers, punching ballots, and God knows what else. (The Florida dispute has given us a new fetish-word – ‘chad’, the little perforation in the ballot paper that the voter is supposed to poke out cleanly. For some reason I think of Troy Donahue, and imagine him ‘dimpled’, ‘pregnant’, ‘hanging’ or ‘punched’.) When an election is very close, a move to recount is often automatic – a hand count in cases where machines have failed to read some marks properly. So it was in Palm Beach County and three other counties in Florida, and there are many precedents for a hand count in this as in other states – George W. signed a bill to permit such counts in Texas. This is only one of many ironies in the recount campaign. After the Gore camp sued for a hand count in these counties, the Bush camp condemned the move as legalistic, only to petition to stop the count the next day. From that point on the judicial jockeying, media spinning and backseat driving was fast and furious: for obvious reasons Bush and company believe in machines, Gore and company in hands. (Fidel weighed in, too, with a hilarious offer to send monitors from Cuba to oversee a revote.) No doubt there was some hanky-panky across the country on both sides on election night. But at least when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley helped to deliver Illinois to John Kennedy in the narrow contest of 1960, it was not televised. (For those keeping track of our dynastic democracy, Richard was father to William, the Gore campaign head, and to Richard II, the current Chicago Mayor.) One pants-down scene was captured live on election night when George W. received a call from brother Jeb, Governor of Florida, soon after CNN had projected Florida for Gore. The impression on television was not good: ‘Don’t worry, bro, it’s not over yet.’ Maybe nothing happened, but who knows? Certainly things happened in subsequent days: Katherine Harris, Florida Secretary of State (for all of two years), twice refused to accept the hand counts in her certified tally. By the time this piece appears the courts will have decided whether her ruling is ‘arbitrary’; obviously, though, the word is ‘motivated’: Harris is co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida. No doubt she is a true believer, but what is in the balance is not only her immediate fate – Republican hero or Republican fall-person – but that of the country. Democracy anyone? Though neck-deep in the fray, Jeb gets to appear above it either way the chads fall. Meanwhile George W. has not reacted well to the stress – a retreat to his ranch, a boil on his cheek, a blurry appearance on television, another retreat. This is not a good omen of leadership to come.

Every vote counts: that is more a question than a lesson of this election. Yet a lesson about our democracy did come courtesy of Ralph ‘I’m No Scapegoat’ Nader. Vote your conscience, he urged us, as if the election were not winner-take-all, as if ours were a system with proportional representation. Many of his supporters have a bad conscience now, for Nader didn’t reach the 5 per cent of the national total necessary to qualify the Green Party for Federal campaign funds in 2004, and he hurt Gore in a way that a great many people, some sympathetic to Nader, now deeply resent. In Florida alone, Gore needed only a sliver of the 97,000 votes cast for Nader to win the state outright, and Nader has responded to the morning-after regrets of many supporters with the self-righteous claim that Gore deserves whatever he gets. I guess that goes for the rest of us too.

So what happens now? The Republicans call on Gore to stand aside, as they did with Clinton in another kind of slow coup, and there are warnings of a Constitutional crisis (actually Baker appears more concerned about a financial crash – maybe he confuses the two). But the vote feels worse than incomplete to most of us, believing as we do that what is underway is the working of the Constitution: one reason a lag exists between the voting in early November and the swearing in of the President in late January is to resolve disputes like the one in Florida. But if Bush is declared the victor, what then? Again, he can no longer run against the Government; he will have to run it – or like Reagan, he will have to turn the first into a version of the second. And yet, again like Reagan, maybe he won’t have to run it, not really anyway. For with George W. it’s déjà vu all over again: not only are the bitter father and the matriarch back (with a vengeance, as they say), but so too, mixed in with a few newish faces (like the scary Condaleeza Rice), are many Bush leftovers, such as the oily Baker and the unspeakable Cheneys. (Lynne strikes great terror in the hearts of most academics, given her scorched-earth policies as head of the National Endowment of the Humanities under George I.) These people will hold many strings.

‘I’m a uniter, not a divider’ (I thought nothing would make me miss ‘I feel your pain’). We’ll see. Another history lesson which we have been given over the last ten days is that in the election of 1876 one candidate, the Democrat John Tilden, won the undisputed popular vote by 250,000 votes, while the other, the Republican Rutherford Hayes, won the disputed Electoral College. Congress debated the issue for weeks; finally a commission of 15 senators, representatives and Supreme Court justices decided narrowly for Hayes (who was thereafter called ‘Rutherfraud’). The result was a stalemated Administration from the start, four ineffective years and out. Some say that, with the Congress divided almost evenly between the two parties, the same fate awaits George W., unless he contrives an American equivalent of a coalition government, a Cabinet with Democrats in important positions. Others argue that the executive branch is already checked by the legislative branch, and to divide it further would be to weaken it more, to the detriment of government as a whole. Suddenly this election may switch from one that neither wants to lose to one that neither wants to win. I am hardly qualified to judge these matters; indeed my cattiness here attests to my bewilderment. But perhaps, as in the Reagan-Bush years, this nauseated disbelief will give way to a renewed politicisation, and many will stir from the rightward drift of Clintonian politics to buck the current of Bush-Cheney. I disagree with the Naderians who say nothing distinguishes George W. and Gore: a more dramatic gulf between rich and poor, a more rancorous relationship between whites and blacks (let alone men and women – an early test here will be the licence for the abortion pill RU486), a more rapid deterioration of the environment, may register the difference soon enough.