Distal Muse Archives

Democracy In Action

by Mark W. Tiedemann

     I have some reservations about making the Distal Muse "topical" insofar as commenting upon currently ongoing or recently undergone events, but some things cry out for commentary.  By the time this is posted, the dispute over the Florida electoral vote may be resolved and we'll know who will be our next president.*  So much the better for the fevered condition of all those with emotional stakes in the national election.  That resolution is immaterial to my chosen position on the whole event, which is:

     GOOD.  It's about time we learned what a vote means.

     There, I've made a topical observation.  I suppose I should follow it up now with some pithy observations about the state of the nation.  Maybe I will.  I'm composing this off-the-cuff, having little else to do on a Saturday afternoon.  I have no idea what I'm about to say.  This should be an adventure.  Sit tight.
     Thanksgiving has just passed.  Thursday I ate and drank and made music with friends.  Little or no "family" was involved in the affair.  New traditions are in the making as the century draws to its end.  Perhaps that is why we see so much polemic about Family Values every time we turn on the radio or a news show or one of those countless "analysis" programs on CNN or HNN or what have you.  _Meet The Press_ used to be the main debate show when I was growing up and all I can remember of it is a lot of gray-suited, dour men (women were added later) discussing matters so far over my head as to be effectively in another language.  Occasionally voices were raised and I'd wonder if a fight might break out, but it never happened.  The "spleen" in politics didn't become evident to me until the 1968 election and a famous clip that went out "live" of an exchange between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley.  Vidal called Buckley a neo-nazi and Buckley replied, firmly and eruditely albeit in less refined language than is his stock-in-trade, that "if you call me a neo-nazi again I'll bust your goddam mouth!"
     Embarrassment ensued.  Vidal looked as if he were imagining that event and the referee--er, anchorman--looked acutely uncomfortable.
     Hey, politics can be _very_ personal!
     But the conversation at Thanksgiving veered inevitably to the political.  It was diffused quickly.  People had brought the most recent humorous email clippings.  Laughter ensued.  It became evident to me that I was dining with conservatives, Republicans all, and that I need watch my temper lest the meal be ruined.  I promised the hostess I would not discuss politics the rest of the evening.  I managed to keep that promise after making my aforementioned observation.  "I'm thrilled.  Next time some idiot says to me 'I never vote, it doesn't do any good anyway' I'll point to this election."
     The mood never reached the point of incipient food fight and when the guitars came out it was all over for Florida politics.
     People are getting a very public lesson in how our political system works.  And, by the way, it _is_ working.  We have had an unprecedented national turnout at the polls and the voting has been so fiercely partisan that for the first time absentee ballots may be the deciding factor.  We do not yet know who our next president will be and many see this as a failure in the system.     The courts are getting involved, aggravating a hard-adapted antipathy in the nation over judicial activism, and many people see this as a failure in the system.  The candidate who conceded and then withdrew his concession may win and many will see this as a failure in the system.  Manual recounts are being held up as more reliable by some and a potential disaster by others and this, too, is seen by some as a failure in the system.
     But there are no troops in the streets.
     Partisan terrorists are not running through neighborhoods torching the homes of supporters of the opposition.
     I don't think anyone was illegally turned away at the polls.
     Ballot boxes seem to have been overlooked, but none have been impounded by ad hoc election vigilantes.
     Except for the possible exception of a few brawls at Thanksgiving dinners, no riots have begun, nor have people been shot or beaten.
     We are all waiting--quietly or otherwise--for the results of the count.
     I actually feel sorry for whoever wins.  He will have little authority to do much of anything.  But that may have been the case regardless of the Florida situation.  And here is where I see the fierce partisanship in the campaign.  We have had essentially two viewpoints at loggerheads.
     There are those who have seen the Clinton Years, despite their innate embarrassments, as essentially good years.  The economy, you see.  The nation prospers.  People are working.  Crime is down.  America's stature as a world power is undergoing something of a renaissance because we're doing what we're good at--making money, which is having a by and large stabilizing effect on the global economy.  Like it or not, global money interests rely on American capital and capital trends to make decisions and set goals.  When we're doing okay, they _can_ do okay (not that they necessarily will, but if they screw up it's less our fault than theirs).  People are beginning to feel comfortable with their resource stability and this frees them up to do other things--like pay attention to things like Family Values or the morality of the market or the state of the Arts or charity work or--well, you get the idea.  We can stop worrying so much about where the next house payment is coming from and actually do a little abstract thinking and tend to those aspects of our life less codifiable by simple ledger balances.
     Then there are those who, for all that, see nothing but doom and gloom, an impending moral crisis--or, worse yet, the innate moral crisis Everyone Else doesn't see.  For them, good times and economic stability are meaningless as long as--
     And here you fill in the blank.
     This formulation lumps two very distinct groups together with very distinctly different consequences.  The Moral Outrage Factions did not vote party lines, but they did vote based on the same impulse--the elect the One Who Will See Us Through the Coming Crisis.
     One faction voted for G.W.
     The other voted for Ralph Nader.
     This is reminiscent of the 1980s when the moral scourge of pornography united two factions who could in no other way be united--fundamentalists and radical feminists.  It was an obscene shotgun wedding that must surely have shocked and scandalized both parties, but what could they do?  They looked at an issue and found that although they disagreed on what it meant, they agreed that it must be dealt with.
     The Greens are an emerging political force.  Not strong here in the U.S. yet, because in many ways they end up preaching to the choir.  Most Americans have some ecological sensibility, they just don't get all frothy about it.  They might agree with the Greens about the necessity of taking care of the environment, but they aren't about to stop buying and driving SUVs.  Most people, frankly, don't see these things are irreconcilable.  We're Americans, we ought to be able to figure out how to have both.  So while the Greens want to see the whole system overturned, they can't get enough people to agree that this is necessary to doing what they agree ought to be done.
     The Greens are also completely outside the politic sensibilities of the Republican Party, which has, since Reagan, become the "other" party of moral outrage.  Which is absurd, when you think about it, but nobody ever said American politics made sense.
     The Republicans have acquired the support of the fundamentalists because they are seen as the party most opposed to judicial activism.
     That's it, really.  The Republicans bottom line position is to reduce the power of the courts to overturn legislation.  It has been the courts, after all, that have caused the most consternation in our political landscape over the last forty-six years, starting with _Brown vs. The Board of Education_.
     And it's easy to understand the basic emotional appeal of this position.  We believe we are a democracy (we aren't strictly so, we're a republic, but that's another issue) and so we believe that what we vote on should be the law.  I mean, that makes sense, doesn't it?  X number of people vote for proposition ABC and Y number vote against it.  If X has more votes, then ABC becomes law. Who are the courts to overturn the will of the people?  That's not democratic!  We voted on this!  We spent money getting this into law!  You can't tell us "no" now!
     So the Republicans, since the Seventies, struggling hard to get over the debacle of Nixon and Ford, seized finally upon a fundamentally conservative viewpoint and built upon that to forge a new political force.
     The problem was, what were people all upset about that they wanted to see judicial review muzzled?
     Well, there are our Moral Crises.  Take your pick.
     Abortion?  School Prayer?  Integration?  Affirmative Action?
     Without going into the underlying sentiments of any of these things, it becomes clear that there will be a sharp split in public perception.  A split that has resulted in the current election situation.
     I hesitate to say "crisis" here because no matter what, it is evident that an elected official will ascend to the presidency.  No one is going to be appointed.  We just have to wonder which election will hold sway.  And this leads us to a position wherein the Republicans risk looking hypocritical.
     Gore has reputedly won the popular vote.  By the virtues of a democratic system, he ought to be president because more people voted for him than Bush.
     But we have this electoral college thing which has been set up to offset the inequities in population distribution, to mitigate the supposedly unfair power of a heavily populated region over a sparsely populated region.  Note, I say region, because the electoral is based largely (not exclusively) on districts, not states (something which has prompted another ongoing criticism of judicial activism, that of the forced redistricting of congressional districts to compensate for unfair representations of minorities).  Usually, there's no conflict.  The popular vote and electoral vote coincide.  But here we have a situation wherein, had the original election result held, Bush would have won only the electoral vote.
     That doesn't seem so grassroots democratic.  In fact, that's more a "republican" concept than a democratic one.
     But the party that has risen to great heights by declaring that what the Voter wants the Voter ought to get--as an argument against judicial oversight--must embrace a system that repudiates the individual ballot and voter consensus in order to win.
     This has happened before.  We all know about Rutherford B. Hayes.  He trailed by a quarter million votes, but "acquired" disputed electoral votes in a backroom deal that won him the election by one electoral vote--185-184.
     But there was also Benjamin Harrison, who lost the popular vote by a little more than 100,000 votes.  He won by two states in the electoral--New York and Indiana (Indiana was his home state).  There was a lot of vote-buying in the campaign, probably on both sides, but the Republicans had deeper pockets.  He beat Cleveland.
     John Quincy Adams went to the House of Representatives.  There were four candidates, none of who had a "clear" majority.  Andrew Jackson won both the popular and the electoral vote, but because the vote was so close it went to the House, where Henry Clay decided the vote in favor of Adams.  Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State, which cost him his reelection bid.
     The most under remarked election, however, in these days of constant historical reassessment, is that of Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson also went to the House, but it was not quite the same situation as Adams, who lost the popular election.
     The states chose their electors, but the candidates were chosen by Congressional causus.  The Republicans (the Jeffersonian Republicans or American Republicans, the _first_ Republican Party) selected Jefferson and Aaron Burr, to run against each other, while the Federalists chose John Adams, the sitting president, and a man named Pinckney.
     Contrary to today, the candidates did not campaign.  No speeches were made.  The candidates chosen by their party were to be seen as dutiful servants answering the call of their country, not ambitious contenders for office.  Pamphleteering and newspapers made up the bulk of the campaign.  Of course, name-calling and much comprised much of the copy--Jefferson was called a Jacobin and an atheist and, worse yet, a French agent (remember, this was in the wake of the French Revolution).  Adams was labeled an autocrat and a monarchist.  There is some justification in these labels, as in all accusations, but Adams had, as our second president, very nearly overturned the Constitution and restored the states to rule by dictate.  We wouldn't see anything quite so horrible as his Sedition Act until Joe McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
     The election resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr.  Same party, but neither would back down.  It went to the House.  While we expect the current situation to be resolved in a couple of weeks, this "crisis" dragged on through 35 ballots until the 17th of February, 1801.  The Virginia militia was preparing to march on Washington to end the deadlock.  Sensing the mood of the country, three Federalists broke the deadlock and elected Jefferson.
     The interesting bit about all these people is that none of them belonged to a "State's Rights" party.  Hayes and Harrison were Republicans, which at that time were strongly federalist, and Adams himself was a member of the later-defunct Federalist Party--proto Republicans.  Jefferson was a member of the party that eventually became the Democratic Party and stood rhetorically opposed to Federalism, but under Jefferson Republicans American went through some of its most nationalistic events.  Jefferson may have been antiFederalist, but he certainly wasn't anti Imperialist--look at the Louisiana Purchase and his stated goal to see the United States bestride the continent.  Under Monroe, we see the issue of national boundaries codified in the Monroe Doctrine.  And Madison picked a fight with Britain for nationalist reasons, not state reasons.  None of these men could be said to functionally disapprove of a strong central government.  Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and established the authority of the federal over the state by making it clear that while states had certain rights those rights did not supersede the national interest.  Yet all of them relied on state electors rather than popular vote to achieve office and in one case on the fiat of the House of Representatives acting to supersede popular will.
     Here we come to the eve of the new millennium and it may be that another Republican will win by electoral vote alone, superseding the popular will.  But now the Republican Party is no longer a strong federal advocate (at least, according to their rhetoric) but a State's Rights party.  Yet they will succeed by virtue of a system that can easily be seen as subversive of the democratic principles current use of the term State's Rights is supposed to mean--that if the People vote on something and beat the opposition, they ought to get it, whatever it is.
     Ah, we do indeed live in interesting times!

    *And, indeed, we have a president.  This morning, November 27, 2000, in a questionable move on the part of Florida's Attorney General, Bush has been handed the election.  Gore intends to continue contesting it, but for all practical purposes it is over.  Gore won by an estimated 300,000 popular votes.  Congress is split near fifty-fifty.  Nothing much is going to happen over the next four years of a controversial nature.  At least, in my humble opinion.  Bush is about to suffer the fate of Adams, Hayes, and Harrison.  Odd, too, since Adams is also the only other presidential son to attain the same office, and was one of our most ineffective presidents.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann