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International Socialist Review Issue 15, December 2000-January 2001

Election Fiasco, American Style


The unprecedented result of the November 7 election opened a huge fissure in the ideological armor of "American democracy." At the time of this writing, it appears that the candidate who won the most votes nationally (Gore) may lose the election. Because of the antidemocratic setup of the Electoral College, an eighteenth-century relic, George W. Bush's 537-vote lead in Florida, certified November 26 by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (assuming it holds up), will result in his election. A Time-CNN poll showed that about 60 percent of Americans believe the Electoral College should be abolished.

Che Electoral College setup exposes the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the U.S. constitutional system. It cuts to the heart of the historic inequalities and legacy of slavery on which the Constitution rests. The Electoral College, an institution established at the behest of slaveholders to protect their interests, could foist on the country a president who received fewer votes than his opponent. The Florida fiasco underscores the fundamental importance of the issue of racism today. Following a year of building mobilizations against Florida Governor Jeb Bush's plans to eliminate affirmative action, Black voters mobilized in large numbers to defeat his brother. Allegations of harassment of Black voters, ballot shenanigans in largely Black precincts, and the widespread disenfranchisement of Blacks who were previously convicted of felonies, added an explosive element to the postelection endgame.

The election held up the U.S. system--traditionally one of the most stable and conservative in the world--as a laughingstock. Because of petty corruption and likely nepotism, the U.S. can't even

decide who the next president--the most powerful individual in the world--will be. Countries that resent the constant lectures about democracy they receive from U.S. imperialism's spokespeople are reveling in the U.S. mess. No doubt Cuba's government paper, Granma, relished the opportunity to offer Cuban observers for the vote recounts in Florida!

The near-spontaneous mobilizations protesting the vote around the country are of fundamental importance. Where the Nader campaign shined a light on the corporate domination of the two main political parties, their candidates, their platforms, and their elections, the Electoral College fiasco shows that the rot goes right to the root of the system. Even a perfect campaign-finance reform law won't change the fact that the Constitution prevents ordinary voters from choosing the president.

As every day passed without a presidential election winner declared, the divide between the popular will and the interest of the ruling class in "stability" grew. In the week after the election, a Time/CNN poll showed that 72 percent of Americans--obviously including millions who voted for Bush--believed it was more important to take the time to accurately count the vote than it was to resolve the election quickly. A November 20 Gallup Poll showed that 60 percent of Americans believed it was important to include the results of hand recounts in the final Florida tally. These findings flew in the face of the Bush campaign's attempt to crown itself the winner. But this didn't stop the Bushites from waging a hysterical campaign to bring the election to a close. They seemed to view the tallying of votes as an annoyance that impeded their divine right to claim the White House.

When the Florida Supreme Court ruled November 21 that the state must accept in its vote total the results of hand recounts conducted in three Democratic-majority counties, the Bush campaign petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision. In the meantime, the Republican-dominated Florida legislature threatened to call a special session to appoint new (presumably pro-Bush) electors if Gore wins the Florida vote, and Dade County election officials decided to end their recount after a furious demonstration by Republicans disrupted the proceedings. In spite of all this, the voices of the "responsible" ruling class--like those writing editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times--have virtually called on Gore to concede the election. As in the 1998-99 impeachment circus--when the Washington political elite and the media supported the Republican attempt to stampede Clinton from office against overwhelming public opposition--the ruling class once again found itself isolated from the mainstream of public opinion.

At this point, it's unclear how the election fiasco will play itself out. Republicans and Democrats spun all sorts of scenarios. Gore, as a ruling-class politician and creature of the Washington establishment, is unlikely to push the situation to a constitutional crisis. Even less will he be interested in championing the thousands who have taken to the streets to call for a revote. He and his lawyers have focused on highly technical aspects of election law, while largely ignoring the real scandal of the›thousands who lost their voting rights due to racial harassment, or the thousands of elderly Floridians who, because of the "butterfly" ballot, accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan. There is every likelihood that Gore will heed the calls to act the "statesman" and concede. Still, at the time of writing, the situation remained highly volatile.

Gridlock in Washington

Whoever takes office will be stuck with a hobbled administration with little, if any, "mandate." If Bush slithers into the White House while losing the popular vote, his will be a "lame duck" administration from the start. Confronted with a Congress that is split down the middle, he will unlikely be able to push through any of his biggest initiatives--like privatization of Social Security or a huge tax cut for the rich. If he tries to ally with congressional conservatives to push through hard-right policies, he'll face an even bigger backlash. No less an establishment hack than the New York Times Thomas Friedman, in a November 10 column, warned Bush off this course, because "under those conditions, the public would rebel--I'm talking about mass protests not seen since the Vietnam War."

If Gore takes office after beating the Electoral College fix, he at least has the advantage of having won the popular vote. But he would face a congressional leadership and a unified Republican Party out for blood. Even his slightest attempt to pass any program for which he campaigned--a Medicare prescription drug benefit, for instance--is likely to meet major opposition. In any event, official Washington will be tied up in "gridlock" for the foreseeable future. A November 11 Washington Post editorial expressed the worry of official Washington: "It bears repeating that the stakes here [in the Florida fiasco] are larger even than the prize of the White House itself. A breathtakingly close election has put the nation, its electoral system and its two parties under pressure. How the country weathers the challenge depends very largely on the behavior of the two candidates. If they squeeze and manipulate the system for every possible partisan advantage, they damage far more than their own places in history; whoever eventually staggers across the finish line will have damaged his own chance for a successful presidency."

No victory for the right

One thing is certain: The election result did not vindicate right-wing politics. The majority of votes, 52 percent, went to Gore and Nader. And for the third national election in a row, Democrats picked up seats in Congress. In purely parliamentary terms, the "Republican revolution" landslide of 1994 has been virtually erased.

Bush gained support because he "Clintonized" the Republican Party, giving it a more "centrist" image while stealing issues that traditionally favor Democrats. An indication of his success in blurring his stands on issues--and of Gore's failure to draw Bush out--was the fact that Bush nearly closed the "education gap" that Democrats traditionally hold over Republicans. Of voters who said that education was the most important issue to them, 52 percent voted for Gore and 44 percent voted for Bush. But Bush's positioning as an education reformer didn't translate into support for his stands on education issues. Referenda that promoted the conservative education agenda Bush supports--the Michigan and California initiatives approving vouchers for private schools--went down in landslide defeats.

Throughout the campaign, Bush distanced himself from the hard-right Newt Gingrich clones in Congress. He posed as a reformer of education, Social Security and Medicare, and as a Washington outsider who could work with Democrats "to get things done." He refused to be pinned down on a promise to pick U.S. Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. And he and his running mate Dick Cheney caused consternation in Christian Right ranks when they seemed to take a laissez-faire attitude to civil unions for gay people.

Even if Bush becomes president, it's important to note the huge difference between today and 1980, the last time the GOP ousted a Democratic administration. Reagan took office when the political climate was shifting to the right and when the movements of the 1960s-1970s were burning out. The general political environment stands nearly opposite from that of 1980.

Gore's lame campaign

Despite the razor-thin final result and the near split between the parties in Congress, the race shouldn't have been as close as it was. Only Gore's terrible campaign put the election within Bush's reach. With the record of a strong economy, public support for the Democratic approach on a range of issues (Social Security, education, Medicare, etc.), and the unpopularity of the right-wing leaders in Congress, Gore should have won by a large margin. But, as Ralph Nader said, the election was Gore's to lose and he did his best to lose it. The reasons for Gore's failures didn't lie in the banal explanations of Gore's "likeability" or that he "moved too far to the left," but in the fact that he tried to run a "centrist" Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)-driven campaign. The Gore-Lieberman team was a dream ticket for the right-wing, pro-business DLC.

In fact, the only two times in the campaign when Gore drew support came when he sounded economic populist themes after the Democratic convention and during the last 10 days before the election. When Gore tried to appeal to the "center"--attacking Hollywood and emphasizing his budget-balancing, his slashing of the government workforce, his support for the death penalty and for the 1991 Gulf War, etc.--he moved the debate back on Bush's terms. His failure to take on the GOP impeachment machine also helped Bush rehabilitate the Republican Party.

In the end, traditional Democratic constituencies--labor, Blacks, feminists--saved him. In states crucial to Gore's victory (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California), members of union households accounted for 28 to 43 percent of the electorate. These union household voters provided Gore with 55 to 65 percent of their votes, depending on the state. Although they voted in large numbers for Gore, many were just as likely voting against Bush. As Robert Kuttner, the editor of the liberal American Prospect put it:

The Gore-Lieberman ticket was the dream team of the center-right˛Democratic Leadership Council. The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in the early 1980s to move Democrats away from public programs, identity policies, and Democratic interest groups such as unions, the women's movement, and the NAACP.

But to the extent that Gore gained ground, it was by championing traditional Democratic strong suits--Social Security, Medicare, public education. And to the extent that voters were rallied to Gore, it was groups like the NAACP, NARAL and unions that did the heavy lifting.

The Nader challenge

Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential campaign represented the most successful left-wing third-party campaign in more than 50 years. Nader's final tally of 2.7 million votes, or 3 percent of the electorate, exceeded the 2.5 percent that Henry Wallace's 1948 Progressive Party campaign won. Despite tremendous pressure to vote for the "lesser evil," millions voted for Nader anyway. The Nader campaign helped to raise the bar of what voters expect from politics. It gave voice to common-sense issues (national health care, a living wage, etc.) that major-party candidates wouldn't touch. It activated millions of people who gave the campaign its grassroots support. As a national campaign, it reached far beyond those active in the antiglobalization protests. It provided a framework of political expression for millions who would not have considered themselves radicals (and probably still don't). It showed that the audience for radical and socialist politics reaches hundreds of thousands of people.

Initially organized as a protest campaign against corporate control of the political system, the Nader campaign took on other issues of oppression and inequality. To be sure, on the issues of oppression, Nader's campaign left much to be desired. Nader's sometimes cavalier attitude to ordinary people's real fears about the prospect of a Bush presidency (i.e., his downplaying of a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade) hurt him. As the campaign progressed, Nader increasingly highlighted issues of racial justice, such as the death penalty and the drug war. On the last weekend of the campaign, he appeared before Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network in New York City and at a super rally in Washington, D.C., where he emphasized his support for statehood for the District of Columbia.

Clearly, the numbers of people who agreed with Nader's positions exceeded the numbers who actually voted for him in the end. While the Nader campaign provided a concrete alternative to "lesser evilism," "lesser evilism" hasn't died. The scare campaign on behalf of Gore led by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem, and many union leaders helped to cut Nader's support in half by Election Day. Even the various schemes for "strategic voting" collapsed. In states where the election wasn't in doubt, Nader's support didn't much exceed his national average (Texas, 2 percent; California, 4 percent; New York, 4 percent). As it turned out, Nader received his highest votes in states where two factors held: (1) the outcome between Gore and Bush wasn't in doubt; (2) an organized third party constituency already existed (i.e., the Green Party in Alaska and the Progressives in Vermont). In the end, Nader found his most concentrated support among college students and young, first-time voters. Poll data suggests that these voters, who had no fixed party loyalty, stuck with Nader on Election Day. Disgruntled Democratic voters who supported Nader were most likely to vote for Gore.

For the most part, the Nader campaign failed to break through to large constituencies (such as Blacks and labor) that would be crucial to the building of any viable left-wing third party. The commitment of the official leadership of these constituencies to Gore and the media blackout on Nader's campaign largely explained this. Local activists for Nader made important efforts to build links to unions on a local level. This showed the potential to break through the Democratic Party's stranglehold. But it's also true that the national campaign and many of the politically inexperienced elements in the Nader rank and file didn't see the importance of trying to win Gore supporters to Nader. The shouting matches that developed between Nader supporters and Gore supporters at the Boston debate demonstrations in October illustrated the point. Despite the fact that Nader had by far the best positions on labor, antiracism, women's rights, and gay rights, his campaign didn't have the organizational muscle to translate them into support at the polling booth.

Perspectives for socialists

The Nader campaign represents the most concentrated expression of a "political awakening" among millions of Americans. After the longest economic boom in U.S. history, where the wages of American workers have barely increased, the issues of class inequality and corporate domination have become part of everyday consciousness. On other issues, from support for gay rights to declining support for the death penalty, this period marks a leftward shift in public opinion. For most of the second half of the 1990s, the level of struggle lagged behind the shift in consciousness. But since late 1999, this gap has begun to close. From demonstrations against the School of the Americas, to the antiglobalization protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C., to the growing national movement for a moratorium on the death penalty, to the labor victories in Los Angeles and at Verizon, larger numbers of people are turning to action to win their demands. While the Nader campaign wasn't a "movement," it gave millions the sense that they could make a difference--that political action can produce results. Socialists can only benefit from a more generally left-wing climate where thousands feel more confident to fight for what they want.

This general left-wing climate remains somewhat amorphous. The Nader campaign provided a focus for activists from a number of different struggles. Now that the election is over, the activism will flow in a number of different directions. At the same time, many people will be looking for "the bigger picture." The Nader campaign and all of the other struggles over the last year have put on the agenda a number of fundamental questions: How can we change the system? What's the best way to fight? What kind of organization do we need?

Political discussions on "big" questions (Marxism vs. anarchism, the politics of "direct action," why the working class, etc.) have become real questions of the day for thousands of activists. This means that an increasing number of activists will sort themselves out among the various political and organizational alternatives on offer. Socialists must grasp the opportunity to present their political alternative in cities, neighborhoods, workplaces, and on campuses around the country.

Many challenges lie ahead. It's likely that the next four years will bring an economic slowdown or recession that will heighten the class divide created during the 1990s boom. Welfare reform, the effects of which the booming economy has hidden, will wreak havoc on millions. A loosening of the tight labor market could hand bosses a club to beat workers with. And the government surplus that both major candidates promised to spend would disappear. If this scenario develops, the bosses will want workers to pay for their crisis. But, as the events of the last year have shown, that class war won't be a one-sided affair.


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