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Synthesis/Regeneration 24   (Winter 2001)

The Election Nobody Won

by William T. Hathaway, German Greens

The pomp and protest of inauguration day marked the end of a political season that saw Gore sacrifice his principles and Bush sacrifice our democracy, all to the great god Winning. After a campaign directed by Madison Avenue, the post-election debacle stripped away the last facade of red, white and blue idealism. Five weeks of political thuggery made it clear that our votes don't count. Bush didn't win the election; he seized power through a legalistic coup d'etat.

We may mourn for Gore, but he wasn't even outraged. A true son of the system, he'd rather sink than rock the boat. His concession speech skipped over what had happened and instead calmed the public with make-nice emotionality, thus re-establishing his membership in the power elite and earning him the chance to run again.

Despite some positive qualities, Gore is not a genuine agent for change. Like Bush, he supports capital punishment, genetic engineering of foods, corporate globalization, and a military build-up. Economically, the two men differ only in the size of their trickle down.

Bush didn't win the election; he seized power through a legalistic coup d'etat.

The soft-money moguls don't want us to have a real choice. Campaign financing shows us that the major parties are just two sides of the same gold coin, two modes of control by the corporate oligarchy.

The economic power base of both parties lies in the business establishment, and they represent two tendencies within it. The Republicans support a fiscal orientation aimed at preserving the value of capital by keeping taxes and inflation low. To them, a moderate increase in the number of poor people provides an anchor on the economy by holding wages and thus inflation down. The Democrats support a mercantile orientation aimed at expanding public buying power. To them, a moderate increase in the number of prosperous people enlarges the customer base. Each party contains more than this, but this is their economic core that keeps their leaders from acting against corporate interests. The alternation of power between them ensures that neither tendency gets carried so far as to destabilize the very profitable enterprise. Given this structure, the changes we need can't come from them.

Through ballot-access laws, matching-fund regulations, and debate policies, the major parties try to shut out other approaches. They want to be the only game in town, and it's now obviously a shell game with no winners except them.

They and the corporate media have also avoided an open discussion of their economic interests by riveting public attention on the emotional sideshow, the battle of winners and losers. Politics, like the news, has become garish entertainment for an increasingly ignorant populace: we, the people.

Both parties are now calling for restoring harmony, for pulling the country together, for healing the national wounds. But what they really mean is healing the wounds to the establishment.

For the first time since our defeat in Vietnam, a major crack has appeared in our two-party but one-purpose elite. As they try to patch that crack and restore the cosmetics of democracy, we can expect a media campaign to create good feelings about America. Hollywood will get into the act, as it did after the Vietnam war with films such as Private Benjamin, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Top Gun, designed to restore the charisma of the military. The studio execs are probably already conceptualizing a hip, "mock the system at the same time you reinforce it" version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And George W. Bush will now play Mr. Nice Guy, dismantling only gradually and indirectly the few progressive measures that Clinton was willing or able to implement.

But the crack is there and it can be widened; a wedge can be driven into it and it can eventually be split apart, and this monolith of power can fall and something new and more humane can take its place. Otherwise the establishment wouldn't be trying so hard to patch it up and erase the memory.

To counteract this media amnesia, we need to keep in mind the events that led to Bush's inauguration. In reviewing them, a chilling pattern emerges.

Florida was a must-win state, and Dubya had a powerful ally there: brother Jeb, the governor, who mobilized his troops. One of their early priorities was to reduce the number of likely Gore voters.

Before the election, state officials purged the voter lists to eliminate convicted criminals who had lost the right to vote. In the process they also removed the names of 4,000 legal voters, predominantly African-Americans. When they showed up at the polls, they were turned away. Officials termed it a computer glitch.

Some local authorities tried to intimidate African-American voters on election day. Police stopped many for identification checks. Highway patrol troopers set up an unauthorized roadblock between a polling place and a black neighborhood. At the polls, some minority voters were rejected because they couldn't show two forms of identification; only one form is required by law.

Many African-Americans who had signed up during voter registration drives went to the polls only to be told they couldn't vote because their names had somehow not made it onto the official list.

Boxes of ballots disappeared from polling places in minority areas.

In Palm Beach county a ballot with an illegal layout confused thousands of voters into punching the slot for a minor party candidate rather than for Gore.

Military absentee voters, more likely to vote for Bush, were sometimes sent multiple ballots.

Election supervisors illegally allowed Republican campaign workers to add missing voter ID numbers to several thousand Republican absentee ballots, but they threw out similarly incomplete Democratic and minor party absentees.

The poor districts in Florida have antiquated voting machines which failed to read 45,000 ballots. When local election boards tried to count these by hand, paid Republican demonstrators descended on them. Some created havoc outside, pounding on doors and windows, shouting through bullhorns. Others posed as observers inside and raised repeated objections that delayed the counting until the reporting date had past. Florida's secretary of state, who was George W. Bush's campaign co-chair, then refused to accept the revised vote totals because they were late.

The assault on democracy had its final triumph in the US Supreme Court, where the Republican majority prevented further counting by enforcing a deadline that the law itself says is flexible. Two of these justices have family members working for organizations involved in the Bush campaign, but they didn't step aside because of this conflict of interest.

Due to this broad-based coup, Bush took Florida by 537 votes and assumed the Presidency against the national popular vote.

Not all these actions were organized from the top. Many came from local zealots going overboard to please their governor. But taken together they show that when winning becomes more important than ethics, democracy perishes.

Journalists have gained access to the 45,000 unread ballots under Florida's freedom-of-information law and are currently counting them with bipartisan observers. Gore is leading and appears to be the actual winner. But now it's too late. Bush's tactics succeeded. The operatives who stole the election are now running our country.

Millions of people have been alienated by this attack on voting. Many of them will just grow more depressed, but some are ready to be radicalized.

We Greens can offer them something better than the no-choice, "you can vote for anyone as long as they're on the board of directors" sham that passes for politics in the US. Our party focuses on issues rather than images, on politics as the civilized clash of interest groups in a society rather than the gladiatorial spectacle that the corporate media produce. It gives disaffected voters a way to change their country.

To reach them, we need to address the winner-loser mentality that makes most people reluctant to vote for a candidate who will almost certainly not be inaugurated this time. We can let them know that by voting their convictions, they win a small victory simply by weakening the R-D monopoly.

The win-lose toggle switch in our minds is a pathology of US culture. It generates the crassest kind of competition, cripples our cooperative instincts, and creates an endemic self-dislike because we've been taught to despise losers and there are so few winners.

Our self-dislike suits the corporate elite just fine. They can sell us all sorts of stuff to cheer us up. They can invent all sorts of enemies, next door and next continent, for us to project our antipathy onto and thus keep their opposition divided.

This winner-take-all system may seem right…but it violates a principle of representative democracy.

With our numbers increased, we can then move toward overcoming the biggest barrier our candidates face: the lack of proportional representation in the legislative branch. From Congress to state legislatures to city councils, only candidates who win the majority in their district become part of the government. This winner-take-all system may seem right, after years of patriotic civics classes, but it violates a principle of representative democracy. Rather than the law-making bodies representing the diversity of our society, they represent in every case just the majority group, the one that has the most interest in maintaining the status quo.

In many parliamentary systems, however, representation in the legislature is divided proportionally to the number of votes for each party. For example, in much of western Europe all parties that poll at least 5% of the votes are represented in the parliament. The minor parties can then enter into coalitions and wield power.

The emphasis there is more on the parties as distinct sets of principles and programs, rather than on the personalities of individual politicians, so election campaigns tend to be more rational and less acrimonious. The purpose of an election is not so much to determine who wins or loses, but rather the proportions in which power will be shared. And since that's based on the number of votes received, all the ballots are counted. Carefully.

Imagine how this 5% rule could change the make-up of the US Congress. Our lawmakers would include a much broader spectrum of viewpoints, one that mirrors our society. Our government could become a truly representative democracy, not just a tyranny of the majority.

The current nonproportional representation, as well as the Electoral College, confines us to a system designed by 18th-century aristocrats. Changing it will not be easy, because it serves so well the interests of their 21st-century successors. But change it we can. We must.

Until we do, we, the people, will continue to be the losers.

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