The cataclysm of 2000 has produced such a challenge to the American electoral system that it is only now, some months later, that enough dust has settled to afford us
politics junkies any kind of perspective. My intention here is not to offer any grand theoretical explanations for what happened --- not yet --- but rather to summarize what we do know at this early point.
The public got it right --- exquisitely right. Neither of the major candidates provided much confidence or inspiration. One was smug and incurious, the other pompous and eerily uncentered. Most voters made their choices out of party loyalty rather than from any deep personal affinity for a candidate. The elegant equilibrium of the electoral vote matched that of the popular vote totals, and a new generation learned that "majority" does not equate with "elected."
Those who voted, that is. Almost half of all eligible voters chose to opt out. The Bush/Gore campaign was notably inarticulate. Their simplism and redundancy did little to "educate the class," to put it in Adlai Stevenson's telling words. Both campaigns spewed focus-group-tested clichés to an unheeding public, and the "debates" were singularly uninformative, made even more boring and flat by the arrogant and dismissive denial of alternative voices.
The machinery was dangerously creaky and obsolete. This proved true at every level, from the infamous butterfly ballot, through the dangling chads and open vote fraud in Florida (and elsewhere), up to the byzantine electoral college. (We were spared the further horror of a House of Representatives runoff.) Quaint procedures, whether created in compromise by 18th-century framers or in lassitude by good old boys in Florida, failed utterly to perform in the early part of the 21st century. And changes will now assuredly be made, though not in time to undo the current mess.
Courts were both partisan and incoherent. Some courts, most notably some local courts in Florida, proved up to the challenge. But both Judge Sauls and the Florida Supreme Court seemed not fully ready for prime time, and the U.S. Supreme Court's interventions were embarrassingly lame. The notorious 5-4 decision that sought to end the turmoil appears now to be a textbook example of the old dictum that many opinions make bad law. It was shamefully incoherent; I'd give it an "incomplete" at best. At every level of jurisdiction courts showed themselves to be confused and partisan. Perhaps that is a healthy demystification, but many Americans found this revelation profoundly unsettling.
Media made things worse. Media meltdown on election night was only the most evident sign of the trouble from this quarter. Routinely, candidates were able to promulgate mush and get away with it. Pampered, self- congratulatory reporters allowed both campaigns to play softball when hardball investigative journalism might have penetrated some carefully arranged facades. Between debates there was almost no real discourse; the debates themselves yielded little insight. Reporters' laxness was evident in that the news about George W. Bush's DUI arrest did not break until the very end of the election season.
All sides were tainted by their ad-diction to big money. This is the most valid point made by the Nader campaign. Both major parties have been awash for decades in the kind of big money that buys big access. When the Bush campaign met an unexpectedly lively primary challenge from John McCain, it spent down the first $70 million it had received, serene in the knowledge that it could regain all of it --- and more --- from the usual sources. The Gore campaign was every bit as predatory. The taint was so evident last year that it might even produce some significant reforms in 2001.
Alternative voices didn't help much, either. Sorry, folks. The hopes of many Americans to stretch and to alter the parameters of our public discourse fell flat once again this year. Alternative voices were arbitrarily squeezed from that discourse, but Ralph Nader and "reformer" Pat Buchanan would not have changed it very much even if they had been granted full entry. Nader proved to be obtuse and uncaring about the nation's social agenda, and Buchanan slipped himself and his "party" into general irrelevancy.
But be of good cheer; we're only 1,300 days away from 2004.
Marty Brownstein is an associate professor of politics; he has taught at Ithaca College since 1970.