Humbling Lessons About Politics


As debacle 2000 lurches onward, it's hard not to see this election as a huge joke played on hapless mortals by the mischievous ancient gods. How else to explain the ironic twists that, if invented by a satirist, would surely be considered over the top?

Take the butterfly ballot of Palm Beach, widely believed to have cost Al Gore the election by so confusing thousands of mostly elderly voters that they double-punched and thus invalidated their ballots or voted for the wrong candidate. It was designed by Democratic county officials—for the benefit of seniors. (The idea was that the larger type would be easier to read.)

Or take the dimpled ballots, indented but not punctured, which have drawn jeers from George W. Bush supporters about divining voter intent. While such ballots are not accepted as valid in most of the country, one state has a law that explicitly says they can be counted: Texas.

While this law was passed before Bush became governor, he did sign a 1997 bill giving preference to a manual recount if at least one candidate requests it.

In ancient myths, the gods' pranks were meant as humbling lessons for humans. Today's never-ending campaign can teach us many humbling lessons about the state of our democracy.

We have been reminded of the extent to which power struggles rather than issues now dominate American politics. A friend of mine says that when he first heard about the Florida deadlock, he expected both candidates and their teams to meet and agree on the best way to do a recount. How sad that the idea seems laughably naive.

Who's more culpable? Conservatives are convinced that Gore is engaged in a naked power grab while Bush is claiming a rightful victory; liberals claim that Bush is thwarting lawful efforts to count every vote.

Right now, Gore's efforts to hang on look pathetic. Yet polls show that while 60 percent of Americans now want him to give up, only 40 percent think he should concede because the vote count was fair, while 20 percent just want it to be over. And the majority probably believe that if Gore held a hair-thin lead in one state, the two camps would have switched roles.

Would all the vice president's men like to keep counting until they fish out enough Gore votes or toss out enough Bush votes to win? It sure looks that way. But Bush partisans are hardly blameless (and I voted for Bush).

They have lamented hand recounts in selected Democratic counties with no uniform standards—yet resolutely rejected proposals for a statewide recount under uniform standards, most likely fearing it would favor Gore. In a disturbing attempt to discredit manual recounts, they have depicted this common practice as some voodoo ritual invented by Gore lawyers.

These three weeks have also illustrated a mutual tendency to demonize the opposition. Democrats tend to see Republicans as bullying and bigoted; Republicans tend to see Democrats as power-mad and immoral.

The vitriol doesn't spare public servants. Gore people blast Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris as a partisan hack or even a crook; on Sunday, Representative Ed Markey declared on CNN that having Harris certify Bush's victory, in full accordance with the law, was "like having his campaign manager declare him the winner."

Bush people hurl charges of partisan mischief at the Florida Supreme Court (which gave Gore his manual recount, but crippled it with a strict deadline) and at local Democratic officials—who, at least in Palm Beach, rejected most dimpled ballots and scuttled their recount by taking Thanksgiving off.

We have been reminded, too, that—to paraphrase the Bible—people will see the mote in their political opponent's eye but not the beam in their own. One person's technicality is another's rule of law; one person's peaceful protest is another's mob riot. Partisans on each side cry that their camp is disadvantaged by lack of win-at- all-costs ferocity and by media bias. Alas, few commentators even try to imagine how they would see things if the shoe were on the other foot.

But this election teaches another important lesson: It provides at least one good reason that smaller government is better. As we have seen, a government can be elected by a tiny margin subject to human or machine error—allowing 50.01 percent of the population to force its will on 49.99 percent, or maybe the other way around. What makes a society free is limiting what even a freely elected government can impose on citizens.