A Distinction Without A Difference


New at Reason: Brian Doherty searches in vain for a hair worth splitting between the two major-party presidential candidates.

NEXT: Anarchy in the Mojave

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  1. You forgot that Bush is a flip-flopper too. Unless Liberia, Hati and Iraq don’t count as nation building. Then he flip-flopped on gay marriage after saying that he thought it should be left to the states. Let’s not forget how he was against the Dept. of Homeland Security and against it. Politicians that don’t flip-flop are like the Loch Ness monster, they might exist, but I haven’t seen any solid evidence.

  2. kerry bothers me. dem pols usually do, but kerry more than most.

  3. Here’s my own comment:

    However much the two parties might differ in rhetoric over economic issues, and however much they might differ deep down in their hearts over economic issues, it seems that some sort of accomodation has been found. It isn’t an accomodation that I like in any way, but it’s there. It’s all just a question of “how much?” nowadays. Hence the Medicare drug bill, massive spending, etc.

    Sure, partisans of one side or another can point to all of the differences, but the fact remains that it’s no longer a question of more spending vs. less spending. Now it’s merely a question of “how much more spending?”

    Meanwhile, apparently pollsters are finding that income is no longer the best predictor of voting habits. Sure, it’s a decent measure, but apparently voters have figured out that there is no longer a vast difference between most Republican politicians and Democrat politicians when it comes to economics (with all exceptions duly noted). There may be a philosophical difference, but it no longer translates into a huge practical difference.

    So voters go for cultural issues.

    This is a bummer for me. I had hoped that the “culture war” was over. In that case the debate would shift to economics. But it appears that the culture war is alive and well in some form if it matters for elections. That would be OK if the economic consensus favored less gov’t spending and regulation. But with the economic consensus now firmly on the side of “How much more spending and regulation?” and the cultural issues still up for grabs, these are dark times for a libertarian voter…

  4. Every time I watch Kerry speak, I sense that he’s thinking, “Why am I even bothering to talk to these people?”.

    And what’s up with the fist in the air — always a beat behind the word he’s trying to emphasize. Looks like a parody of a badly dubbed foreign language film.

    But it is looking more and more like Bush’s strategery is to triangulate Kerry — to his left!

  5. The “pox on both your houses” stance is a venerable libertarian tradition, but let’s be serious for a moment – Bush has been a disaster (Iraq, Medicare, tax cuts, discretionary spending, FMA, Patriot act, bioethics etc – all chronicled by this very magazine.) Kerry may prove to be a disaster too, but I’m ready to try the devil I don’t know. With any luck, the Republicans will retain control of at least one house of Congress (and the Supreme Court, of course) and we’ll get the most a libertarian can hope for these days – a split government with no Bush in sight.

  6. Kerry beleives that terrorism is a law enforcement issue and Bush believes that the only way to deal with it is to hunt down and kill the people who do it and their supporters.

    Police are good for tracking down murderers operating on US soil.

    Soldiers are good for dealing with murderers working for a foreign government.

    Spies are good for dealing with networks of murderers.

    It seems to me that the biggest military aspect of taking down Al Qaeda involves Afghanistan. For the rest, I’d say cops and spooks are the way to go.

  7. The article also fails to mention Social Security reform. Bush has publicly and consistently favored Personal Retirement Accounts, his commission has favored going from wage to price indexing (which alone would fix the problem), opposes a tax increase, and has said he would not rule out raising the retirement age. Kerry in contrast has ruled out personal retirement accounts, raising the retirement age, any cut in benefits and has only left a tax increase on the table.

    This BTW is something that will not be fixed with gridlock which is probably why Brian Doherty left it out of his article.

    On health care, Kerry is pushing for another $900 Billion in federal health care spending and wanted a more expensive prescription drug benefit than Bush?s. Bush did stick us with the prescription drug benefit (which was probably inevitable but far less costly then either of the two Democratic alternative bills) but he also got health care savings accounts through and is pushing are more market-oriented forms of health care reform such as letting small business form risk pools (which should not be limited to businesses) and expanding the HCSA.

    The author also failed to talk about tort reform, gun control, affirmative action, and property rights protection all issues where Bush is more libertarian than Kerry.

  8. John Kluge: I second what thoreau said, but I thought I might add: What is the basis of your claims about John Kerry’s beliefs w.r.t. fighting terrorism? And, in order to save our civilization, how many more governments with no proven (or for that matter even well-intimated) connection to the 9/11 terrorist attacks do we have to topple? What measures, short of killing all muslims, and ensuring all otherwise brown-skinned people remain devoutly and docilely catholic, would make you feel sufficiently safe? By the way — not to minimize the “terror” of that day, but — 9/11 was 19 guys and four planes; I for one didn’t feel like this especially threatened “our survival as a civilization” until Bush used it as an excuse to clamp down on hard-won libertarian freedoms. Come and get me, Ashcroft!

  9. This is a bummer for me. I had hoped that the “culture war” was over. In that case the debate would shift to economics. But it appears that the culture war is alive and well in some form if it matters for elections. That would be OK if the economic consensus favored less gov’t spending and regulation.

    Well stated as always, Thoreau. The cultural right is as uncomfortable with capitalist products as the economic left is with capitalist process. I’d almost say the new culture war is a conspiracy by both sides to stand athwart economic history yelling “Stop”-except that you’d have to be a real girlyman to use a word like “athwart.”

  10. You know those wacky right-wing conspiracy theories about the UN taking control of the US, New World Order, world government, etc. etc.? Well, I gotta tell ya, things Bush says and does and his background just raise those conspiracy theory hairs on the back of my head. Sure, JFK and to an even greater extent THK do the same, but not to the same extent as Bush. Bush is an elitist and most of what he does ultimately benefits other members of the elite. Sure, same with JFK/THK, but to a somewhat lesser extent.

    I just keep getting this vibe that Bush is not an American. Or, at least what I think of as an American. Examples: the LOST treaty, he and his buddies in the Mexican elite, he and his buddies in the Saudi elite, etc.

    West of the Rockies, leave a comment. East of the Rockies, use this website’s trackback feature.

  11. Mr. Winston–

    What Kerry wants is not nearly as important as what he will actually get from a GOP congress.

    Please don’t interpret this as a resounding endoresement for Kerry (I will probably stay home or vote LP myself), but I think that it’s not accurate to say that if Kerry is elected that SS and healthcare will actually be reformed (or not) as you describe.

    As to the other issues you mentioned…tort reform, gun control, affirmative action, and property rights protection…it doesn’t really seem as though these are major issues in either candidate’s platform, so while Bush may be “more libertarian” on these issues, I’m not sure that it really matters.

  12. We can judge candidates by what they tell us they want to do, or we can judge candidates by what they will try to do, or we can judge them by what will actually happen if they take office.

    By the last metric, a GOP House and Senate (or at the very least a GOP Senate) and a Democrat in the White House seems like a good way to go. Republicans find it easy to vote against spending when a Democrat asks for it, but their backbones become mushier when a Republican asks for it.

    Of course, a GOP President, House, and Senate would be ideal IF if the GOP President actually had some principles and cared about smaller government. But Bush certainly doesn’t fit the bill, at least not on domestic policy. (On foreign policy, of course, you’ll either love him or hate him, and with those positions so entrenched I see no need to rehash it.)

  13. That’s right thoreau.

    Bush’s problem is that he will not use the VETO.

    And Congress in turn rolls over for his spending requests.

    At least with divided government, we might have some partisan rangling and as a result, more inaction.

  14. Bullying, stonewalling, exagerrating, retaliating, outing and lying are the trademarks of this administration. These weren’t really mentioned in the article but will have a bigger influence on the vote than the economy or Iraq.

  15. zorel:

    Certainly, plenty of folks (~3k) died as a result of the actions of the 19 guys in the four planes. But, a threat to our “civilization”? Come on! They were armed with Leathermen (not box cutters, as had previously been reported). Everyone acts like this is fucking Red Dawn and Bush is goddamned Patrick Swayze, but, seriously, Bill Maher was right when he said the appropriate reaction would be to conserve gasoline, not go all ape-shit warmonger. How many Americans were dying per day during the Vietnam war? (oh, but I guess those were just poor niggers, not stockbrokers and fmr frat bros and shit.)

    And I don’t know anything about Iran, but my instinct is to just agree that we ought to support democratic insurgency in that country, as I’m sure we would (and/or would have) were the administration republican or democrat. But I feel strongly that this is a far far far cry from what we did/are doing in Iraq, as, since we are the conquering, occupying force, we are now responsible for implementing a stable and enduring democratic regime. I’m sure you’d agree that it’s much much much easier to be on the side of pro-democracy insurgency in Iran than to be defending against anti-American insurgency in Iraq.

  16. Before we get too enthusiastic about the US gov’t supporting the reformists in Iran, think about the response when John Kerry said that foreign leaders liked him better than Bush.

    Now, yes, I know, the hard-core theocrats won’t have to change their minds in response to US support for reformists. They already hate the reformists. But imagine moderate Iranians who don’t like the theocrats but don’t trust the US either (yes, I know, I know, there’s no reason for them to distrust the US gov’t, but a lot of them don’t see it that way). How might they respond to reports that reformists are getting financial backing from the US?

    I think the most the President of the US should do is give a polite nod to them, say “Well, we certainly hope the Iranians evolve a more liberal government that respects the freedom of the people” and wait for the wheels of change to turn.

    And yes, I know, somebody will probably say I’m pro-Ayatollah, but I simply don’t think it’s helpful for reformist movements to look like they have divided loyalties or foreign ties. It looks bad when they’re trying to win over moderates.

  17. Tim gives an endorsement of Kerry.

  18. “You know those wacky right-wing conspiracy theories about the UN taking control of the US, …things Bush says and does and his background just raise those conspiracy theory hairs on the back of my head.”

    That would explain acting without the UN in Iraq?

    What about JFKerry being in his tenth decade of wanting to strengthen the UN?

    Who’s background is rooted in Europe did you say?

    Maybe you need to stop the static on your comb!

  19. “Everyone acts like this is fucking Red Dawn and Bush is goddamned Patrick Swayze, but, seriously, Bill Maher was right when he said the appropriate reaction would be to conserve gasoline, not go all ape-shit warmonger.”

    So I guess Spain should enact recylcing programs and encourage carpooling? That’ll show ’em.

  20. Zoiks, Lonewacko! I think you forgot to tell international callers to dial their AT&T operators!

  21. thoreau,

    I hear you about how helping rebels/reformists in foreign countries has the potential of doing them more harm than good. But at the same time, I would think that any feasiblity of helping those fine folks would imply being able to communicate with them, and if we can communicate with them, couldn’t we simply ask them if they want our help or not? And couldn’t we assume that they’d know whether or not our help would be a good idea better than you or I?

  22. Tim: “The cultural right is as uncomfortable with capitalist products”

    That;s right. Just watch O’Reilly any night with his right-populist message and you can see it.

  23. Tim: “The cultural right is as uncomfortable with capitalist products”

    That’s right. Just watch O’Reilly any night with his right-populist message and you can see it.

  24. Zorel, Kluge,

    Kerry said that he thought the war on terrorism was “more of” an intelligence and law enforcement operation than a military problem. He has repeatedly posited a conventional military role. Given that the conventional war fought in Iraq turned out to have achieved neither the disruption of significant terrorist operations or the elimination of WMDs, do you really think it signifies a lack of attention to terrorism to shift more emphasis onto the other two arrows in the quiver – cops and spooks?

  25. Screw Bush and Kerry,
    Martha Stewart for President!!!

  26. Sorry for the long post but I’m pissed. Here is why Bush won’t be elected.

    “I don’t have the time this morning to talk in detail about all the incidents that come to mind. Larry Lindsay, for instance, seems to have been fired as the President’s Economic Advisor because he spoke honestly about the costs of the Iraq War. General Shinseki seems to have become a target when he spoke honestly about the number of troops that would be needed in Iraq.

    There are many others, who are less well known, who have also faced consequences for speaking out. U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers was suspended from her job when she disclosed budget problems that our nation’s parks are less safe, and Professor Elizabeth Blackburn was replaced on the Council on Bioethics because of her scientific views on stem-cell research.

    “Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill stepped forward to criticize the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy, he was immediately ridiculed by the people around the President and his credibility was attacked. Even worse, the Administration launched a government investigation to see if Secretary O’Neill improperly disclosed classified documents. He was, of course, exonerated, but the message was clear. If you speak freely, there will be consequences.”

    “Ambassador Joseph Wilson also learned that lesson. Ambassador Wilson, who by all accounts served bravely under President Bush in the early 1990s, felt a responsibility to speak out on President Bush’s false State of the Union statement on Niger and uranium. When he did, the people around the President quickly retaliated. Within weeks of debunking the President’s claim, Ambassador Wilson’s wife was the target of a despicable act.”

    “In recent weeks Richard Foster, an actuary for the Department of Health and Human Services, has revealed that he was told he would be fired if he told Congress and the American people the real costs of last year’s Medicare bill.”

    “The White House’s former lead counter-terrorism advisor, Richard Clarke, is under fierce attack for questioning the White House’s record on combating terrorism. Mr. Clarke has served in four White Houses, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s Administration, and earned an impeccable record for his work. Now the White House seeks to destroy his reputation.”

    –Floor Statement of Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle

  27. fyodor-

    I’d be reluctant to give them money just because they asked for it. Show some politicians, even well-meaning reformists, the vast coffers of the the US Treasury, and they’ll have a hard time saying no. I’d want an across-the-board consensus from reformists that this will help their cause, not just funding for any reformist who happens to ask for it.

  28. Zorel– “Kerry himself said that the war against terror is a law enforcement issue”

    Stimpy — “What is the basis of your claims about John Kerry’s beliefs w.r.t. fighting terrorism?”

    Kerry in SC primary speech —
    “…it’s primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world — the very thing this administration is worst at. And most importantly, the war on terror is also an engagement in the Middle East economically, socially, culturally, in a way that we haven’t embraced, because otherwise we’re inviting a clash of civilizations.” — JFKerry

    Had Gore or Kerry been president after 911 Afghanistan would still be Taliban, but that isn’t to say that after the bashing Bush has given the middle east with just 600 lost that JFKerry wouldn’t go after someone with an army. The loyal opposition cried when it was 100 lost, and they would cry at 5000 being lost. Remember what a quagmire Afghanistan was predicted to be. The Russians, Brits and all of history had taught the lesson of fighting in Afghanistan, but it fell under the efforts of a few hundred Americans. Kerry saw that lesson. Surely he will be fearless.

    Kerry wouldn’t squander having two US land armies/ air force with ground airfields in countries sitting adjacent to a dozen states that might support terrorist acts. Neither Gore, Kerry nor Bush has or would have gotten bin Laden. That is going to take persistence, chance, and luck. He man is in a spider hole of one sort or another. But the countries, the governments that would have once been openly supportive of him now have leaders that know that within hours, missiles could be coming through the windows and roofs of their offices, homes and automobiles. What influence they have is to NOT have another 911. Kerry would definitely care more about what the world, and the UN, thought of anything he ordered. Bush’s big picture of the making of history is strategic, and I believe Kerry’s would be also, but would give more weight to what the world thought of him, now and later.

  29. L” –Floor Statement of Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle ”

    Old Tom and his personality is a liability.
    That list of his is right out of James Carvelle, which is the current ammo belt of the Dems.
    Destroy the trust in Bush by calling him a liar,
    by calling him a deserter from the guard, by blaming 911 on him, by pointing at education,
    by blaming the economy on him, especially jobs,
    by counting the dead in Iraq, and it will be a new thing each week. If only the dems could get some SIN on Bush. The old drunk driving, college fraternity fun loving image is too old, and make dubya real, and down to earth, likeable. Kerry could use some of that history to humanize him. Kerry will look good skiing down some Swiss alp, or bicycling through France, speaking to cheering French, drinking a toast of wine, going to south Africa with his wife. Mexico’s V-fox is going to feel left out.

  30. Mo
    “Bush showed that margin of victory isn’t going to change how someone governs.”

    How do you figure? Maybe the medicare thing, the steel tarif thing, the campeign finance reform thing, were all due to the fact that he new he had won on such a small margin that he needed to win votes.

  31. As to whether Bush has governed without regard for his margin of victory:

    The Bush administration is a political Rohrschach test. Those who want to can find ample “evidence” that he is running the most extreme right-wing administration in the history of this country. Likewise, those who want to can find ample “evidence” that he isn’t a real conservative, and that he’s constantly pandering to the left.

  32. Gadfly, I am also generally against a purely symbolic, “send ’em a message” vote. In this case, however, you can listen to the words of the major LP aspirants for President and hear the message of limited, constitutional government in no uncertain terms; only a true idiot could miss or misconstrue that message, and if the many true idiots in Washington obstinately do so, media-empowered Libertarians will be around to correct their mistaken interpretations. Remember that my point in voting Libertarian this year is not simply to send the message, but to empower the messengers, at least through increased media exposure that a healthy Libertarian vote total will earn.

    I also think that it is far better to send a message with a ballot than with a bullet, or a bomb. The role of terrorism in American elections (homegrown terrorism, at least) has so far been minimized, precisely because we have electoral mechanisms of relative integrity and a longstanding tradition of peaceful transition of power in this country. Your analogy to terrorism would seem to place Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry in the role of a bomb, which would be exploded on the public scene by Libertarian voters, “sending a message.” I am telling you that there is no bomb; or at least, that either fellow will be as much of a bomb as the other, and that we are guaranteed to get ONE of them, anyway. In either case, voting “bomb, no-bomb” is self-defeating. It is better, I feel, to attach some unambiguous information to your vote. Don’t think of a Libertarian vote as a “protest vote.” Think of it as a way to modulate the ultimate result of the election in a more libertarian direction. In this way, at least, we can make a difference, and perhaps even win something of value with our votes: by no means “pissing them away.”

  33. The way the US political system is, we can be fairly sure that either Bush or Kerry will be President-elect on the other side of election day. Recently, many have recognized that the choice between “Bush or Kerry” is the choice between “six of one or half-a-dozen of the other.” Minor details may differ between the two, but the basic results will be the same, regardless of who wins: the federal government will get bigger, be more in your face, and take and spend more of your money.

    So, what is someone to do, who wants limited, constitutional government? If you vote for either Bush or Kerry, the winner won’t take away any message except “we like you” or “we don’t like you.” If enough people vote for the winner, he’ll claim a voter mandate in support of his positions, even if a large chunk of his support came from people who just simply didn’t like the other guy. I don’t want that perverse result; do you?

    I think it is critically important to deny the winner a mandate for his big-government positions, and at the same time draw his attention to a TRUE mandate for limited, constitutional government. We can do this very simply, by voting Libertarian.

    Especially if you have never voted before, if you have refused to vote because you didn’t think your vote mattered, or you didn’t want to encourage the misbehavior of the political class, please consider voting Libertarian this year. The larger the Libertarian vote total, the more the winner will be reminded that there is a constituency for liberty in America. The smaller the winning plurality, the more the “defeated” Libertarian candidate and other Libertarians will have media opportunities to critique the winner’s performance during the next four years, enthusiastically holding his feet to the fire. That’s how things worked in Wisconsin, after Libertarian Ed Thompson’s shoe-string third-party campaign for governor garnered a much stronger response on election day than pundits and opponents expected. Thompson’s vote total was so high (10% in an essentially three-way race), that he earned the Wisconsin LP a seat on the state elections board (required by law!), and opened media doors for himself and LP representatives that have remained open ever since. Every time a Wisconsin Libertarian has received column inches or airtime, politicians-as-usual have felt the heat.

    You can help make that kind of thing happen on a national scale — by voting Libertarian — at the same time you put salt on the tail of a presidential winner who might otherwise fly free to cause all sorts of mischief in Washington.

    The one thing you should try to avoid if you can, is getting sucked into the GOP/Demo horserace and mutual loathing festival. If you actually like Bush or Kerry, by all means vote for the one you like. But if you don’t particularly like either one, don’t let what happened in 2000 spook you into thinking that you simply MUST vote for the one you dislike less, in order to prevent the other guy from causing the end of the world and the death of all that is good and pure. Remember, six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. It takes courage to risk that the guy you like less will win, just to send a message. But neither Bush nor Kerry is likely to pay attention to your desire for limited constitutional government unless that message is sent, loudly and clearly. So have the courage to send it. Please consider voting Libertarian in 2004.

  34. I get your point and agree – to a point. You fixed on the terrorist/bomb analogy a bit too much, which is unfortunate. Maybe a better one would be marijuana dealers doing life in prison or three strikes laws or Martha Stewart trials, all done to “send a message” instead of trying to address a specific situation.

    I have seen some (by no means all) complete lunatics running under the Libertarian flag. Voting for one of these guys to send a message of some sort is an abuse of a privilege half the world doesn’t have. If, however, you have the good fortune of having a decent, thoughtful candidate like James, by all means vote for him.

  35. Tom amplify on James’s post:

    It’s easy to point to some particular position endorsed by the LP candidate, including a position on various highly controversial issues, and say “I vehemently disagree with him!” Guess what? You could do the same for Bush or Kerry.

    However, the fact is that the media and Republicrats probably won’t take your vote for an LP candidate as an endorsement of each and every fine point of the LP candidate’s platform. It will simply be recorded as a vote for a candidate who supported smaller government.

    Also, if the LP candidate actually had a chance at winning, those disagreements would matter more. You wouldn’t want to elect somebody who will (in your opinion) be a disaster on some crucial issue. In this case, however, if you vote for the LP candidate there’s no danger of electing him and watching him do horrific damage on some crucial issue.

    Finally, the 2 campaigns are targeting 18 states this year. For those living in the other 32 states there’s some good news: Your vote doesn’t really matter! 🙂 Seriously, though, what it means is that since the outcome in your state isn’t in any serious doubt, you can vote third party (e.g. LP) and send a message without having to worry that you’re helping a “greater evil” defeat a “lesser evil.”

    And, even if you live in one of those 18 pivotal states, remember that by November that list will probably be winnowed down somewhat, and odds are that only a handful of them will come down to a Florida-thin margin where you might have cause to kick yourself.

    So, basically, recognize that it’s “safe” to vote LP, and recognize that a vote for the LP will be interpreted as a vote for smaller gov’t overall, not just a vote for whichever particular aspect of the LP platform you disagree with.

  36. Thoreau

    This thread is probably due to drop…

    but there IS one argument I raise over and over, and you simply KEEP ignoring, although its significance is obvious:

    Bush can ONLY serve one more term, and Kerry, if elected is eligible for two, and has a fair chance of serving both, if history is precedent worth going by. In any assessment that both candidates are more-or-less equally bad, that has got to weigh heavily.

    I can only imagine a candidate who might seriously address some of our problems in 2008 emerging from the Republican party– the candidate you get from the Democrats in 2008, if Kerry is elected, is Kerry.

    I would prefer THAT candidate to be running for an open seat with a friendly White House. Rather than running against an entrenched Democrat with not only a good chance to win, but a powerful incentive to spend us into the next millenium trying.

  37. I am deeply suspicious of any act that’s intended to “send a message”.

    Terrorists send messages with their bombs. Legislatures and special interest groups send messages by mandating inordinately goofy regulations. The general theme of sending messages is to take some idealogical high ground apart from reality to make a point. The problem is that nobody knows exactly what the message is – it’s in the eye of the beholder.

    This election will be swung by the undecided 5% of the voters. If you want to piss away your vote on a third party to send a message, you have separated yourself from reality.

  38. Gadfly: Don’t judge this year’s candidates by whatever tickled your funny bone in previous elections. I’m not saying that you’ll necessarily find someone that you, Gadfly, will like, but at very least you have a whole new lineup to consider.

    I would pay particular attention to Gary Nolan (www.garynolan.com), Michael Badnarik (www.badnarik.org), and Aaron Russo (www.russoforpresident.com). At least give ’em a look. The LP presidential nominee will be chosen in convention (Atlanta) at the end of May (www.lp.org).

  39. Gadfly,
    I live in California. Kerry’s probably going to win this state. My vote for the LP candidate won’t mean squat to him. If the LP gets enough votes to get some electoral influence (like James described in Wisconsin) you don’t throw your vote away.

    At least if you vote for a third party, you can create change, even after a loss. You can’t do that in a major party. I say if you vote for a major party candidate and they lose, you throw your vote away. Bush showed that margin of victory isn’t going to change how someone governs.

  40. I hadn’t known, until I read the article, that Kerry was an advocate of forced labor for high school students. It doesn’t change much; both he and Bush are too repugnant to vote for. Most people either want stuff at other people’s expense or want to force other people to live in certain ways, and that’s what American Democracy is all about. But the details are useful, in a masochistic way.

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