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To European Friends: Explaining the 2004 Election Disaster

November 19, 2004
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:

Thank you for your long, handwritten letter (don't see many of those these days). Yes, I know that our election and our vote-counting process do not make sense to you citizens of Europe. But I'll try to answer your questions as best as I can - it's not easy, since the situation is confusing on this end as well.

As I understand it from your letter, here is the gist of what puzzles you about our electoral process. My explanations follow below.

1. Why do you Americans go crazy at times and choose such unqualified (and/or dumb) leaders?

2. How can you Americans be so politically divided right down the middle for such a long time, until it winds up with one or two states being the deciders? Why can't you settle the fight once and for all, or divide your voting blocs proportionally into your Congress, as we do in our countries?

3. How can you Americans even hope to convince your citizens, and us in other countries, that you have reliable, honest elections when private companies (who have ideological/monetary relationships with one party) manufacture the voting machines, write the secret software that runs them, and, worst of all, have access to the vote-counting tabulation process? Why should anyone accept the legitimacy of those results?

4. How come in the last two U.S. presidential elections, even though the final vote was unclear - with hundreds of thousands of ballots still to be counted, amid allegations of fraud - the Democratic candidate meekly conceded and didn't put up any fuss? Doesn't your Opposition party want to win?

5. How come Bush can win a second term when a substantial majority of the U.S., according to polls, thinks the war in Iraq was a bad idea and won't turn out well at all? The war, as has been demonstrated convincingly by official study after study, was based on the false premises that Iraq possessed huge stockpiles of WMDs and would use them on its neighbors and against the U.S. mainland, and that Saddam was connected to Al Qaida and the 9/11 attacks. Even the Bush Administration eventually had to admit the falsity of those claims, and now your young men and women are being slaughtered, along with more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Why elect the man who got you into that mess in the first place?

1. WHY DO YOU ELECT CLOWNS & DOLTS?

Where I live, in California, we elected a song-and-dance man (George Murphy) and a rabble-rousing university president (S.I. Hawakawa) to be United States Senators, and a Grade B movie actor (Ronald Reagan) to be governor, who then went on to be elected President. We also recently recalled a competent if plodding governor and replaced him with another Grade B actor, a former body-builder (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Minnesota recently had a professional wrestler for governor (Jesse Ventura).

Americans have elected would-be dictators as President (Richard Nixon, George W. Bush).

We have passed on clearly highly-qualified candidates (Adlai Stevenson, for one) and had to endure dolts and mediocrities (Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush).

On the other hand, we have elected those from whom we weren't expecting all that much (Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton), only to be pleasantly surprised with how they grew into the job, despite their tragic flaws and policies of great error.

So, as you can see, we Americans exhibit absolutely no consistency with regard to the person we elect as President. And their election often has little to do with their innate intelligence, or lack thereof.

I think what you're really asking is how, having watched for four years as George W. Bush has disgraced the presidency and demonstrated his inability to rise to the occasion, we could have elected this guy.

Virtually all of the presidents mentioned above behaved civily to their political opponents. (Nixon was an exception: dirty tricks to win election, compiling an "enemies" list to punish, heinous felonies.) And the mass media were much more investigatory and independent.

But the hard-right, which cares not a fig for democratic institutions - other than in how it can manipulate them - decided to forego civility and go for total annihilation of their opposition. Right-wing billionaires established think-tanks, bought up and founded mass-media outlets (national radio talk shows, cable TV shows, Fox News, et al.), spent millions on training college-age Republicans, etc. That hard-right infrastructure was in place for nearly 15 years or more, and is getting stronger, especially given its current tight alliances with the fundamentalist/evangelical churches.

The Democrats, meanwhile, still dreaming of their glory days in the ascendancy decades before, were essentially clueless about what was happening beneath the radar - and even when the hard-right boasted loudly of their plans, they still didn't get it.

Day-by-day or every four years?

The Republicians view the political war as ongoing, day-by-day building their fortress stronger, whereas the Democrats treat politics as a once-every-two-or-four-year battle. No wonder they continually get their butts stomped, even when the public in so many areas of policy agrees more with their domestic programs. (Plus, the Democrats have yet to figure out how to both maintain the moral high ground and fight back against the GOP's cutthroat brand of politics.)

In short, the Karl Roves in that hard-right world figured out how to use the conglomerate-owned mass media and the "religious" right-wing to their advantage, while the Democrats tend not to get in gear until late in the election game - too late, as it turns out.

One more thing: so many Americans lead circumscribed lives of quiet desperation, just trying to get by economically and deal with the fast-moving social and cultural changes that are going on. They look for someone to lead them through the chaos and confusion. This helps explain, as in Muslim cultures as well, the pull of religious fundamentalism and the desire for a theocracy.

Those with simple answers, simple slogans, name-recognition, and celebrity, tap into this social phenomenon; those who "do" nuance, who understand complexity, who listen to what reality is telling them, tend to be dismissed (Stevenson, Kerry). Hence, George W. Bush - who thinks with his "gut," exhibits no curiosity, admits no mistakes, you "know where he stands" - is able to lead so many down the greased ramp toward an incipient American fascism.

The hard-right has been able to subtly shift the voting public's attention away from economic issues - i.e., those that truly and often negatively affect their daily lives - to a kind of cultural class struggle, fanning the flames of fright against enemies they don't know but fear greatly (homosexuals, immigrants, secularists, et al).

2. ABOUT THAT GREAT POLITICAL DIVIDE

The political divide is strong, immense and real. It seems fairly constant, not destined to disappear anytime soon.

If you examine it closely, you can see that the coastal states and those with huge population centers tend to be more liberal, secular, diverse, well-educated, in touch with foreign cultures. Those internal states, among them the once solid (Democratic) South, are less diverse, more religiously-affililiated, less conversant with the larger world beyond our borders.

Those are generalizations; larger metropolitan areas within the internal ("red") states, and those which house major universities, tend to resemble the coastal ("blue") outlook and attitudes. Indeed, what has to be understood is that Bush didn't "sweep" all those red states by huge margins; many of those states are split down the middle as well - often described, in color terms, as neither wholly red nor blue but "purple."

Why that divide? My guess is that it has something to do with the end of two wars.

Women and African Americans

The first was World War II. All wars generate in their wake enormous social, economic and political upheavals.

Women, who assumed traditionally "male" jobs during the war while their husbands and sons were fighting in Europe and in the Pacific, subsumed their desire for equality once the soldiers returned. But that ache for a fuller female role in the body politic and in the workplace would gestate and explode 25 years later in a resurgent feminist movement.

African Americans, who served in the Armed Forces and who worked in traditionally "white" jobs during the war, were more immediately adamant for social justice after WWII, especially since they had fought Aryan racism abroad only to find it still excercising brutal power over their lives when they got back to the States. This pentup desire for equality and freedom led directly to the civil rights struggle for racial equality in the South and elsewhere.

In both instances, white men, especially in the South, felt threatened by moves toward feminist parity and the desire by minorities for equality of treatment. The solid Democratic South gradually, and then swiftly, moved to the Republican Party, which masterfully played the underlying racism and misogony of the South to their advantage. (Obviously, for brevity I'm oversimplifying here, as many other factors were in play as well.)

Locate the new "enemy"

The other war was the Cold War. Our obsession with, and fear of, world communism provided a unifying container for Americans, a way of approaching the world that made sense, an enemy all Americans could revile.

Certainly, the American right-wing could concentrate on that enemy, using fear of communist expansion as their ticket to power. When the Wall came down in East Germany, when the entire communist sytem imploded of its own contradictions in the Soviet Union and its satellites, a new "enemy" had to be identified.

That new enemy became change itself, the social and political landscape that was shifting so rapidly - symbolized by everything we understand by the term "The Sixties" - causing such confusion and personal/social upheaval. Some found comfort in their churches, which offerred more simple ways of observing and dealing with the rapidly changing scene around them. Some looked for possible progenitors to punish for all that confusing change; the new "devils" became homosexuals, secular liberals, feminists, immigrants, and so on.

And the Republican Party, way more prescient than the Democrats in running with demographic shifts - and understanding the desire of many for a simple way of dealing with rapidfire, dislocating change - managed to meld church and fear together for electoral victory after victory.

When 9/11 happened, the GOP attached that running train engine to the new foreign enemy, the "Islamic terrorists," and off they rode into the sunset, untouchable. The Republicans' victory margin is razor-thin, but it's enough, time and time again, and the Democrats are only now, a decade or so late, starting to have a serious internal discussion about how to climb back into real competition for power.

3. WHO VOTES COUNTS, BUT WHO COUNTS THE VOTES RULES

Everyone knew that our balloting and vote-tabulating system was a thorough disaster, as Florida 2000 demonstrated. But the Democrats were asleep at the wheel when Congress passed HAVA (Help America Vote Act) that mandated an eventual switchover to computer-voting machines in all precincts by 2006.

Nearly one-third of American voters cast their ballots on such machines in the 2004 election - machines that provided no paper trail for auditing in case of recounts - with another healthy chunk voting on optical-scanner machines that do provide paper receipts of the numbers on their ballot in case a recount is in order.

The same Republican-supporting companies manufacture the machines, and control the secret software regulating those machines - and tabulate the votes from those machines. At any point along that path, security is so lax that those numbers easily can be manipulated without anyone being the wiser.

As a result, nearly half of the population has no idea if their votes were altered. Thus, two suspect presidential elections in the past four years (along with one midterm vote in 2002). No wonder few Americans or observers from abroad have any reason to trust in the integrity of the U.S. voting process - and thus in the legitimacy of the person serving as President.

The electoral train wreck

The Congressional Democrats, who should have and could have stopped this electoral train wreck before it built up steam, permitted HAVA to pass and required no changes in procedures before the November balloting. Further, neither Kerry nor Edwards nor anyone from their campaign raised the issue of the integrity of balloting and vote-counting prior to November 2. In short, the Republicans were given a virtual free ride - right into the White House.

As I write this, there are recounts ordered in several key states and court challenges to the balloting and vote-tabulating process, but whether they will yield anything significant in terms of possibly changing the 2004 result is problematic - though many of us are doing what we can to promote these recounts and investigations.

If Bush is indeed certified as the winner of the 2004 election, he will enter the presidency with an understood asterix next to his name, as his campaign engaged in all sorts of electoral skullduggery to suppress the Democratic (mainly minority) vote, by intimidation, harassment, destroying voter registration forms, and so on - and may have taken advantage of vote-counting manipulations in optical-scanner and touch-screen voting machines that probably are devoid of "smoking gun" evidence that would definitively prove the rigged vote.

One would hope that, given this constant suspicion about vote-stealing, the system would be fixed for the next (midterm) election in 2006, and for sure for the 2008 presidential vote. But, unless Democrats and worried Republicans join hands to force these reforms, nothing will change. And, of course, the party officials in power, in the White House and in the GOP, have no desire to change anything, since the corrupt system works for them just fine, thank you. (Indeed, they also are trying to prohibit future "exit polling," one of the few ways one can gauge whether vote tallies are honest.)

The logical solution for providing an honest balloting - at least for the next several elections, or until the vote-tabulating can be taken out of the hands of private businessmen - is to return to paper ballots, marked by voters, and counted one by one by monitored voting officials. It's done in Canada, with no problems. But don't count on that logical solution in the U.S. unless the citizenry rises up and absolutely demands it.

4. KERRY DOES A GORE WITH EARLY CONCESSION - WHY?

That is a great mystery, and Kerry hasn't gone into detail, only that the numbers weren't there for him in Ohio. He didn't even mention the possibility of miscounting and fraud there or in other states; he just called it quits.

Because Gore also conceded way early (before going to court) - and then when the Supreme Court installed Bush, was gracious and positive about the need to heal the country - your question is a good one. Are the Democrats just too wimpy, much too gentlemanly, still not realizing that they're facing smashmouth politicos across the aisle, anxious to utterly destroy them as an effective opposition?

There is a theory circulating that Kerry is engaged in political rope-a-dope, that behind the scenes he's watching how the various recounts and court challenges (some by Nader and Cobb) are going, and if things look positive, he'll come out pounding. But I'm not sure I buy it. For one thing, the Democrat establishment and legal team does not appear to be engaged in an energetic effort to get all the facts and numbers and votes counted. And not much energy seems to be expended by the Kerry-Edwards camp either.

Sad to say, unless there is that "smoking gun" - massive mistakes made in vote-counting, incontrovertible evidence of fraud rather than statistical circumstantial evidence, or a confession by a GOP technician as to how some vote numbers may have been manipulated - Bush will be certified as the 2004 winner.

As to why the Democrats aren't fighting back more openly, I simply don't know the answer. Maybe they believe all the vote-recounts in the various states still won't yield a victory and don't want to appear to be "bad sports" and "obstructionists." Maybe Rove threatened Kerry in some meaningful way that we're not aware of. Maybe the Dems just don't want to play gutter politics, choosing to retain the high moral ground for the next time out, even if they appear weak now. Who knows?

5. THE IRAQ WAR'S INFLUENCE ON ELECTORATE

Much of the public was quite aware of how badly the Bush Administration has botched the Iraq Occupation and how much they were bamboozled into supporting the invasion on phony assertions, but they chose to stay with the devil they know rather than go with a new guy they don't know. (Plus, Kerry had painted himself into a no-wiggle-room corner by having voted for the war-authorization bill, and then saying he would have done the same thing now, even knowing about the lies and miscalulations.)

It's entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Iraq will blow up even more explosively in Bush's face in the next several months, further highlighting the bad policy decisions made, and the incompetence of the neo-con war plan. But Bush, like a huntin' dog on scent, is too arrogant and stubborn to concede that he might have made a mistake, so he'll just continue getting young Americans killed in the service of a disastrous failed policy, and maybe try to save himself by attacking another country - Iran? Syria? Yemen? At which point, conceivably, either he might be impeached by a Congress worried about its re-election chances, or his party voted out of Congressional control in 2006. (Assuming an honest, paper-ballot election.)

Of course, if he were smart - what a concept! - Bush would start devising plans for getting out of Iraq, and engineering a just peace in the Middle East, but he's tied to the neo-con agenda of "changing the geopolitical map" in that area of the world (while controlling the oilfields and establishing military bases there, of course), and to backing Ariel Sharon in whatever he wants to do in the Occupied Territories. So it's unlikely there will be any meaningful breakthroughs on the Palestine/Israel issue, and probably not much positive happening in Iraq. But lots of negative stuff will happen, for sure, including a rise in terrorism directed at Americans and our allies.

Well, Jacqueline and Wolfgang, I hope some of this has helped you understand a bit more about our strange, crazyquilt politics in America right now. It's confusing, I grant you, but don't be too pessimistic; as I wrote last year, things are bound to get worse before they get worse, and then they'll get as bad as they can get, and then the American people will demand major change. Hang in there, and keep on keepin' on.

Your friend,
Bernie

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., co-editor of The Crisis Papers, is a former government professor and writer-editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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