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November 9, 2001
Democracy Begins At Home
The 2000 Election must not be forgotten.
Michael Smith/Newsmakers
Our political and media elites seem to think that Americans are simply too fragile to deal with more than one crisis at a time..

istorians reflecting upon America’s rough transition from the 20th to the 21st century will identify two crises on which the nation’s future turned. Both will be recalled to have arisen with little warning, to have exposed fundamental flaws in the political, legal and bureaucratic structures of the nation, and to have demanded dramatic responses that would change forever how the United States conducts its affairs. And historians will explain, with the wisdom of time, that it is unnecessary to debate the relative consequence of these two crises; rather, they will argue, it is vital to recognize the clear consequence of both.

One of these crises is, at this critical stage, inescapable. The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the response to them, have consumed the interest and energy of the nation. The second of these crises, though it too demands dramatic responses, has been shunted aside with such force that political and media elites do not dare address it—for fear the mere mention of the issue will affront a newly stirred patriotic fervor.

The contested presidential election of 2000 has been pushed so far off the national radar that a consortium of media outlets, after spending more than $1 million to sort through Florida’s uncounted ballots in search of a winner, felt no compunctions about delaying revelation of the results for two months in order to avoid the suggestion of disloyalty to a president whose electoral legitimacy remains dubious at best.

A year ago on November 7, a clear plurality of Florida voters joined a plurality of their fellow American voters in going to the polls to elect Democrat Al Gore as their president. Gore’s national popular vote win is well documented, but the preferences of Florida voters that should have given him that state’s 25 electoral votes and the presidency were obscured by 36 days of partisan machinations from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay’s Izod-clad rioters and the complacent media. When those manipulations proved insufficient, the unprecedented intervention of a Supreme Court controlled by Republican partisans handed George W. Bush the presidency.

Over the ensuing months, industrious journalists, engaged academics and angry citizens have, in piecemeal yet ultimately conclusive fashion, exposed the fallacy of partisan pronouncements about Bush’s “mandate.” Even if some artificial standards applied in media recounts continue to concede Bush technical victories, the obvious intent of the electorate was otherwise. “There’s a pretty clear pattern from these ballots,” explains University of California at Irvine political scientist Anthony Salvanto, who conducted some of the first and most exhaustive examinations of contested ballots. “Most of these people went to the polls to vote for Al Gore.”

The attention paid to electoral matters in the post-Florida period also has exposed a democratic infrastructure that is in serious disrepair. A General Accounting Office survey of election officials nationwide found that 57 percent of jurisdictions experienced “major problems” in conducting the 2000 election. Yet, one year after that election, with Bush enjoying 90 percent approval ratings, the elite consensus seems to be that it is no longer appropriate to talk about the crisis, the systemic flaws it exposed or the uncertain “mandate” it produced for Bush. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution summed up the official consensus when he said “the window of opportunity has closed” for reform. While there will be continued tinkering with the process—including a bipartisan congressional “compromise” dressed up as reform—calls for a genuine every-vote-must-count system are muffled at best.

So is that the end of it? Have 19 terrorists succeeded where the Supreme Court and the Republican Party could not, in legitimizing the presidency of George W. Bush and delegitimizing forever those who would challenge the result of the most intensely contested American presidential vote since Rutherford B. Hayes stole the White House from Samuel Tilden in 1876? Was faith in the possibility of a meaningful response to the crisis of American democracy extinguished with so many other hopes on September 11?

t the highest level of American inquiry and discourse, the answer is yes. Even before the attacks, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer responded to a New York Times exposé of widespread Republican manipulation of the military-ballot count by arguing, “This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on.”

Fleischer’s “let’s not go there” dismissal of questions about the quality of his boss’ “mandate” are to be expected. But since September 11, Fleischerism has become bipartisan in scope—as prominent Democrats such as Virginia Rep. Jim Moran have dropped calls for reform to declare, “I feel comfortable with President Bush.” An October media survey of 15 top Democratic backers of Gore found not one willing to criticize Bush or the manner in which he was “elected.” Even when New York City miscounted thousands of ballots in the October 11 Democratic mayoral runoff—casting into question the result of that already delayed election—few Democrats renewed calls for federally mandated improvements in electoral machinery and counting procedures.

The “news” from the nation’s media elites is even less encouraging. What Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz calls “The Story that Devoured the Media” has, indeed, subsumed all other discourse. Television networks cannot be bothered to provide serious coverage of current debates about civil liberties and international trade, let alone examine contentious questions about the legitimacy of the election of the man who is using the current crisis to advance an ambitious social and economic agenda that, on September 10, appeared itself to be in crisis.

No wonder, then, that immediately after September 11, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and CNN decided to withhold results of the exhaustive review they had commissioned of more than 170,000 rejected Florida ballots. The consortium project was always a dubious endeavor, as it took the counting process out of the context of the election and attempted to establish uniform procedures for ballot review in a state that never embraced such consistency. Yet Gore backers clung to the belief that the evidence of a true Florida result—and the case for fundamental electoral reform—could be found amid the overvotes and undervotes.

But after September 11, as Dow Jones spokesman Steven Goldstein explained on behalf of the Journal, “Our belief is that the priorities of the country have changed, and our priorities have changed.” Overseas, where a freer press speaks with a blunter voice, London’s Telegraph newspaper wrote that “hope for a Gore victory appears to have been sacrificed on the altar of patriotism and a perception that America needs to be led into war by a strong president.”

Even as the consortium finally prepared in mid-November to release the results of its study, the signal had been sent: Our political and information elites believe that Americans are simply too fragile to deal with more than one crisis at a time.

nd what of this message? Is it possible that the media mandarins and the disquieted Democratic officials of Washington are right to believe that, after September 11, the American people have little taste for the truth, or even for correction of a corrupted and corrupting electoral system?

For a brief moment following the September 11 attacks, I wondered. Since last spring, I had been at work on a book examining the Florida fight and the Supreme Court intervention that concluded it. After September 11, colleagues in Washington and New York were quick to express their condolences. “Well, that’s it for your book,” said a congressional Democrat. “Nobody can criticize Bush now.” An academic who had taught me more than I needed to know about ballot scanners and touchscreen technologies said, “The anniversary of November 7 was going to make it impossible even for the Republicans to avoid election reform. Now, we’ll get nothing. It’ll be a footnote.”

Wearing my new asterisk of irrelevance, I headed west this fall for a speaking tour that took me to Minneapolis, Boise, Portland and Seattle. And, as is so often the case, I was reminded that elite media and political sensibilities may define the parameters of official debate, but they do not define the American discourse. From audiences I had expected to talk only of September 11 came repeated questions about November 7. Sometimes they were tentative. A woman in Boise asked if it was appropriate to bring up the fact that, as she put it, “Bush may be the commander-in-chief but he was not elected president.” A lawyer in Portland was more confident: “Bush is handling the war better than I ever expected, better than Gore would have. But Bush did steal that election.”

What I have found on the speaker circuit, on radio shows and in late-night conversations at the back of bookstores is that, war or no, there is a willingness to open the wounds of November 7 to heal what, in so many ways, was an assault on American values and institutions. I should not have been surprised. Since the founding of this country, Americans have proven themselves capable of asking and answering tough questions about their presidents and their democracy in times of war and domestic crisis.

uring the War of 1812, as the British were burning the Capitol, young Henry Clay asserted the authority of Congress over the weak presidency of James Madison, while John Adams and Thomas Jefferson conducted an extended debate about the dangers of an American aristocracy. In the midst of the Civil War, when some Republicans urged him to call off the election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln accepted the schedule, faced challenges within his own party and from a decorated general running as a Democrat—and prevailed. Declaring victory, Lincoln told supporters that conducting a divisive election in a time of war had been “a necessity.” “We cannot have free government without free elections,” he said. “If the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly be claimed to have already conquered and ruined us.”

But what of a debate about the very quality of the democracy for which Americans are said to be fighting? What if the debate directly challenges the man sitting in the White House? Should this debate not be put aside until a more convenient time?

Alice Paul would tell us not to make that mistake. At the opening of World War I, the women’s suffrage movement faced a critical test. Moderates argued that women would win the right to vote only by appearing to be more patriotic than men. But Paul and the radical suffragists of the National Women’s Party refused to compromise their demand that President Woodrow Wilson endorse a constitutional amendment granting women equal citizenship. They picketed the White House daily with signs that identified Wilson as a hypocrite for sending American soldiers to “die for democracy” when America was a democracy “in name only.”

The women were attacked in the streets, taunted as traitors and branded “Bolsheviks” by the Chicago Tribune. Wilson ordered the suffragists arrested. More than 200 were jailed. Eventually Paul led a hunger strike so embarrassing to Wilson that he was forced to release her in December 1917. Barely one month later, under continued pressure from Paul and her allies, Wilson announced his support for women’s suffrage. The next day, the House narrowly endorsed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Within three years, women had the vote.

Can a nation sustain more than one debate at a time of war? Can citizens question the legitimacy of their president even as he struggles to respond to domestic and international threats? Can the demand for radical reform be made in a time of uncertainty and fear? Ari Fleischer may say “no,” but American history tells us that answer is “yes.” This country has never been so fragile that it lacked for patriots capable of defending both its security and its democracy. And, though you see them rarely on television screens and in the halls of Congress, there are millions of American patriots who today recognize that it is possible to be loyal Americans while still asking questions about whether the democracy George W. Bush has spoken of with uncharacteristic eloquence is fully functional.

s the anniversary of November 7 approached, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) stood on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington to announce plans for a package of electoral reforms—including a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. He was accompanied by top academics, leaders of the NAACP and other reformers, but there were no other members of Congress and few reporters present.

Had Jackson traveled to the rural Midwest, however, I can guarantee he would have encountered a more enthusiastic response from people like the woman who speculated about what would have happened if the terrorist attacks had come on September 11, 2000, and been followed two months later by an inconclusive election result. “You would think someone would be saying that we have to fix this thing before it creates a constitutional crisis we really can’t handle,” she told me. “Why can’t people in Washington see that?”

The answer to that question—as Jackson is the first to note—must take the form of another question: When will we reformers start to demand, without apology, that our political leaders treat November 7 with at least a measure of the seriousness they have accorded September 11? We do not diminish the dead, nor the struggle to protect the living, when we say that this country is strong enough to face tough questions about the legitimacy of its leaders and its democracy even in a time of war and uncertainty. Rather, we prove a national strength and resolve that run deeper than personalities, to the very heart of the American experiment.

Alice Paul would tell us that, in challenging leaders in a time of war to make real their talk of democracy, we practice the truest patriotism. In an oral history, conducted toward the end of her long life, Paul recalled the “radical” sign that stirred so much controversy outside the White House during World War I. It read: “Democracy should begin at home.”

John Nichols is the author of Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One about the Theft of the American Presidency? (New Press), a book on the 2000 election debacle.


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