There are a few iconic moments and events that represent profound shifts in American history. Think of the civil rights marches in 1965, the riots at Altamont and Stonewall in 1969, or Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech in 1979.
This week’s GOP primary election in Florida will not rank among them. But with the state in the spotlight again, it’s worth pausing to remember what happened in Florida a dozen years ago, and to wonder why it isn’t better remembered as an iconic moment in our history, and to consider how the 2000 election has shaped our politics in ways that defy all expectations.
Recall that George W. Bush was declared the winner in Florida by about 500 votes, giving him the presidency. Recall also that Bush’s victory was sealed by a 5 – 4 Supreme Court decision that abruptly halted a statewide vote recount.
In the election’s aftermath, the press was concerned more with “healing” than digging into the facts of what happened. And then, after 9⁄11, it was considered unseemly to question the fundamental health of our democracy. The upshot is that we’ve never honestly grappled with the extent of the fraud that occurred in Florida in 2000. But the truth is that the state’s GOP-controlled election was corrupt almost beyond belief.
According to an investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, more than 50 percent of Florida’s 180,000 “spoiled” ballots were cast by African Americans, though blacks constituted only 11 percent of the population. Put another way, ballots cast by African Americans were about nine times more likely to be rejected than ballots cast by the rest of the population. And “the disparity in the spoilage rates,” according to the report, “is not the result of education or literary differences.”
That conclusion was confirmed by a task force assembled by the state’s Republican governor, Jeb Bush.
So tens of thousands of Florida voters were systematically disenfranchised in an election that turned on a few hundred votes. There is bipartisan agreement that this happened. And that was just one of many irregularities favoring Bush. As the journalist Jeffrey Toobin wrote in a judicious account of the election, it’s clear that more Florida voters intended to vote for Gore than Bush, and “in any real, moral, and democratic sense, Al Gore should have been declared the victor… . If the simple preference of the voters behind their curtains was the rule – and it is supposed to be the rule in a democracy – then Gore probably won the state by several thousand votes.”
The terrible implications of that fact are difficult to absorb, and both parties have reasons to move on and just get over it. For Democrats, it’s too painful to think about the long-term damage inflicted by policies that Bush should never have had the power to pursue. And for Republicans, it’s all just whining.
So our response has been repression. We don’t talk about it much. The problems it exposed in our electoral processes were written up in reports – and then ignored. There were reforms to Florida’s election laws, but nothing on the scale one would have expected, and the inevitable calls for abolishing the Electoral College faded after a few months. All the drama of the 2000 election changed very little, apparently.
Except that it did.
It didn’t initiate the wave of soul searching and reform that one might have expected. But it did teach the GOP that it could turn weakness into strength by attacking without shame. The sullying of John Kerry’s war service in 2004 was the most jaw-dropping confirmation of this lesson. But that was just one instance in a broader strategy of shamelessness.
You might think, for example, that Republicans would be shy about making accusations of election fraud after their shenanigans in 2000. Not so. Over the past decade, that accusation has become a powerful galvanizing issue among conservatives. What angers them isn’t the very real possibility that states like Florida are disenfranchising minority voters. It’s the possibility that ineligible voters are casting votes, or that voters are casting multiple votes, though investigations into voter fraud have concluded that it is rare in the extreme. By any normal standard, it shouldn’t be an issue at all.
But the truth of the matter isn’t really the question. Zeal trumps reality. Weakness becomes strength.
Here’s another legacy of the 2000 election that now defines our politics: Winning a majority means nothing. When a 51-majority vote is sufficient to pass legislation, the Senate is heavily but not outrageously tilted toward the smaller and less populous states. When a 60-vote “supermajority” becomes the standard – as it now is for any legislation of consequence – our system is at the mercy of 40 Republican senators who represent between a one-fourth and one-third of the population.
The single most important legacy of the 2000 election, though, was an increasingly conservative and activist Supreme Court. Some pundits speculated that the Court would try to repair its reputation after the election by retreating from the political sphere. Fat chance. Bush’s victory and his subsequent appointees had the opposite effect, giving conservatives a 5 – 4 majority, energizing them politically, and ultimately giving us the Citizens United decision, which has unleashed unlimited corporate spending on our elections.
It’s too painful to dwell on, perhaps, but we now live in a political culture created in large part by electoral fraud in Florida in 2000, and by a Democratic Party that has never come to grips with what the GOP has pulled off since then, or how it has done so. It just doesn’t seem plausible that a political party could advocate tax cuts for the wealthy during a deep recession and remain viable. But then, it didn’t seem plausible that Bush could lose the 2000 election and still be named president; or that John Kerry’s war service would become a liability.
The same is true on issue after issue. From climate change to healthcare to gay rights to torture, the GOP is on the wrong side of history and morality. It wouldn’t survive long in a healthy democracy. But to borrow from the parlance of Donald Rumsfeld: You engage in political battles with the democracy you have, not the one you might wish to have. In our corrupt and out-of-whack system, shamelessness is a proven and potent weapon.
If Democrats hope to prevail this year and beyond, they’ll have to develop an intensity and zeal for telling the truth that is equal to the GOP’s chutzpah. That’s easy to say and hard to do. “The best lack all conviction,” William Butler Yeats wrote, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The one certainty about the coming election season is that the worst will be full of intensity. Whether the best in our system will find their voice – and use it on behalf of truth – is the critical question.