The American Election - Part II
At the end of my last column in The Free Radical ("The American Election," November 2000-January 2001), I asserted:
"Political wisdom tells us that, barring any unforeseen circumstances, when economic times are good, the party in power usually stays in power. So, that means . . . environmentalist Al Gore, "inventor" of the Internet, will [be] elected the next U.S. President. But since there's not much of a difference between the Tweedle Dees and the Tweedle Dums of Republicrat politics, it just means four more years of the status quo."
Well, if Election 2000 proves anything it is that political wisdom is not always to be trusted. While, as a political scientist, I still stand by my ultimate conclusion - that the status quo is well preserved - I am pretty impressed with the dynamics of our most recent presidential election. I'm actually a bit disappointed that I didn't get to see this thing thrown into the House of Representatives for final decision: if I'm going to witness history, it might as well go all the way! Still, this was the first time since the nineteenth century that a candidate failed to win the popular vote, while winning the Presidency.
Political pundits agree that the race was Gore's to lose, and I think there were many factors contributing to his very narrow defeat. First: Clinton fatigue.
Though Clinton remains personally popular, the VP tried to separate himself from Clinton's scandals and may have suffered the same fatigue of incumbency as that suffered by Ford, in the post-Nixon years.
Second: the "character" issue. Al had a few problems determining such things as truth but I don't think he was much more extraordinary on this issue than most politicians. Third: the "personality" issue. Al was perceived as too "stiff." And finally: any number of other issues - from gun control to abortion - that influenced select voting blocks.
Two additional factors have not been suggested by anyone respectable: that Gore's choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman may have turned off a few anti-Semitic voters, especially in the midwest and the south - which voted overwhelmingly Republican; and that Bush could have won in a landslide if some people had not been turned off by the possibility of having a recovering substance abuser in office. Having served on the Board of Trustees of a substance abuse clinic in Brooklyn, even I recognize the mantras of recovering alcoholics, who say they haven't touched a drink in X number of years. In elections this close, fringe issues like this might have a subtle effect on the mind of any individual voter, even if they are not revealed in exit polls.
Among the more interesting commentaries on the election is one by Robert Tracinski. In The Intellectual Activist (December 2000), Tracinski claims that the election proves that there are "two Americas." The first America consists of urban areas and bi-coastal states that voted Democratic because they are dominated by "liberal-arts-educated-elites," die-hard labor unionists, collectivist racial minorities, and people looking for handouts. The second America is uniquely and ruggedly individualist, a place for the "American 'common man' [who] tends to believe in independence, individual responsibility, and self-reliance. These people don't want government interference in their lives," says Tracinski, "they want smaller government, less welfare, less regulation." States dominated by such voters went overwhelmingly for Bush.
I say: Hogwash. Yes, there are two Americas - but often one finds that the two Americas coalesce inside the individual conscience of each American voter. Yes, there are real collectivists and real individualists out there, but most people embody a "mixed economy" of the spirit, as Rand once observed. Some lean conservative: they want less regulation, except when it means middle class "entitlements"or corporate welfare or rural farm subsidies or defense contracts or getting the government to promote prayer in public schools or to prohibit reproductive and sexual lifestyle choices. Some lean liberal: they want government out of the prayer business, they want reproductive and sexual freedom, but they're too busy planning the next government boondoggle and tax increases to fund it. Some nativists go all the way: they want government regulation of everything - from the music and film industry to immigration and trade to homosexuality and abortion.
When economic times are relatively good, it is the non-economic issues that, on the margin, exert a greater influence on people's choices. In the midwest and the south, where voters awarded Bush his biggest victories, exit polls tell us that people were less concerned about the economy, and more concerned about social issues. They were pissed at Democratic attempts at greater gun control (consistent with libertarianism), but they were just as pissed at Democratic liberal attitudes on abortion and homosexuality. The theocratic right-wing voted overwhelmingly for Bush, and as soon as his election was certified, they all started screaming that Bush "owed" them big.
The truth is, however, that Presidents have limited power; the federal system and the division of branches profoundly fracture the functions of American government. More often than not, this fragmentation has had the effect of moving Presidents toward the political center as they attempt to build consensus. (The old adage that "only Nixon could go to China" still holds true, for the most part.) Occasionally, a politician will be elected with a voter mandate of sorts, but in these situations, the President's most significant influence is ideological. The Reagan record, for example, was far less economically libertarian than his rhetoric may have suggested, but Reagan, like Thatcher, legitimized free market positions. Reagan's greatest legacy is his impact on the parameters of debate in the last two decades of American politics.
Like his predecessors, Bush will most likely embrace the political center. He prides himself on being a "compassionate conservative," a "uniter, not a divider," and a man of ideological "flexibility." In the days after Gore's concession, he focused on political appointments of moderate Eisenhower-type Republicans, both African Americans: Colin Powell, a black man, for Secretary of State and Condoleeza Rice, a black woman, as National Security Advisor. He has mentioned tax cuts, while indicating his desire to "save" Social Security - but deep cuts and effective privatization are probably not even on the table, given a bitterly divided Congress (a 50-50 division in the Senate and a slim Republican lead, 222-213, in the House). He aims to provide prescription drug coverage for senior citizens and Medicare recipients, and he hopes to "save" American public education.
Given these positions, there will probably be overlap and continuity from big Bush to Clinton to little Bush. A divided government may prevent little Bush, however, from seeking to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court who would like to bring back abortion by coat-hanger or quack doctor.
In the end, a renaissance of reason and freedom has probably been put on hold for now.
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