The crowds demonstrating outside Florida courtrooms and counting rooms have been reminding me of the historical opera “Boris Godounov.” It opens with peasants milling about, waiting to find out who will be their next czar. Every now and then a handler comes out and whips them up to yell for Boris, who is not the rightful successor. The music reinforces the ominous tone of corruption.
Noisy crowds should not influence vote counts or court decisions. The constantly repeated query “are Americans getting tired of this yet?” is ominous, when the real question is “for whom did Americans really vote?” There is no noble reason to suppress, delay, or disqualify the careful recounting of disputed votes.
Generations from now, when present passions are spent, when George W. Bush is only a historic name like Boris Godounov, when the facts are viewed in the cool light of history, the U.S. 2000 election will be presented as a drama of corruption, small and large. Small partisan shenanigans in Florida. Large cracks in the political process that elevated two candidates so evenly unlikable that small-scale corruption could swing the outcome.
When the story is told fairly, it will show both sides playing tricks to tilt the vote. But scholars will note that Florida was in the hands of the Republican brother of one of the candidates. The legislature and political appointees were predominantly Republican. The Republican party was full of far-right, take-no-prisoners power brokers, furious that eight years of vicious attempts to depose a Democratic president had failed.
The history books will consider it important that:
- Exiting voters gave pollsters the impression that they had tilted slightly but definitively toward Gore. The networks were mocked for forecasting wrong from those polls, but they may have read voter intent right.
- Tens of thousands of ballots in Democratic counties were discarded because of mechanical flaws.
- The only county that registered thousands of votes for anti-Semite Pat Buchanan has a large Jewish population. That result makes no sense until you see how that county’s confusing ballot must have misrecorded votes meant for Gore.
- Black voters, overwhelmingly Democratic, were harassed and turned away from polling places.
- Republican partisans spent days behind the scenes in at least two county offices, tampering with absentee ballots.
- With a vanishing narrow lead, Republicans put enormous effort into blocking or discrediting all recounts.
This is ugly stuff, but small, probably only shifting a few thousand votes, important only because by the quirks of the electoral system it had the power to decide the election.
The large issue is what the history books will say happened next. They could say that Americans rose up in outrage over this erosion of their democratic rights. The people insisted on trustworthy vote-counting mechanisms in all states and counties. They made sure that ballot handling, before and after elections, was bipartisan and balanced. They reaffirmed and enforced their voting rights act. They promptly voted the power brokers out of office.
Then they asked why they had been served up such puny candidates. How did indolent, ignorant Bush prevail over tough, moral, experienced McCain? How did the mechanical showoff Gore beat out the genuine, dedicated Bradley? The problems were clear: money and misleading publicity. Interdependent problems, both fixable. The people insisted on getting elections financed from their taxes (so candidates not only had an even playing field but were beholden only to them) and air time evenly available instead of buyable. In reclaiming their democracy, the American people inspired others all over the world to do the same.
Or the story might go another direction. Dispirited by mendacious candidates and disrespect for their votes, the people sank into a TV-fed trance. Declaring the system stupid and crooked, they ignored it, leaving the dark-minded manipulators of the sock-puppet president to their own devices. The sock-puppet permitted them to gut Social Security, weaken education, enrich the rich, despoil natural resources, and flood the nation with feel-good public relations (which in other venues is called propaganda).
Corporations had free speech but not people. Court appointees undermined civil rights. The gap between the rich and the poor accelerated. The poor were forgotten, resentful, rebellious. The once-proud nation sank of its own corrupt weight. Finally, all pretense of democracy gone, the power brokers turned on each other.
In Russia, Boris Godounov came to power after many machinations, including the mysterious murder of the rightful heir. He died seven years later. His son was murdered by a pretender, who reigned for a year before he was himself murdered by one of the handlers who had whipped up that crowd that yelled for Boris. That guy lasted four years before he was thrown out by yet another putsch.
That’s what history looks like, when successions are determined by crowd clamor, background manipulation, complete disrespect for the people, and the unrestrained desire for power. That’s what democracy was designed to avoid.