Democracy American Style (La Monde diplomatique)

Jay Moore research at
Fri Dec 15 06:12:11 MST 2000

Le Monde diplomatique

                           A PRESIDENCY WEAKENED

                          Democracy American style

   The succession to Bill Clinton has proved laborious. The new president
   will enter the White House with an authority as disputed as the result
      of the vote of 7 November. In some states the difference between
   George W Bush and Al Gore was little more than a few hundred votes, in
   others just a few dozen. The elections for the Senate and the House of
      Representatives have been equally inconclusive. This will force
   Republicans and Democrats to work together in a less buoyant economic
    climate than some months ago. The likely compromise between the two
   parties (which have no fundamental differences between them) will not
   stop the institutional model of the US being gravely tarnished by the
       electoral and legal chaos in Florida. Beyond the issue of the
    miscounting of ballots in some counties, an entire political system
                 has been exposed as archaic and exhausted.

                                      by SERGE HALIMI and LOÏC WACQUANT *

     "What's healthy for the nation right now is to see the process
     unfolding. Millions of Americans and millions of people around the
     world are learning about the way we do business in this country,
     about democracy and about the way it's supposed to work. If there's
     a silver lining in all this, I think it's the civics lesson that we
     are all getting in law and politics."

     Wolf Blitzer, "political analyst" on CNN, 15 November 2000

     Is the "civics lesson" just beginning? Soon everyone will have had
     enough of the lament of the affluent senior citizens of Florida
     confused by badly-designed or hard-to-punch ballots. The judges
     will have tired of interpreting the stratagems of the Founding
     Fathers to concoct an electoral system that would protect them from
     the "tyranny of the majority". And market-driven journalists will
     have stopped claiming that error-free elections just do not exist
     anywhere. Will it then be time, at last, to examine something other
     than the details of the "ordinary" anomalies of a United States
     ballot and take a closer look at the bigger picture of a very sick

     What the world will suddenly discover is not a ballot in which
     "every vote counts" or a national election in which the "sacred
     choice" of the citizen makes a difference. Rather, it will discover
     a fundamentally inegalitarian electoral system and the sovereignty
     of 50 states (which decide who participates in the vote) and of
     thousands of counties (which decide when, where and how). It will
     discover the endless clash of lawyers and maze of courts and
     judges; the millions of US citizens who have been disenfranchised;
     the pre-selection of candidates by money; the mind-numbing
     electoral publicity that is totally devoid of content; the
     televised "debates" reserved for the spokespersons of what is, in
     fact, a two-headed single party; a media driven to excesses by the
     obsession with competition; a senator elected three weeks after his
     death, only to be replaced by his widow. And the whole world was

     During the first week of November alone, State Department spokesman
     Richard Boucher announced that the parliamentary elections in
     Azerbaijan had "failed to meet international standards", that the
     local elections in Zanzibar had been "marred by numerous
     irregularities" and that the presidential election in Kyrgyzstan
     was "flawed". He did, nonetheless, add that the US would not ask
     the Organisation of American States to send electoral observers to
     Florida (1).

     His immediate predecessor, James Rubin, was outraged that one might
     even think about doing so: "It doesn't surprise me that enemies
     take the opportunity to denigrate our democracy ... Our country is
     so free and so democratic that the entire presidency is hinging on
     a few hundred votes - a little more than one-millionth of the votes
     cast. Sure ... the networks needlessly caused heads to spin in
     America and around the world. That is what it means to have a
     genuinely free press - the media have the right to be wrong" (2). A
     free press makes it possible to mention that the wife of the former
     spokesperson for the State Department is one of CNN's top reporters

     Rubin is not as lonely as he fears. In every country there are
     still phalanxes of unrepentant US-worshippers who are able to sift
     through the rubble of the ongoing electoral and legal chaos to
     discover the fossil of a "scrupulous, meticulous democracy", a
     "careful, artisanal democracy", and a "lesson in democracy" (4).

     It is in the US itself that the "enemies of America" are going all
     out. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm:
     "What's taking place in America right now would be recognised in
     any ordinary banana republic as a Gore attempt at a coup d'état"
     (5). In more measured tones, The Los Angeles Times invoked the
     "shadow of illegitimacy" that would tarnish the next president.

     Over a century and a half ago Alexis de Tocqueville discovered
     Democracy in America and savoured, with discernment, what has since
     formed the mainstay of political chatter about "modernity": smaller
     government, more free enterprise spirit, an active civil society
     and decentralised administrative structures. The "real choice"
     between Bush and Gore could not fail to reveal Europe's
     backwardness in comparison to the US with its multicultural
     society, its "networks", internet voting, privatisation of social
     insurance and retirement - and yet another round of tax cuts.

     All the more so since, for the past few years, the socialist and
     social-democratic parties of Europe (in particular those of the
     United Kingdom and Germany) have been busy imitating Clinton's
     strategy of moving closer to the ideological "centre" and adopting
     his most manipulative political marketing techniques (6). The right
     was thus counting on a Bush victory to proclaim the time of the
     "Third Way" had come and gone. Daniel Finkelstein, one of the
     British Conservative Party's strategists, went so far as to
     confess: "I've got US [campaign] badges all over my walls." On a
     trip to the US during the week preceding the election, Silvio
     Berlusconi, the leader of the Italian right, was all the keener to
     perfect his knowledge of "hyper-democracy" since his rival in next
     April's parliamentary elections, Francesco Rutelli, had already
     hired one of Gore's top advisors (7).

     So they came and they saw. They saw the trappings of a model of
     democracy - but only the trappings. The power of money is so
     overwhelming that the two candidates who won the primaries were, as
     predicted, the ones who had collected more funds than their
     competitors. Access to the media (via money) and to the public
     sphere (via the media) is so sharply circumscribed that it excludes
     de facto all non-members of the two-headed single party and then
     submits voters who would be tempted to buckle to the intimidation
     of the "useful vote". And the concern to make every vote count is
     so secondary that - in a country where elections already occur on a
     workday - the opening hours of polling stations vary from one
     county to the next, depending on the opulence of local state
     bureaucracy: extended hours and no queues in the rich, white
     suburbs, but long lines and a shortened schedule in the poor and
     coloured districts of central cities.

     One might almost forget the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of
     an election by indirect suffrage. Contrary to national legend, the
     electoral college (whose existence and precise role many Americans
     have discovered only this past month) was never designed to ensure
     a geographical balance in the context of federalism. It was
     instituted to protect the political hegemony of the southern states
     and thus to guarantee the durability of the pillar of their
     plantation economy and caste society - black slavery (8). Hence the
     erstwhile article of the constitution which stipulated that one
     slave was equal to "three fifths of a man" for the purposes of
     calculating the number of electoral college members allotted each
     state (9).

     Invented so that white men could lock up the political system to
     their exclusive profit (10), this device continues, two centuries
     later, to produce the same result by granting disproportionate
     weight to the residents of small, predominantly white and
     conservative rural states. According to the 2000 census, an
     electoral college member corresponds to 609,200 residents in
     Florida, 602,000 in California and 549,900 in New York State, but
     only 175,000 in Wyoming, 205,700 in Vermont and 220,700 in North
     Dakota. In other words, "every vote counts" but it takes 3.44
     Californians to equal one citizen of Wyoming - not even close to

     "Every vote counts" - unless of course it goes to the runner-up
     since, by virtue of the first-past-the-post system, the winner
     takes all the electoral college members to be had. Thus the
     4,371,000 votes given to Bush in California will not get him a
     single seat on the electoral college, whereas the 375 votes by
     which Gore won New Mexico allow him to pick up all five electoral
     college members for that state.

     In the US, politicians and pundits never tire of repeating, it is
     the "will of the people" that decides the country's affairs. Voting
     is indeed a Herculean (civic) task as the average voter is asked to
     make several dozen decisions at the same time. On the surface, what
     could be more democratic? In reality, it nothing but demagoguery.

     This is a country where lack of historical culture and political
     apathy prevail. Where one adult in three is incapable of naming a
     single country against which the US fought during the second world
     war (11). Where two thirds ignore the name of their representative
     in Congress (half do not even know whether he or she is a Democrat
     or a Republican), where 40% of the electorate did not know the name
     of the incumbent vice-president prior to the campaign (12) and
     turnout at the presidential elections barely passes the 50% mark.
     In these circumstances we may well ask whether it is democratic or
     demagogic to ask voters to make up to 40 choices for parties whose
     political programmes they do not know (assuming that they have
     one), for positions whose mission they ignore and for legal
     measures they cannot assess.

     To choose or to ratify?

     In California, for instance, conscientious voters in Berkeley or
     Oakland will have punched their ballot 27 times, to elect a
     president, a US senator and House representative, a senator and a
     representative for the state - and also a higher court judge, a
     member of the Peralta Community College District governing board,
     the chief administrator of the city's public high school - choosing
     from five candidates presenting themselves as a writer, a
     teacher-school administrator, a consultant and mother, an
     accountant, and an educator - not to mention a commissioner for the
     rent control district office and the board of public transport
     district managers.

     And our courageous voters were still not done. They further had to
     approve (or reject) eight measures at the state level, four at the
     county level, three concerning school and university districts, and
     11 proposals put forth by the City of Berkeley, each more Byzantine
     than the last (13). The official elector's "information handbook"
     covering state referenda alone is a 74-page booklet printed in tiny
     print, containing the text of the laws to be approved (with
     revisions crossed out and additions in italics). Proposition 34,
     which suggests restricting private funding of election campaigns,
     covers 10 full pages; to read it would require a doctorate in law
     and a grasp of the intricacies of existing legislation. Whereas the
     seven presidential candidates altogether needed only two pages to
     outline their programme in the form of slogans, in Oregon electors
     received two thick tomes of voting instructions totalling 400

     Decentralisation means that elections are placed under the aegis of
     counties. As a result, there is not one electoral system but over
     3,000. And the manner of voting varies accordingly: 37% of US
     voters used punch-cards, 25% scan cards, 22% lever machines, 7%
     electronic devices and 3% paper ballots. This variety, and the
     disputes that ensue, give the courts plenty to do: some 500 lawyers
     for each side of the Gore-Bush contest flocked to the now-famous
     county of Palm Beach to oversee the Florida recount. This costs
     money. On the morning after the election alone, the Democrats
     raised $3 million to cover legal expenses; the Republicans did just
     as well a few days later.

     The procedural and rhetorical fury that has overcome Gore and Bush
     should not obscure the fact that there is no major difference
     between them. Far from being "deeply divided", the country is split
     into two even and apathetic parts. The abstention of 51.4% of US
     citizens of voting age and the calm that prevailed during the
     endless recounts reflect the lack of enthusiasm generated by the
     two official candidates.

     What is happening is not a government crisis. The fine distinctions
     between Gore and Bush can easily lead to a compromise that will
     make it possible to extend for a few years the policy jointly
     pursued by the Clinton-Gore administration, the outgoing
     Republican-controlled Congress and the lobbies that paid for their
     election: increasing deregulation of international trade (Nafta,
     WTO), pauperisation and privatisation of the state (as with the
     abolition in 1996 of federal welfare for the poor), reduction of
     public employment, the allocation of budget surplus first to tax
     cuts, mass imprisonment as anti-poverty policy, and the increase of
     criminal executions.

     The divergences between the two parties are so easy to reconcile
     that, on election day, in 21 districts, seven of them in Florida,
     the incumbent was the only candidate running for office. In
     addition, the two main presidential contestants were informed by
     the same opinion polls and focus groups of the desires of the
     "undecided voters" (those who are least politicised in a country
     that actively cultivates political apathy) (14). They waged
     campaigns that were richer in images than substance and they both
     targeted the vaunted political "centre" - which drifts further to
     the right at every election. Between two executions in Texas, Bush
     invoked his "compassionate conservatism" and his concern for
     education and health care. And Gore, who is also a firm supporter
     of capital punishment and mass imprisonment, committed himself,
     like any good Republican, to increasing military spending and
     cutting the national debt. Ralph Nader was hardly exaggerating when
     he quipped that "the only difference between Al Gore and George W.
     Bush is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when
     corporations come knocking."

     Five days before the vote, one of the oldest and most influential
     supporters of the vice-president reassured those who feared that
     Gore might still harbour some progressive wishes: "Gore is deeply
     concerned with sustaining the remarkable prosperity of the last
     five or six years, and his methods for doing so are conservative in
     the best sense of the word. ... Mr Gore is proposing the kind of
     programme that used to commend itself to truly prudent and
     conservative people - Republicans, in fact. ... After all, he was
     one of only ten Democratic senators to vote to protect Kuwait. What
     he wouldn't have done is leave the Gulf war unfinished and Saddam
     Hussein still in power ... Ronald Reagan was my favourite
     Republican president of this century and ... we admired his
     vigorous anti-communism. Mr Bush may share Mr Reagan's indifference
     to policy detail, but he utterly lacks his ideological engagement"

     One can readily see that the "real choice" between the two
     candidates bordered on a parody of democracy. They borrowed each
     other's campaign themes. And corporate lobbies, often the same
     ones, picked up the bill for their publicity and advisors: as Amoco
     CEO John Browne explained, "We very much welcome a victory by
     either party". On top of this, the two "opponents" even agreed to
     prevent other candidates, especially Nader and Buchanan, from
     taking part in any of the four major television debates broadcast
     by the media, under the aegis of the Commission for Presidential
     Debate which is a private organisation controlled by their own

     The winner-takes-all, single round system already penalises
     candidates who do not belong to one of the two established parties
     and who, in addition, lack the colossal financial resources of the
     establishment politicians. However, it was also deemed necessary to
     add to this formidable obstacle course de facto exclusion from
     public debate. Once the task of eliminating the competition had
     been completed, all that remained was to proclaim the absolute
     necessity to "not waste your vote."

     Intimidating dissidents

     This was infinitely more damaging to democracy than the faulty
     accounting of the votes of a few thousand soldiers stationed
     abroad. And here, the institutional left - trade unions and African
     Americans, environmental and women's rights organisations - went
     all out. Ralph Nader has fought long and vigorously against free
     trade absolutism, stagnant real wages, the trade embargo on Cuba
     and Iraq, unconditional support for Israel, industrial monopolies,
     racial and sexual inequality, the "conglomedia" that smother
     information, the death penalty, mass incarceration and the venality
     of the political system. He was nonetheless pressed to renounce his
     candidacy, keep quiet and not campaign. And to leave the stage for
     a candidate (Gore), who had adopted the very opposite position on
     nearly all these issues but who was in a position to "win".

     Here, the hijacking by the Democratic Party of the activist work of
     progressive movements who agree to subordinate strategy to
     chicanery (16) is a lesson to learn for progressives outside the
     US. Far from pulling the Democrats further to the left (a task
     whose vanity is now firmly established), leftist organisations
     became, willy-nilly, go-betweens who enrolled their militants on
     behalf of ever-more conservative Democratic candidates (17).
     Invoking the eternal injunction to "not waste a vote," they have
     served as alibis and then turned into hostages in a "move to the
     centre" that never stopped inventing new topics of surrender and

     The defeat of Gore will be blamed by some on the Green candidate.
     Both the head of the ecological organisation Sierra Club and the
     president of the American Federation of Labour-Congress of
     Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) have already both lectured
     Nader. Yet in 1994 it was Clinton and Gore's policies which, having
     demobilised Democratic voters, had offered the Republicans control
     of Congress - the first time in 40 years that a Democratic
     president had done so. Nader did not "take votes away" away from Al
     Gore. Gore lost them.

     The picturesque character of this election should not distract us
     from what really matters: projected across the planet as a model of
     democratic practice, US politics has lost even its pretence of
     autonomy. Devoured by the economic field, politics operates under
     the dictatorship of the media and the juridical system, which in
     turn are subject to the iron law of haste and profit. The US has
     indeed given the rest of the world a lesson, but it is not a
     "civics lesson".

     * Loïc Wacquant is professor of sociology at the University of
     California-Berkeley and researcher at the Centre for European
     Sociology of the Collège de France

     (1) See International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, 11-12
     November 2000.

     (2) Extracts from a letter published in The Washington Post, 15
     November 2000.

     (3) In her coverage of the Nato strikes in Kosovo, Christiane
     Amanpour made little attempt to distance herself from State
     Department propaganda, orchestrated by her husband.

     (4) Column by Bernard-Henri Lévy, Le Point, 17 November 2000. See
     also the conclusion of the editorial entitled "Démocratie
     américaine", Le Monde, 10 November 2000.

     (5) The Wall Street Journal Europe, Brussels, 14 November 2000.

     (6) See "Penal 'common sense' comes to Europe", Le Monde
     diplomatique, English edition, April 1999.

     (7) On these transatlantic ideological migrations, see The Wall
     Street Journal Europe, Brussels, 7 November 2000.

     (8) See the study by Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, The Bill
     of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction, Yale University Press, New
     Haven, 1998.

     (9) Eight out of the first nine US presidents were slave owners
     from Virginia.

     (10) See Daniel Lazare, "American constitution above debate" and
     "The backward state of Texas", Le Monde diplomatique English
     edition, February and September 2000 respectively.

     (11) Harper's Index, Harper's, March 1996.

     (12) Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 5 February 1996.

     (13) For example, voters had to decide "Shall the Emergency Medical
     Services tax (ordinance n. 6373-NS) be amended to reauthorize the
     City, over a period of four years, to spend the proceeds of
     Emergency Medical Services tax as approved by the voters in 1997?"
     No estimate of the financial consequences was supplied.

     (14) Nina Eliasoph, How Americans Avoid Politics, CUP, Cambridge,

     (15) Martin Peretz, "Gore, a Fiscal Conservative", The Wall Street
     Journal, 2 November 2000.

     (16) Some of these organisations went so far as to fund TV
     publicity calling on electors not to vote for Nader, paid for with
     money contributed by their members.

     (17) Clinton, Gore and Joseph Lieberman (Gore's running mate) all
     represent the conservative wing of the party, or Democratic
     Leadership Council, which was founded in the 1980s to import into
     the Democratic party ideas popularised by Ronald Reagan.

                                             Translated by Harry Forster


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