It's amazing how clichés generate spontaneously. "Did you ever go through a night like this?" the network guys said to each other Tuesday night about the American election. "Never saw its like," they all swore. Me, I'm putting it on the shelf beside Watergate and the Clinton impeachment: "political" events full of drama, suspense -- and virtually no real effects. So what if Richard Nixon stayed or went? Or Bill Clinton? So what if Al Gore or George Bush? U.S. politics has perfected its reduction to great entertainment. This election was a photo finish, a World Cup, a Hitchcock film -- wrote Peter Shawn Taylor in the National Post -- "all these things and more." Exactly, with no more at stake for most Americans than there is in the Super Bowl.
Since little was at stake, I'm not sure why reassurance was needed. The Globe's Marcus Gee wrote, "No one would say the U.S. electoral system is perfect. . . . On the whole, though, the system is working." Andrew Cohen said "the transition of power will happen . . . without a shout or shaken fist." I, too, doubt there will be rioting in Florida. I just don't agree there will be a transition of power; merely the usual shifts in personnel: presidents, cabinets etc. There are never transitions of real power in the U.S. no matter who is elected. The same people still own everything; the same people run everything. That's the genius of "the system." It's why it's a system rather than an arbitrarily imposed order. To get some idea of how well that system works no matter who wins, imagine if Ralph Nader had become president. There is hellishly little he could do to change things, given the constitutional, legal, economic and political constraints on him. Go ahead, tell me where he could do some serious transferal of power. Take a task as small as campaign-finance reform: It would be stalled to death.
This position -- that there's no real diff between the big parties -- is pretty much the Nader view and that of his voters, who apparently gave victory to George W. Bush. One value of Tuesday's Cliffhanger -- which I enjoyed watching as much as Peter Shawn Taylor did -- is that it puts such hard-ass opinions to the test. It seems to me if you don't agree with the Naderites that there's no real difference -- if, as Globe columnist Naomi Klein wrote, you think a Bush win would be a "disaster" -- then you are under a moral imperative to hold your nose and vote Gore. By what right do you impose a disaster on others? As I watched Ralph Nader speak to the press Wednesday morning, I wondered if even he had his doubts. Did he, as he shaved earlier in his Washington rooming house, find himself saying to the mirror: Ralphie, are we sure on this one? Reality has a way of challenging our well thought-out agendas.
So let me reverse course and ask whether Tuesday night's entertainment was quite as vacuous as I've suggested. Even at a sports event, people are generally caught up not just with suspense or victory, but with the teams and players. They identify -- and not only with the team as it is but as they want it to be. Ask anyone who stuck with the Leafs through the Ballard years. Human beings have a political . . . side, or soul, which may or may not express itself, but which seeks nourishment when it can -- even from the tinny, phony rhetoric of Bushes and Gores. They may not be fooled; they may know that these are two identical corporate serfs merely mouthing different "visions" -- and even that without inspiration -- still their hearts soar and plunge with the fates of the politics they identify with. There's such a thing as morale, in politics, too, which you need to keep up if you're going to hang on through the bad times.
This need to identify symbolically and to seek inspiration applies to all sides. Columnist David Frum, for instance, sees the Democrats in the U.S. as "above all, the party of permissive sex." (That would be Al and Tipper.) Picture his pain when Tuesday looked like a Gore night for a while. I know someone embattled with corporate power in Canada, who was just as distraught when the Nader vote didn't reach 5 per cent, which would have qualified him for U.S. federal funding next time -- because our corporate bastards up here may take comfort from the Nader failure.
Then there are rare elections in which something real, maybe even transitions of power, are at stake. Tommy Douglas fought elections in Saskatchewan that led to the creation of medicare. Or the free-trade election of 1988. Sorry, but 2000 doesn't look like one of the good years.
The line atop this column, about Valium, comes from another such election, the 1976 Quebec vote, which elected the first separatist government there. Terry Mosher put the words in the mouth of PQ leader René Lévesque, in a cartoon the next morning, but it was so apt that many people still think he actually spoke it. In the U.S. the other night, by contrast, folks just thought they needed a Valium.
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