WITH THE EVENTS of late in the year 2000, the United States left behind constitutional republicanism, and turned to a different form of government. It is not, however, a new form. It is rather, a transplant, highly familiar from a different arena of advanced capitalism.
This is corporate democracy. It is a system whereby a board of directors - read Supreme Court - selects the chief executive officer. The CEO in turn appoints new members of the board. The shareholders are invited to vote in periodic referenda. But the franchise is only symbolic, for management holds a majority of proxies. On no important issue do the CEO and the board ever permit themselves to lose.
The Supreme Court clarified this in a way that the Florida courts could not have. The media have accepted it, for it is the form of government to which they are already professionally accustomed. And the shameless attitude of the Bush high command merely illustrates the prevalence of this ethical system.
Gore's concession speech was justly praised for grace and humor. It paid due deference to the triumph of corporate political ethics but did not embrace them. It thus preserved Gore for another day. But he also sent an unmistakable message to American democrats: Do not forget. It was an important warning, for almost immediately forgetting became the order of the day. Overnight, it became almost un-American not to accept the diktat of the court. Press references were to President-elect Bush, something that the governor from Texas manifestly is not.
The key to dealing with the Bush people, however, is precisely not to accept them. I have nothing personal against Bush, Dick Cheney, or other members of the new administration, but I will not reconcile myself to them. They lost the election. Then they arranged to obstruct the count of the vote. They don't deserve to be there, and that changes everything. They have earned our civic disrespect, and that is what the people should accord them.
Civic disrespect means that the illegitimacy of this administration must not be allowed to fade from view. The conventions of politics remain: Bush will be president; Congress must work with him. But those outside that process are not bound by those conventions, and to the extent that we have a voice, we should use it. Politically, civic disrespect means drawing lines around the freedom of maneuver of the incoming administration. In some areas, there may be few major changes; in others, compromises will have to be reached. But Bush should be opposed on actions whose reach will extend beyond his actual term. First, the new president should be allowed lifetime appointments only by consensus. The 50 Senate Democrats should block judicial nominations, whenever they carry even the slightest ideological taint. As for the Supreme Court especially, vacancies need not be filled. Second, the Democrats should advise Bush not to introduce any legislation to cut or privatize any part of Social Security or Medicare.
Third, Democrats should oppose elimination of the estate tax - a social incentive for recycling wealth that has had a uniquely powerful effect on the form of American society. Fourth, we must oppose the National Missile Defense - a strategic nightmare that threatens the security of us all.
Fifth, Congress should enact a New Voting Rights Act, targeted precisely at the Florida abuses. This should stipulate mandatory adoption of best-practice technology; a 24-hour voting day; a ban on private contractors to aid in purging voter rolls; and mandatory immediate hand count of all undervotes in federal elections.
Further, Democrats must adapt to the new pollitics that emerged from this election. Outside of Florida, and facing a Southern Republican, the Democrats can't win the South. But they have excellent prospects of consolidating a narrow majority of the Electoral College - so long as, in the next election, there is no Ralph Nader defection.
What can prevent such a thing? Only a move away from the main Clinton compromises that so infuriated the progressive left. Nader's voters were motivated by issues like the drug war, the death penalty, consumer protection, and national missile defense - issues where New Democrats took Republican positions but failed to win Republican votes, while losing critical votes on the left.
Gore's campaign proved that there is a majority for a government that is truly a progressive coalition. Americans will elect a government that includes and represents labor, women, minorities - and greens. This is the government we must seek to elect. And for that, the first task is to assure that the information ministries of our new corporate republic do not cast a fog of forgetting over the crime that we have all just witnessed, with our own eyes.
James K. Galbraith is a professor of affairs and government at the University of Texas at Austin. A version of this column appeared recently in the Texas Observer.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company