Historians reflecting upon Americas rough transition from the 20th to
the 21st century will identify two crises on which the nations future
turned. Both will be recalled to have arisen with little warning, to have exposed
fundamental flaws in the political, legal and bureaucratic structures of the
nation, and to have demanded dramatic responses that would change forever how
the United States conducts its affairs. And historians will explain, with the
wisdom of time, that it is unnecessary to debate the relative consequence of
these two crises; rather, they will argue, it is vital to recognize the clear
consequence of both.
One of these crises is, at this critical stage, inescapable. The September
11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the response to them, have
consumed the interest and energy of the nation. The second of these crises,
though it too demands dramatic responses, has been shunted aside with such force
that political and media elites do not dare address itfor fear the mere
mention of the issue will affront a newly stirred patriotic fervor.
The contested presidential election of 2000 has been pushed so far off the
national radar that a consortium of media outlets, after spending more than
$1 million to sort through Floridas uncounted ballots in search of a winner,
felt no compunctions about delaying revelation of the results for two months
in order to avoid the suggestion of disloyalty to a president whose electoral
legitimacy remains dubious at best.
A year ago on November 7, a clear plurality of Florida voters joined a plurality
of their fellow American voters in going to the polls to elect Democrat Al Gore
as their president. Gores national popular vote win is well documented,
but the preferences of Florida voters that should have given him that states
25 electoral votes and the presidency were obscured by 36 days of partisan machinations
from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, House
Republican Whip Tom DeLays Izod-clad rioters and the complacent media.
When those manipulations proved insufficient, the unprecedented intervention
of a Supreme Court controlled by Republican partisans handed George W. Bush
Over the ensuing months, industrious journalists, engaged academics and angry
citizens have, in piecemeal yet ultimately conclusive fashion, exposed the fallacy
of partisan pronouncements about Bushs mandate. Even if some
artificial standards applied in media recounts continue to concede Bush technical
victories, the obvious intent of the electorate was otherwise. Theres
a pretty clear pattern from these ballots, explains University of California
at Irvine political scientist Anthony Salvanto, who conducted some of the first
and most exhaustive examinations of contested ballots. Most of these people
went to the polls to vote for Al Gore.
The attention paid to electoral matters in the post-Florida period also has
exposed a democratic infrastructure that is in serious disrepair. A General
Accounting Office survey of election officials nationwide found that 57 percent
of jurisdictions experienced major problems in conducting the 2000
election. Yet, one year after that election, with Bush enjoying 90 percent approval
ratings, the elite consensus seems to be that it is no longer appropriate to
talk about the crisis, the systemic flaws it exposed or the uncertain mandate
it produced for Bush. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution summed up the
official consensus when he said the window of opportunity has closed
for reform. While there will be continued tinkering with the processincluding
a bipartisan congressional compromise dressed up as reformcalls
for a genuine every-vote-must-count system are muffled at best.
So is that the end of it? Have 19 terrorists succeeded where the Supreme Court
and the Republican Party could not, in legitimizing the presidency of George
W. Bush and delegitimizing forever those who would challenge the result of the
most intensely contested American presidential vote since Rutherford B. Hayes
stole the White House from Samuel Tilden in 1876? Was faith in the possibility
of a meaningful response to the crisis of American democracy extinguished with
so many other hopes on September 11?
At the highest level of American inquiry and discourse, the answer is yes.
Even before the attacks, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer responded to a New
York Times exposé of widespread Republican manipulation of the military-ballot
count by arguing, This election was decided by the voters of Florida a
long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans
have moved on.
Fleischers lets not go there dismissal of questions
about the quality of his boss mandate are to be expected.
But since September 11, Fleischerism has become bipartisan in scopeas
prominent Democrats such as Virginia Rep. Jim Moran have dropped calls for reform
to declare, I feel comfortable with President Bush. An October media
survey of 15 top Democratic backers of Gore found not one willing to criticize
Bush or the manner in which he was elected. Even when New York City
miscounted thousands of ballots in the October 11 Democratic mayoral runoffcasting
into question the result of that already delayed electionfew Democrats
renewed calls for federally mandated improvements in electoral machinery and
The news from the nations media elites is even less encouraging.
What Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz calls The Story that
Devoured the Media has, indeed, subsumed all other discourse. Television
networks cannot be bothered to provide serious coverage of current debates about
civil liberties and international trade, let alone examine contentious questions
about the legitimacy of the election of the man who is using the current crisis
to advance an ambitious social and economic agenda that, on September 10, appeared
itself to be in crisis.
No wonder, then, that immediately after September 11, the Wall Street Journal,
New York Times, Washington Post and CNN decided to withhold results of the
exhaustive review they had commissioned of more than 170,000 rejected Florida
ballots. The consortium project was always a dubious endeavor, as it took the
counting process out of the context of the election and attempted to establish
uniform procedures for ballot review in a state that never embraced such consistency.
Yet Gore backers clung to the belief that the evidence of a true Florida resultand
the case for fundamental electoral reformcould be found amid the overvotes
But after September 11, as Dow Jones spokesman Steven Goldstein explained on
behalf of the Journal, Our belief is that the priorities of the
country have changed, and our priorities have changed. Overseas, where
a freer press speaks with a blunter voice, Londons Telegraph newspaper
wrote that hope for a Gore victory appears to have been sacrificed on
the altar of patriotism and a perception that America needs to be led into war
by a strong president.
Even as the consortium finally prepared in mid-November to release the results
of its study, the signal had been sent: Our political and information elites
believe that Americans are simply too fragile to deal with more than one crisis
at a time.
And what of this message? Is it possible that the media mandarins and the disquieted
Democratic officials of Washington are right to believe that, after September
11, the American people have little taste for the truth, or even for correction
of a corrupted and corrupting electoral system?
For a brief moment following the September 11 attacks, I wondered. Since last
spring, I had been at work on a book examining the Florida fight and the Supreme
Court intervention that concluded it. After September 11, colleagues in Washington
and New York were quick to express their condolences. Well, thats
it for your book, said a congressional Democrat. Nobody can criticize
Bush now. An academic who had taught me more than I needed to know about
ballot scanners and touchscreen technologies said, The anniversary of
November 7 was going to make it impossible even for the Republicans to avoid
election reform. Now, well get nothing. Itll be a footnote.
Wearing my new asterisk of irrelevance, I headed west this fall for a speaking
tour that took me to Minneapolis, Boise, Portland and Seattle. And, as is so
often the case, I was reminded that elite media and political sensibilities
may define the parameters of official debate, but they do not define the American
discourse. From audiences I had expected to talk only of September 11 came repeated
questions about November 7. Sometimes they were tentative. A woman in Boise
asked if it was appropriate to bring up the fact that, as she put it, Bush
may be the commander-in-chief but he was not elected president. A lawyer
in Portland was more confident: Bush is handling the war better than I
ever expected, better than Gore would have. But Bush did steal that election.
What I have found on the speaker circuit, on radio shows and in late-night
conversations at the back of bookstores is that, war or no, there is a willingness
to open the wounds of November 7 to heal what, in so many ways, was an assault
on American values and institutions. I should not have been surprised. Since
the founding of this country, Americans have proven themselves capable of asking
and answering tough questions about their presidents and their democracy in
times of war and domestic crisis.
During the War of 1812, as the British were burning the Capitol, young Henry
Clay asserted the authority of Congress over the weak presidency of James Madison,
while John Adams and Thomas Jefferson conducted an extended debate about the
dangers of an American aristocracy. In the midst of the Civil War, when some
Republicans urged him to call off the election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln accepted
the schedule, faced challenges within his own party and from a decorated general
running as a Democratand prevailed. Declaring victory, Lincoln told supporters
that conducting a divisive election in a time of war had been a necessity.
We cannot have free government without free elections, he said.
If the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election,
it might fairly be claimed to have already conquered and ruined us.
But what of a debate about the very quality of the democracy for which Americans
are said to be fighting? What if the debate directly challenges the man sitting
in the White House? Should this debate not be put aside until a more convenient
Alice Paul would tell us not to make that mistake. At the opening of World
War I, the womens suffrage movement faced a critical test. Moderates argued
that women would win the right to vote only by appearing to be more patriotic
than men. But Paul and the radical suffragists of the National Womens
Party refused to compromise their demand that President Woodrow Wilson endorse
a constitutional amendment granting women equal citizenship. They picketed the
White House daily with signs that identified Wilson as a hypocrite for sending
American soldiers to die for democracy when America was a democracy
in name only.
The women were attacked in the streets, taunted as traitors and branded Bolsheviks
by the Chicago Tribune. Wilson ordered the suffragists arrested. More
than 200 were jailed. Eventually Paul led a hunger strike so embarrassing to
Wilson that he was forced to release her in December 1917. Barely one month
later, under continued pressure from Paul and her allies, Wilson announced his
support for womens suffrage. The next day, the House narrowly endorsed
the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Within three years, women had the vote.
Can a nation sustain more than one debate at a time of war? Can citizens question
the legitimacy of their president even as he struggles to respond to domestic
and international threats? Can the demand for radical reform be made in a time
of uncertainty and fear? Ari Fleischer may say no, but American
history tells us that answer is yes. This country has never been
so fragile that it lacked for patriots capable of defending both its security
and its democracy. And, though you see them rarely on television screens and
in the halls of Congress, there are millions of American patriots who today
recognize that it is possible to be loyal Americans while still asking questions
about whether the democracy George W. Bush has spoken of with uncharacteristic
eloquence is fully functional.
As the anniversary of November 7 approached, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois)
stood on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington to announce plans for
a package of electoral reformsincluding a constitutional amendment guaranteeing
the right to vote. He was accompanied by top academics, leaders of the NAACP
and other reformers, but there were no other members of Congress and few reporters
Had Jackson traveled to the rural Midwest, however, I can guarantee he would
have encountered a more enthusiastic response from people like the woman who
speculated about what would have happened if the terrorist attacks had come
on September 11, 2000, and been followed two months later by an inconclusive
election result. You would think someone would be saying that we have
to fix this thing before it creates a constitutional crisis we really cant
handle, she told me. Why cant people in Washington see that?
The answer to that questionas Jackson is the first to notemust
take the form of another question: When will we reformers start to demand, without
apology, that our political leaders treat November 7 with at least a measure
of the seriousness they have accorded September 11? We do not diminish the dead,
nor the struggle to protect the living, when we say that this country is strong
enough to face tough questions about the legitimacy of its leaders and its democracy
even in a time of war and uncertainty. Rather, we prove a national strength
and resolve that run deeper than personalities, to the very heart of the American
Alice Paul would tell us that, in challenging leaders in a time of war to make
real their talk of democracy, we practice the truest patriotism. In an oral
history, conducted toward the end of her long life, Paul recalled the radical
sign that stirred so much controversy outside the White House during World War
I. It read: Democracy should begin at home.
John Nichols is the author of Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the
One about the Theft of the American Presidency? (New Press), a book on the
2000 election debacle.
©2001 The Institute for Public Affairs