Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
21 - 27 December 2000
Issue No.513
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

American elections: System or farce?

By Edward Said

Edward Said For over a month, the entire world has been transfixed by the spectacle of an unresolved US presidential election, as George Bush and Al Gore employed battalions of lawyers to fight out a very close election in the Florida and US Supreme courts. What first emerged from the sound and fury of the struggle (awarded finally to Bush by a very right-wing Supreme Court) is that the US is less a society of laws than it is a society of lawyers. This is the most litigious country on earth, where if you have enough money and power you can do virtually anything, even win an election when it is clear that you have lost it. Over $3 billion were spent on the campaign, enough to rebuild and run an entire school system in a medium sized American town.

What was at stake, as Ralph Nader pointed out in his finally disappointing campaign, was a system of spoils and patronage. For each of the two candidates, one the son of a former president, the other the son of a former senator, the prospect of the presidency was mainly about power, power that could keep literally thousands, perhaps even millions of people, prosperous as appointees, employees, lobbyists, as well as millions more in industry, the military, the bureaucracy, and the universities, all of whom would benefit in one case, lose out relatively speaking in the other. Thus with the change to a Republican administration in Washington there will be a return to the city of the old Reagan and Bush crowd, led by Dick Cheney and James Baker, who seem as if they have only been biding the time and playing golf while Bill Clinton and his crowd were running the world. The transfer in sheer wealth and prestige should not be underestimated.

But to return to the law and lawyers: after years of sending US observers to supervise Third World elections on the assumption that America leads the world in democratic process, I am surprised that the Congo's Kabila and Uganda's Mugabe didn't make the suggestion that some of their people be sent to the US to survey and help to manipulate our elections here. What was revealed in the unendingly broadcast news from Florida was that US elections are a frighteningly antiquated, inequitable and undemocratic hodge-podge of rules and regulations designed to keep out the poor and disadvantaged in maximum numbers. More important, the American ideological system -- which came dangerously close to breaking down completely -- once again saved the day, papering over and then removing from awareness the fundamentally jungle-like struggle of all against all that is the underlying reality when it comes to the power and money of the ultimate prize.

And Florida's inequities were only Florida's. Had the recounts begun in Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Maryland, the whole edifice might indeed have crumbled, revealing it to be a very poorly held together paper castle designed, in the final analysis, to keep people from thinking too deeply and too critically. What does it mean, therefore, for one candidate to have won the popular vote, and the other to have won the election as the result of a decision by a nine-member Supreme Court staffed by five right-wing republicans voting in favour of their party, with the other four of them mounting a lustreless defence of principle and equity? That certainly cannot be called democracy. Nor is this all. What I had never known concretely before was that there is no uniform federal election code that guarantees the same rights and the same voting apparatus to each citizen. In Florida, for instance, the state has ruled that no one who was ever charged with a felony is allowed to vote. This means that about half a million people, most of them poor and black, were denied the right to vote for the president. In addition, each county in the state has its own kind of voting machine and style of voting: this runs the gamut from sophisticated machines to primitive, hand-manipulated pieces of paper. Discrepancies of every kind are therefore certain.

Plus one more thing. Particularly in southern states, where the federal civil rights and voting statutes are not well-enforced, there were many reports of blacks (families or individuals) who were prevented from voting by white policemen. All sorts of trumped-up charges were manufactured against them, from driving without a valid licence to failure to register. Since the Democratic party attracts the vote of indigent and/or minority voters who are under the impression that the Democrats are more progressive than Republicans, this meant that Gore lost large numbers of prospective voters to Bush. This in addition to the 90,000 people in Florida who had voted for Ralph Nader.

As if this isn't enough to make clear that George Bush had absolutely no real chance of becoming president except as a result of the physical and political irregularities of the election as administered in one very unprogressive state, Florida, whose governor is Jeb Bush, George's brother, there is also the undemocratic electoral system which is a legacy of oligarchy and slavery. How it has endured for so long is inexplicable. The system was originally designed in the 18th century to protect property and race, so that a popular election might take place, only to be reratified (or not) by a small group of designated electors who would be seen as confirming (or not) the election results. It is this group that Bush gained to his advantage, even though the popular vote (one person-one vote) had gone against him.

Is this unusual? Yes and no. It is true that only one other election in American history made it possible for someone to lose the popular vote and another to become president, but it is also true that the whole system functions essentially as a system of control rather than of democratic participation. We shall never know how many abuses took place in the past. Two per cent of the US population owns 80 per cent of the wealth, and to continue maintaining this disproportionality, the majority has either to be kept under control ideologically or kept out of the system, preferably both. No more than about 35-40 per cent of eligible citizens vote, because the remainder sense, correctly, that their vote does not mean what it should. What counts is that wealthy candidates can manipulate both the mechanisms of voting and/or the media (preferably both) and guarantee the absence of change that has kept the US a country of the very rich supported by a middle class that aspires, or believes that it can aspire, to the American "dream." And it is the survival of this dream with its underlying belief in the need to perpetuate the system that has kept this country so extraordinarily anachronistic by comparison with other industrial democracies. No wonder then that the US has effectively dismantled most of the attributes of the welfare state (absence of health insurance, social security and labour unions under constant attack, badly funded educational system, unceasing complaints about "government spending" on welfare even as the defence budget has exceeded $350 billion, the largest ever in history, extraordinarily punitive prison and police systems). The market rules over everything without regard for the justice and security to which each citizen should be entitled.

I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that everyone in the US is brainwashed. Far from it. What I do want to point out is that a) the system favours the rich and powerful (one of the reasons why Bush won was that he spent far more money than anyone), and in effect works to preserve their ascendancy through a multiplicity of means, including the electoral and ideological systems, at the same time that the whole world is filled with the rhetoric of American democracy and freedom, most of it misleadingly propagandistic; and b) that in reality there is a constant struggle in America which the disadvantaged, including women, racial minorities, and underpaid workers like teachers and nurses, try to wage against the system, with varying degrees of success, but which at present is mostly a discouraging struggle as the effects of the "free" market undermine labour in favour of the largest employers who are coddled by the government through favourable tax laws, loopholes in social security payments, and unfair labour practices.

To me, the ideological system is the most interesting case of all. Not having come to this country until most of my secondary schooling was over I was first struck and have continued to be fascinated by how the powerful presence of violence and conflict in this society is routinely masked and covered up with a more overwhelming rhetoric and unending stream of pacifying thought, stressing the country's unity, the perfection in it of democratic practice and theory, the animating and always benign influence of the Constitution (which although a secular document reflecting the wealthy, white, slaveholding, Anglophilic men who wrote it, is treated with the reverence accorded to scripture by any good fundamentalist anywhere), the completed fulfillment of public idealism, and the utter benignity of everything about America, always the most exceptional country that ever existed. I suspect that all this is ingrained in school children, so that by the age of 12 or 13 -- barring the birth of a critical sense in the individual -- most mature Americans tend to believe all this, or at least have little opportunity in the public domain to voice different sentiments.

Certainly it is absolutely true that in the mainstream, discourse is heavily policed: alternative or radical or dissenting voices are either kept out completely or sent to the margins where they have no chance at all of gaining acceptance. So it was with the elections during the past month. No sooner did the Supreme Court make its scandalous decision than the commentators began to put the spin out that American democracy has been restored, national unity established, and so on and on ad nauseam. As if the flaws in the system were forgettable accidents, and therefore not worth dwelling on.

And this brings me to my final point, which is the contempt for history and for rational understanding that underlies the ideological chorus in everyone of its individual manifestations. The subtle question is whether the willing manufacture of consent is worse or better than censorship by coercion. Back of the purification of reality that ideological consent requires is the idea that knowledge of history, the critical history that articulates the whole truth and violence of American politics, is to be opposed at all costs as basically disrupting what Foucault and others have called governability. The moment a large number of people challenge not just aspects of the system like the presidential elections but the whole thing, a red light goes on in the board rooms of America where the real decisions are made.

Remember that CNN, Time Warner, Disney, NBC, Sky News and the rest are part of the same ideological system, serve the same clientele, and are owned by the same relatively tiny group of people whose interest is to keep things as they are. Memory is an inhibition, a possible threat to their hegemony, just as it is very dangerous for a critic to keep making connections between supposedly un- or non-political institutions like the Supreme Court and the Constitution, and on the other hand, base commercial interests. It can't have been a mere accident that the main Supreme Court judge, Justice Antonin Scalia, is a well-known right-wing Republican who wrote the majority opinion in favour of George Bush (and hence against a complete recount) and who also has two sons working as lawyers in the very same law firm that represented Bush. Or that Justice Clarence Thomas, also part of the conservative majority for Bush on the Court, has a wife who worked for the right-wing Washington think-tank doing studies of people who were being considered for the Bush cabinet. Or to go from there to Chief Justice Rehnquist, also a Bush supporter, who was once a well-known election officer blocking possible antagonists from voting during the election of 1964 in Arizona, one can immediately see that the system is to be kept functioning no matter how difficult the task or numerous the obstacles. Whether Gore would have been a better president than Bush is a question to be answered with these constants in mind. For those who voted for Nader, they believe that only an outsider to the system, a candidate who spoke about making real democracy the issue, would have made a genuine difference.

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