"[I]t has been a nervous year, and people have begun to feel like a Christian scientist with appendicitis."—Tom Lehrer
We live in a nation founded by a conspiracy. A group of committed, passionate, and intelligent men met in secret for years, plotting and scheming, until finally they took arms against their own country and set up a radical left-wing government that subsequently became the model for the rest of the world. Grandchildren of those revolutionaries tried to do what they believed was the same thing, and got squashed in the bloodiest war the world had ever experienced.
Back and forth we've gone for almost three centuries now, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, but always with groups of committed, passionate, intelligent people on every side, convinced of their absolute correctness and moral authority, and unwilling to compromise their most cherished beliefs.
Surrounded by these groups are what Nixon called "the silent majority," who basically don't care. The committed, passionate, intelligent people fighting for their beliefs think the silent majority are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Why else would they not agree with the committed, passionate, intelligent people on our side?
Nixon, I hate to say, was correct. There is a largely silent majority in this country, who generally don't care about politics as long as things are going relatively well. There's food in the fridge, there's something on TV, the kids are a little weird but otherwise aren't doing anything we didn't do at their age, why worry?
Except, when you look a little deeper, the silent majority almost always gets it right. Or, at least, when viewed through their self-interests, they don't get it really very wrong.
I can think of only two major exceptions, times when a functioning democracy got it disastrously wrong: Germany in 1933 and Argentina in 1945. Except, these were barely-functioning democracies in shattered states, with huge numbers of formerly comfortable people who were, for reasons they didn't truly understand, now very uncomfortable. The governments that enacted Jim Crow and Apartheid, the Guillotine and the machete, while democratic for some, were not truly functioning democracies.
But looking at other "failures of democracy" it turns out the people tend to vote in their own best interests almost always. Looking back on Watergate, we wonder how Nixon got re-elected. We forget that by 1972 he was already bringing the boys home from Vietnam, and that his opponent—a true statesman, I need to add—was a horrible candidate. And we forget that "Watergate does not bother me," as Lynard Skynyrd sang, pretty much summed it up for the part of the country that was still seething about the Democratic party's reversal on Jim Crow.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."—Upton Sinclair.
The 2000 election, like the similarly-contested 1878 election, came during a period of relative calm and prosperity, and featured two lacklustre candidates with no apparent fundamental differences. (They actually did have fundamental differences, but most people ignored them. More on that in a moment.) There was a little voting fraud, but not really more than usual, and certainly not as brazen as the fraud in 1960 that put Kennedy in office. And yes, Gore won the vote, but Bush won the office through existing Constitutional processes, and—I can't emphasize this enough—most Americans were OK with that.
Failure of democracy? No. Success, I think, because the vast majority of the country realized that contesting the election past the Supreme Court's decision would cause more harm than good. Our choices were to obviate the Supreme Court, or accept a flawed decision, and it was clearly in the long-term interests in our country to do the latter.
Of course, people who were paying attention knew that a number of right-wing think-tanks had nurtured relationships with Republicans since the early 1970s. These think-tanks, for example the American Enterprise Institute, had come up with coherent and compelling arguments to reduce the size of government, devolve power to the states, free business from regulatory interference, and bring these ideas to the rest of the world.
Then there's the Christian right, which has waxed and waned in power for, oh, 2000 years. Fundamentalists (of any religion) have always had a coherent and compelling argument: "God said so." There's really no arguing with that point of view. A religious fundamentalist has a clear, unwavering belief in his own correctness on the point, that almost nothing can shake (since God frequently tests the faithful in mysterious ways).
"Every revolutionary is a closet aristorcrat."—Frank Herbert
Both groups, as is the rule for ideologues, are convinced they're right, everyone else is wrong, and if people just heard the message they would understand, too. We have the answer; don't listen to the "other side" because there is no "other side." There is simply truth and falsity. You're either with us or against us. Someday, you'll understand, and agree; but for now, we need to be in control, to show you the truth.
Since the 1970s, these two groups have worked together. And for the most part, since their opponents were in control of either the legislature or the executive throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they didn't succeed. But they perservered, they compromised, they made deals with people they couldn't stand, until in January 2001 when their guys finally controlled both the legislature and the executive.
But this is no more because of a conspiracy than the circumstances that put the Democrats in power in 1933. (Or that put the Republicans in power in 1861. Or that put the Democrats in power in 1801.)
When people are out of power, they are much more likely to make compromises than when they're in power. I could write an entire essay on why this is so (and perhaps I will later), but what the Right did from the 1970s to the 1990s is simply pool any power they had and leverage it. And they waited, getting their pieces in place, making connections, raising funds, organizing. This is politics. But isn't this also a conspiracy? Yes, in the strict sense that two or more people acting in concert constitute a conspiracy. But no, in the broader sense that there was anything secret or malicious about it. In fact, and here's what we need to remember, they told everyone what they were planning the whole time.
People in 2000 who didn't know what the Bush presidency was going to be like were either not paying attention, or they just didn't care. And this applies as much to the people who should have cared and paid attention, like the Gore campaign, as to the general public. Partisans on our side think most people weren't paying attention, but really, they just didn't care.
And why should they have cared? What messages did people hear? Both candidates were, in their own ways, neither coherent nor compelling. So the voters gave them an even split, figuring that neither would be around very long, and in 2004 we might get better guys to run. Come on—you thought the same thing, even if you had a "Gore" sticker on your car way back in 1988. "He's not my first choice," you thought (about whichever of the two you supported), "but he's better than the other guy."
Since 2000, of course, we've seen a needless foreign war, the systematic dismantling of the Federal government, outright theft of billions of dollars, a stifling of political discourse, and a declining economy. You can't say the Republicans didn't warn us. It's what they've always done.
"The answer is most likely the 'omnibus explanation:' stupidity."—Jerome Leitner
Since 2000, also, our party has fallen apart. It's a lot harder to take responsibility for a loss than a win; this is human nature. So every constituent group in the Democratic party, barely together when we had power, fell completely to bickering and finger-pointing when we lost it. We look at two candidates who couldn't figure out which constituency's message was most important, and consequently blew—yes, blew—two elections that should have been cake-walks for us, and we blame...the Republicans?
Some, including some of my dearest friends, see this state of affairs as evidence of an evil conspiracy.
But it's not, really. It's evidence of our opponents being in power, and doing the things that people have always done to stay in power. Both Roosevelts slapped the press around. Johnson rammed civil rights down his party's throat by stifling dissent and harrassing anyone who disagreed with him. Clinton outmanouvered the opposition partially by embracing their programs, a practice called "compromise" that is universally hated by partisans everywhere. Carter, in contrast, couldn't bring himself to play the game and got schooled by a senile nincompoop.
Moreover, the "conspiracy" is so inept it's failing spectacularly. Patrick Fitzgerald is a Republican, and he brought down the Republican majority leader and the Republican vice-president's chief of staff. John McCain is a Republican who will, mark my words, make life a living hell for the ideologues after the next election when he starts running for President again. A growing number of Republicans are standing up and saying that, no, forcing people to be Christian is not Christian, and smothering the press is not "small government."
Two mine disasters in a month is a horrible coincidence, but people now see that the probability of a mine disaster goes up when the agency responsible for mine safety is run by a former mining executive. The spectacular thefts and failures of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Delphi, and other companies hurt hundreds of thousands of people, people who now see that private enterprise does not always do things better than government. As the number of dead soldiers in Iraq creeps toward the number of dead in the World Trade Center attack, as the truly frightening regimes in Iran and North Korea get the bomb, people now see that committing our entire military to getting rid of one tinpot evil-doer does not bring us security. As Abramoff squeals like Ned Beatty in his underwear, as Diebold's malfeasance is explained clearly enough that my mom understands it, as New Orleans lies in ruins, as the ideological purity of the right-wing think tanks hits the messy realities of life, people now see that voting has consequences.
As soon as the Democratic Party stops trying to be everything to everyone, they'll have something to vote for.
Next: Ideas about how that can happen.