A tainted US election, dominated by big business’s ‘Republicrat’ duopoly, has produced a poisoned presidency. Campaigning on phony demagogy and snatching the White House in a post-election coup, Bush has no solutions for the economic downturn and coming social turmoil. The election’s most positive feature was Nader’s radical campaign, winning 2.8m votes. Needed more than ever, writes LYNN WALSH, is a mass party of the working class.
“What’s taking place in America right now”, thundered the Wall Street Journal, “would be recognized in any ordinary banana republic as an… attempt at a coup d’état”. (Wall Street Journal Europe, 14 November 2000) According to this voice of the world’s biggest gang of financial speculators, the coup was being attempted by Al Gore, who was demanding the recounting of disputed votes in Florida. In reality, it was Bush, Wall Street’s huckleberry friend, who was pushing through a determined coup to grab the White House, aided and abetted by the governor of Florida, his brother, Jeb Bush.
The popular vote nationally was divided almost evenly, 48% to 48%, Gore 50,996,116 votes, Bush 50,456,169, giving Gore a 539,946 votes majority. But the presidency is decided not by the popular vote but by the electoral college, where state-by-state, the winner takes all. In this archaic institution, concocted by the Founding Fathers to protect them from the ‘tyranny of the majority’, Gore took only 267 votes to Bush’s 271. Designed to protect the political hegemony of the southern states, then a plantation economy run by slave-owners, the electoral college is still weighted in favor of the small, predominantly white and conservative rural states – precisely where the right-wing Bush gained his strongest support. An electoral college member in New York State represents 549,900, but only 157,000 in Wyoming. In other words, one citizen of Wyoming is, for the electoral college, worth 3.44 Californians.
As the results came in, Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, emerged as the decisive state. Bush’s narrow lead, 327 out of six million on the first count (according to media reports), focused the spotlight on the gross bias of Florida’s balloting and counting procedures, which amounted to the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities. Nobody believes, moreover, that Florida is unique. Nationally, the votes of 2.8 million voters remain uncounted.
After the battle of the ‘chads’ and a series of contradictory court rulings, the presidency was decided, not by the electorate, but by the ultra-conservative, Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court, on completely spurious constitutional grounds. Few doubt that if the recounting had been allowed to continue Gore would have emerged as the clear winner in Florida – and taken the presidency.
If all this had occurred in another country, the US would have been demanding a commission of enquiry. As it happens, in the first week of November alone, State Department spokesperson, Richard Boucher, denounced ‘numerous irregularities’ and ‘flawed’ elections in Azerbaijan, Zanzibar, and Kyrgyzstan. (Washington Post/International Herald Tribune, November 11-12, 2000)
The Republicans’ post-election coup, however, was far from the only ‘irregularity’ or ‘flaw’ in US-style democracy.
The electoral battle was dominated, as always, by the contest between what are really two wings of the same big-business party. Despite the lack of fundamental ideological or even substantial policy differences between the Republicans and Democrats, the two parties between them spent between $3-4 billion of their big-business backers’ cash on the campaign. This is nothing less than an institutionalized system of bribery and corruption, most of it legal, some of it notionally illegal.
Most of the cash was spent on vacuous TV advertising, selling two rival brands of false promises. In three stage-managed debates, Gore and Bush conspired to avoid real issues, while the radical Ralph Nader and the reactionary Pat Buchanan were excluded. Neither Gore nor Bush were capable of arousing enough enthusiasm to win a decisive majority.
In New Jersey, a retired Wall Street executive, Jon Corzine, Democrat, successfully bought a senate seat for $61 million, drawn from his personal fortune. In Missouri, the state’s former liberal governor, Mel Carnahan, was elected to the senate three week’s after his death, his place being taken by his widow, Jean Carnahan. The defeated incumbent, the ultra-rightwing, Christian Coalition, John Ashcroft, has since been appointed by Bush as his attorney general.
Is it any surprise, then, that once again almost half of the electorate saw no point in voting? Exit polls show that those who vote are increasingly drawn from the ranks of the most affluent. Fifteen percent of the voters had household incomes of over $100,000, up from 9% in 1996. Voters from households with incomes of under $50,000 fell to below half, 47%, compared to 61% in 1996 (and inflation is far from explaining all of this decline).
From behind the glowering clouds of the electoral sky, however, there was one bright shaft of sunlight: the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, standing on a Green Party ticket. A radical populist, remorselessly hammering the big corporations, Nader challenged the hydra-headed ‘Republicrats’, providing an electoral vehicle and a voice for the youthful, radicalized layer which sprang from the anti-WTO protest in Seattle at the end of 1999. Nader took 2.8 million votes (3%). The support for Nader is a foreshadowing of a much wider, deeper radicalization that will develop in the US in the coming years.
Bush’s victory is tainted, his presidency will be a poisoned presidency. He won support with millions and millions of dollars, used not to clearly present his regressive social and economic policies, but to camouflage and confuse the more affluent sections of the electorate enjoying the closing stages of the late 1990s boom. The national exit poll, for instance, showed that voters who thought issues (such as education, Medicare coverage for prescription drugs, protection of Social Security) most important (rather than the candidates’ personalities) voted for Gore 55% to 40%. Bush’s reactionary, pro-big business agenda will soon bring him into collision with wide sections, including millions who voted for him in 2000.
There was no big swing to the right on 7 November. Apart from the presidency, very little changed. In the Senate, the Democrats gained four seats to produce a 50-50 split. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats gained three seats, giving 221 Republicans, 212 Democrats, and two independents. Despite the appearance of an intense partisan contest, only eight House incumbents lost their seats. Over three-quarters of the 435 Representatives won their seats by wide margins.
In the states, there are now 29 Republican, 19 Democratic and two independent governors. The Democrats now control 49 state legislative houses out of 98, while the Republicans control 45, with four evenly tied.
In a number of states, moreover, ballot initiatives, which present a clear choice on a single issue, majorities rejected right-wing policies and supported more progressive positions. In California and Michigan, voters rejected school vouchers which would extend private education. In California, a large majority voted against the Drug War ‘lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key’ policy, favoring treatment, rather than prison, for those convicted of possession of any illegal drug. In the ‘pro-gun’ states of Oregon and Colorado, majorities voted in favor of gun control.
Ho-Hum – TweedleDee, TweedleDum
Both Bush and Gore aimed their campaigns at the ‘middle ground’, concentrating on the more affluent suburban voters in the ‘swing states’. Neither referred to the growing inequalities in US society, or warned of the coming downturn, or questioned the accelerating resort to racially-biased use of capital punishment, or supported a universal healthcare system. Their campaigns, in fact, amply confirmed Nader’s comment: “the two parties have morphed together into one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup”.
Is it surprising that, with overlapping policies, the Democrats and Republicans split the ‘centre ground’ right down the middle? From the right of the party, Gore failed to enthuse even core Democratic Party supporters, most of whom voted against Bush rather than for Gore. Nor did Gore reap the usual advantages of being part of an administration which presided over a period of exceptional economic growth. Despite near full employment and recent gains in incomes, most working people are experiencing increasing pressure in their lives and anxieties about their future.
Before the Democratic Party convention in August, Gore was trailing way behind Bush in the polls. At the convention, Gore – no doubt influenced by Nader’s campaign – briefly swung to more populist, agitational rhetoric. Proclaiming that his focus was on ‘working families’, Gore attacked ‘powerful interests’ which stood in their way, singling out Big Tobacco, Big Oil, the pharmaceutical companies, and the HMOs (Health Maintenance Organizations, which administer healthcare for the big insurance companies). He promised to defend Social Security (pensions), to add prescription drug benefit to Medicare, regulate HMOs, to modernize public schools, and more.
Gore was immediately denounced by media pundits for stirring up ‘class war’. Opinion polls, however, showed that over three-quarters of the public supported Gore on the issues he raised. Gore rapidly caught up with Bush in the polls. Yet after the convention, Gore’s radicalism rapidly faded away as he reverted to ‘moderate’ appeals to the ‘middle ground’.
Bush responded with a stealth tactic of confusing the issues. Just as Clinton stole the Republicans’ policies in 1992 and 1996, Bush demagogically borrowed Gore’s tunes. He, too, had a ‘plan’ for prescription drugs, a ‘plan’ for saving Social Security, a ‘plan’ for education, and so on. Whereas the Clinton/Gore administration carried out many of the Republicans’ policies, Bush has no intention of implementing any of the reforms promised by Gore. His real policy is shown by his continued denunciations of ‘big government’ (that is, social spending), and his promise for a $1.3 trillion tax cut (overwhelmingly benefiting the hyper-rich).
In the weeks before the election, Gore was again trailing in opinion polls. But on 7 November Gore polled a 500,000 majority of the popular vote. Where did Gore’s closing surge come from? Decisive support clearly came from the Democrats’ traditional electoral base amongst union workers (about a quarter of those voting), African-Americans, Latinos and women. According to the Voter News Service exit poll, African-Americans supported Gore over Bush by a massive 90% to 8%, while Latinos supported Gore 67% to 31%. Union household members voted for Gore 59% to 37% (a smaller margin than in the Clinton-Dole election in 1996). Gore also achieved a big lead among well-educated, better-off white women.
The decisive factor in Gore’s failure to win a decisive majority nationally, however, was his failure to win key sections of the white working class, especially male workers. Bush won decisive majorities amongst both the better-paid and the low-paid strata of white, male workers – even though polls showed a majority of this layer favored the Democrats’ policies on key social issues. On the basis of the status quo in US society, they found Bush a more reassuring candidate. Gore, while touching on some crucial social issues, tried to compete with Bush in defending conservative, ‘traditional values’. In no way did he present any vision of a better future, let alone a coherent program for social change.
The Republican Coup
Soon after November 7 it became clear that nation-wide there was virtually a dead heat between Bush and Gore – and that Florida, with its 25 electoral college votes, was decisive. Immediately, the Republicans launched a ruthless political struggle to secure the state for George W.
Recounting thousands of ‘undercounted votes’ (ballot papers on which the counting machines recognized no presidential vote) was the key issue. Bush supporters were well aware that counting methods systematically discriminated against the poorer precincts with higher proportions of African-Americans and Latinos, who had turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote against the two Bushes. Naturally, the Gore camp called for recounts, in four counties (Palm Beach, Dade, Broward, and Volusia). In response, the Republicans threw themselves into a crusade to stop the recounts by any possible means. They accused Gore of trying to ‘steal’ the Florida vote, of “reinventing and miscounting the true intentions of the voters”. Yet the premise for their post-election blitzkrieg was obvious: the more votes recounted, the more likely Gore was to get Florida.
Both sides sent teams of lawyers and campaign staff to Florida, spending an estimated $26 million on the post-election fight. A series of court cases was soon underway. Bush benefited from several favorable rulings from Republican-appointed judges, like N Sanders Sauls, who brazenly ruled that the vice-president had failed to show that hand recounts would have any effect on the outcome. Bush was also helped by the cautious, hesitant rulings of the Florida Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in favor of the recounts.
Bush could draw on energetic, partisan support from Florida’s Republican officials, from his brother the governor, to Katherine Harris, the Secretary of State, to an army of lower officials. Early on, Harris announced that she would not extend the deadline for the certification of the result beyond November 14, regardless of what stage any recounts had reached. She was subsequently forced by court rulings to delay certification, but she officially declared Bush the winner by 537 votes on November 26, the day Florida Supreme Court’s deadline expired, refusing to wait for the completion of the Palm Beach recount.
When the Florida Supreme Court, on November 21, had ordered the four recounts to proceed, it looked for a moment as if Gore was back in the race with a chance of winning. That ruling, however, triggered an intensification of the Republicans’ campaign. The Republican whip in the House of Representatives, leader of the impeachment campaign against Clinton, Tom DeLay, claimed that the Florida election was “nothing less than a theft in progress”. A spokesman for the speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, denounced the Florida Supreme Court judges as “partisan hacks”, while Jim Baker, former secretary of state under George W’s father and Bush’s Florida manager, called the court’s ruling “unacceptable”.
At the same time, Republican leaders (with DeLay’s aide, Tom Pyle, at the forefront) orchestrated some direct action, mounting a vociferous blockade of the Miami-Dade county building in an attempt to stop the recount. For over three hours the Miami-Dade count was under siege by a pack of Republican demonstrators who surged into the corridors outside the counting room, scuffling with police and yelling at the counting officials. This action (on November 22, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving weekend) was by no means spontaneous, but led by Republican congressman for New York, John Sweeney, and supported by Republican congressional staffers and Bush operatives. They successfully stopped the recount, which was abandoned next day.
After they stopped the Miami-Dade count, the Republican rent-a-crowd was bussed to Fort Lauderdale, the Broward county seat, where they were joined by a gang of senior Republican politicians, including New Jersey governor, Todd Whitman and the governors of Montana and Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Florida legislature began to take steps to choose a slate of electors for Bush, regardless of what the Florida courts might rule. In Washington DC, DeLay and other Republican leaders began to prepare the ground for the House of Representatives to take over the determinations of Florida’s 25 electoral college votes if the Florida vote did not confirm Bush.
In contrast to the Republicans’ drive, the Democrats were feeble. A number of prominent Democrats began, quite early on, to call for ‘closure’. Though most Democratic politicians supported Gore, their post-election campaign was no match for the Republicans’ coup. There was massive anger amongst African-Americans and labor unions in Florida. The Democratic leadership, however, made no attempt whatsoever to mobilize any form of public protest.
Gore, it was reported, “discouraged Jesse Jackson, who staged a protest in Florida and raised questions about allegations of racial intimidation on election day. ‘Gore told Jackson to get out of the state, and he told labor not to organize’, says one Jackson associate. ‘He called Democrats out, just when Bush and his people were going into overdrive. Gore thought he had the votes’.” (David Corn, Can Dems Hang Tough? The Nation, December 18)
“Our message is patience”, said spokesmen for the House Democratic leadership. “We have to embody reasonableness. We feel we have votes and the law is on our side, and that the Republican tactics and vehemence will backfire… We believe this can work”.
But it didn’t work. The Republicans’ post-election campaign, a political coup d’état aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, succeeded. As a result (as DeLay triumphantly proclaimed), the Republicans for the first time in 40 years have the presidency and both houses of Congress, together (we should add) with the higher judiciary.
The Supreme Court: Democracy on Trial
The final stroke of the Republican coup was delivered by the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority. Seemingly slow to intervene in the early stages of the post-election court battles, the Supreme Court bided its time until the Florida Supreme Court decisively cleared the way for recounts – then they stepped in to stop the counting.
Most commentators, including most legal experts, took the position that the dispute over the ballot – with Gore pressing for recounts, Bush vehemently opposing them – fell squarely under the jurisdiction of the state’s courts, ultimately of the Florida Supreme Court. “The Florida Supreme Court… according to the most basic principles of constitutional law, has final authority in interpreting its own state’s law so long as its interpretation is not absurd”, comments Richard Dwarking, Professor of Law at New York University (New York Review of Books, January 11).
There was no ‘federal question’ involved. Yet on November 24, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Bush’s challenge to the recounts. Previously, the majority of these nine justices had consistently opposed federal ‘interference’ in state matters. For the first time in history, on 1 December, the Supreme Court heard arguments from Bush/Gore lawyers that could directly decide the outcome of the presidential contest.
The justices first ruling was a delaying tactic, ‘vacating’ (invalidating) the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling which extended the deadline for manual recounts. In an exercise of legal intimidation, the Supreme Court called on the Florida justices to give reasons for their decision.
Meanwhile, recounts were also being held up by rulings in the Florida courts. As soon as the Florida Supreme Court ruled (December 8) that manual recounts should go ahead, the US Supreme Court stepped in (December 9), ruling by a five to four majority that the recounts, already underway, should be halted until they could hear the case, set for December 11.
For three weeks, the Republicans had been fighting, unsuccessfully, to stop the recounts: now the Supreme Court came to their rescue. Though technically an ‘interim’ ruling pending the full hearing, suspension of the recounts was in practice fatal for Gore. Even if the Supreme Court subsequently ruled in Gore’s favor, it would have by then been too late to meet the December 12 deadline. This, it later emerged, was the deadline being imposed by the majority of the justices.
In fact, December 12 was the optional deadline for states taking advantage of the federal ‘safe harbor’ law that guarantees a state’s certification of presidential electors immunity from congressional challenge. The Republican-dominated Florida legislature certainly intended to take advantage of the ‘safe harbor’ provision. But constitutionally, Florida had another six days, to December 18, until the electoral college would meet to choose its electors.
Clearly, the majority of the justices were determined to beat the clock before an unwelcome result could come out. The reason given by justice Scalia, nominated to the court by Reagan and recently praised by George W Bush, were blatantly partisan. In a dissenting opinion, justice Stephens, supported by justices Breyer, Ginsberg and Suter, argued that the majority’s decision was “tantamount” to a decision for Bush on the substance of the case and had done “irreparable harm” to Gore. Stopping the counting of votes, said Stephens, “will inevitably cast a cloud on the legitimacy of the election”.
Scalia brazenly admitted that “the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the court… believe that Bush has a substantial probability of success”. “The counting of votes that are of questionable legality”, said Scalia, “does in my view threaten irreparable harm to the petitioner [Bush], and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election”. In other words, Scalia, Rehnquist and company, even before hearing the arguments, had decided that Bush was the real winner – or should be the winner – and that any recount which threatened to remove his slender majority would be damaging to ‘the country’. Scalia had effectively ruled that Bush won in Florida – the very issue to be decided by the recounts.
After hearing the Bush/Gore arguments, the Supreme Court issued an unsigned seven-two decision late on Tuesday December 12, overturning the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to allow hand recounts. But the legal pretext used by the Supreme Court majority for intervening in a state issue was the claim that the lack of a uniform, state-wide standard for the recounts meant that current Florida manual recounts fell foul of the Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees all citizens ‘equal protection’. Bush, they claimed, was being deprived of his Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The majority’s reasoning is bizarre, grotesque. In the first place, recounts are common in US elections, including Florida, where they are prescribed by election law. Then, how can there be uniform standards for recounts where there are huge discrepancies between one county and another in the primary counting methods? Some used the old punch-card voting machines, others the latest optical scanners. In any case, accepting there will be imperfections in recounts, as Yale University law professor, Akhil Amar, writes: “The underlying count itself was probably infected with much greater inequalities – inequalities that actually had racially disparate impacts and that disproportionately hurt people in poor precincts”. (“Black Democrats Angered By Supreme Court Ruling,” CNN.com, December 13)
Seven justices agreed (in an unsigned ruling) that there were “constitutional problems with the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court”, but there was “disagreement… as to the remedy”. The majority ruled that “the formulation of uniform rules to determine intent [of voters]… is practicable and, we conclude, necessary”. But: “Because it is evident that any recount seeking to meet the December 12 date will be unconstitutional… we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida ordering a recount to proceed”. Because of the deadline imposed by the Supreme Court, and the Court’s own delay, there was no time to devise a ‘uniform standard’ and start the recounts all over again.
A Question of Legitimacy
There was clearly a deep split among the Supreme Court justices. Five (Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, O’Connor and Kennedy) were against a recount, with three of them (Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas) signing a concurring opinion. Justices Breyer, Ginsberg, Suter and Stephens wrote dissenting opinions, forming a four-justice minority. Their comments were devastating. Justice John Paul Stephens argued that the decision on recounts should have been left to the Florida Supreme Court. Even if there had been an ‘equal protection violation’, ways should have been found “to remedy that violation without depriving Florida voters of their right to have their votes counted”.
“One thing is certain”, Stephens said: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law”. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the US Supreme Court should never have taken the case: “What it does today, the court should have left undone… The political implications of this case for the country are momentous”.
The five-justice majority dropped any pretence of political impartiality and brazenly contradicted their own longstanding conservative judicial approach to constitutional issues. Usually, the right-wing judges are zealous in protecting the right of state courts to make their own judgments without being reviewed or reversed by federal courts, especially when conservative states are defending their territory against progressive federal legislation. They have only rarely used the Fourteenth Amendment to reverse reactionary decisions by state legislatures and courts.
Given their political background, it is hardly surprising that the Supreme Court majority intervened in Bush’s favor. Seven of the nine justices were appointed by Republican presidents. Chief-justice Rehnquist was nominated by Nixon. Scalia was nominated by Reagan. Clarence Thomas, an African-American, was nominated by George Bush in 1991 (Clarence Thomas’s wife, Virginia Lamp-Thomas, has close links with the Republican Party, working for the right-wing Heritage Foundation). They all strongly oppose progressive social legislation, such as abortion rights, affirmative action, and strongly support capital punishment.
The majority’s decision was not only politically biased, but also self-interested: the conservative justices had a vested interest in the outcome of the presidential contest. The future of the Supreme Court was itself an issue in the campaign. The balance between the conservative and ‘moderate’ (that is, slightly less conservative) factions was likely to be tipped one way by Gore’s nominees and the other way by Bush’s. By ruling for Bush, the majority were acting to secure conservative domination of the court.
Some strategists of the ruling class are alarmed that the Supreme Court, by taking such a blatantly partisan position in favor of Bush, has seriously undermined the authority of the court. Undoubtedly, the Supreme Court is ultimately an instrument of the ruling class, and on decisive issues will invariably rule in favor of big business and the state machine. But the choice between Bush and Gore was not a life-and-death question. And by acting in a politically biased and self-interested manner, they have undermined their main role for the ruling class, which is to legitimize the political process and crucial decisions of state. They have seriously damaged the semblance of impartiality, independence, and juridical consistency required to legally sanctify government authority.
In the past, even conservative justices recognized that the Supreme Court had to avoid brutally outraging substantial public opinion on important issues. In 1992, for instance, justices O’Connor, Kennedy and Suter, all conservatives appointed by Republican presidents, declined to join Rehnquist in overturning the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v Wade judgment which secured the right to abortion. In that famous 1973 case, the majority evoked the Fourteenth Amendment’s right-to-privacy provisions to overrule state laws banning abortion.
In their joint 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v Casey, the three justices wrote that the court’s only real power lies “in its legitimacy, a product of substance and perception that shows itself in the people’s acceptance of the judiciary as fit to determine what the nation’s law means and to declare what it demands”.
“The court’s legitimacy”, they wrote, “depends on making legally-principled decisions under circumstances in which their principle character was sufficiently plausible to be accepted by the nation”. Overturning Roe v Wade, they concluded, would cause “profound and unnecessary damage to the court’s legitimacy. The court’s concern with legitimacy is not for the sake of the court but for the sake of the nation to which it is responsible” – that is, for the sake of the ruling class.
In securing a tainted victory for Bush the court has clearly damaged its legitimacy. For the ruling class, it is now a blunted weapon. “This will long be remembered as an election decided by a conservative Supreme Court in favor of a conservative candidate while the ballots that could have brought a different outcome went uncounted in Florida”. (New York Times editorial/International Herald Tribune, December 14, 00)
“US confidence in judges falls”, reported the Washington Post (International Herald Tribune, December 13). Asked in a Washington Post/ABC poll whether they had more or less confidence in the court system to deal with political cases in a fair and unbiased way, 63% said they had less confidence, while more than a third of the sample (35%) said they had a lot less.
African-Americans and Latinos Disenfranchised
Is it not a bitter irony that the Supreme Court used the ‘equal protection’ provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment as their pretext for intervening in Florida? The amendment was passed after the civil war supposedly to assure emancipated slaves of their civil rights. Yet Florida’s post-election contest revealed a scandalous bias, far more serious than ‘butterfly’ ballot papers or imperfect ‘chads’, but completely ignored by the five justices who gave the majority ruling. The spotlight on Florida exposed the scandal of the systematic disenfranchisement of a large section of African-Americans, Latinos and poor minority groups.
For a start, Florida operates a system of rigorous ‘criminal disenfranchisement’. It is one of fourteen states which bans anyone convicted of a felony from voting for life. Florida is even ahead of Texas, with 647,000 former felons excluded. Given the reverse affirmative action policy operated by Florida’s police and judicial system, that means about 30% of the state’s African-American men have been deprived of their right to vote. In the US all 50 states ban inmates (1.2 million) from voting. Thirty-two bar those on parole (453,000), 29 ban probationers, while 14 states operate lifetime bans (1.4 million).
With priority access to prisons for African-American men, there are nine states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wyoming) where at least one-fifth of African-American men have lost the right to vote. (When the Penal State Excludes Four Million Voters, Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2000)
Alarmed by the prospect of a record turnout of African-Americans and Latinos against them, the Republicans organized a special purge of Florida’s voting registers. The state hired a private company, ChoicePoint, with close ties to the Republican Party, to ‘cleanse’ the state’s voter registration rolls. “Would it surprise anyone anywhere”, asked the New York Times reporter, Bob Herbert, “to learn that the cleansing process somehow managed to improperly prevent large numbers of African-American voters from voting in the presidential election?” (International Herald Tribune, December 9)
ChoicePoint came up with a purge list that included 58,000 ‘possible felons’, whose names were subsequently removed from voting registers by state officials. Later, ChoicePoint was forced to admit that 8,000 of the ‘felons’ had in fact been guilty only of ‘misdemeanors’, less serious offences which should not have affected their right to vote.
“Blacks turned out to vote in record numbers in Florida this year, but huge numbers were systematically turned away for one specious reason after another”. (New York Times-International Herald Tribune, December 9) A report from the Los Angeles Times Service (International Herald Tribune, November 13) reports a whole catalogue of obstructions. In the town of Plantation, one polling station was demolished three weeks before election day, but voters were not told of the new site. In Miami-Dade County, poll workers refused to let many vote despite valid registration cards. In other polling stations, ballot papers which had already been completed were strewn on tables or handed out to incoming voters. In several instances full, locked ballot boxes went missing, one being discovered at the Sheraton Hotel in Miami three days after the election. Within a few days of November 7 there were over 6,000 formal complaints from Florida voters.
There were also reports of police harassment in or around the polling stations, including at least one roadblock where police decided to operate spot checks on drivers in the vicinity of a polling station.
Justice Scalia and company claim they were concerned about possible inconsistencies in hand recounting of 180,000 ballots designated as invalid in the first machine count. But they made no comment on the gross bias in the initial balloting process. A precinct-by-precinct analysis by the Washington Post showed that “heavily Democratic and African-American neighborhoods in Florida lost many more presidential votes than other areas because of outmoded voting machines and rampant confusion about ballots…” (Washington Post/Guardian Weekly, December 7-13)
About 40% of the state’s black voters were new voters, and more likely to be confused by complicated, poorly designed ballot papers. In predominantly white neighborhoods, voters making a mistake were much more likely to be given a second chance by officials to make a valid ballot. The Post found, for example, that in Duval County in North Florida, which was carried by Bush 58% to 41%, spoiled ballots were concentrated overwhelmingly in African-American sections of downtown Jacksonville. “In the most heavily white precincts, about one in fourteen ballots were thrown out, but in largely black precincts more than one in five ballots were spoiled – and in some black precincts it was almost one-third”.
Florida is far from being unique in discriminating against African-Americans and other minorities. Reports show that there was exactly the same kind of gross discrimination in Cook County (which includes Chicago), Illinois. One in twelve ballots were disqualified in precincts that are over 70% African-American, compared with one out of every 20 in precincts that are under 30% African-American. In the city of Chicago, there were 51 precincts where at least one of every six ballots lacked a valid presidential vote – 90% of their residents being black or Latino. (Washington Post, December 27) According to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, an estimated 2.1 million to 2.8 million ballots were not counted in all 50 states. (Financial Times, November 29)
But in Florida the Republicans were determined to do their damnedest to keep African-Americans out of the voting booths. They clearly anticipated a record turnout in minority districts, and recognized this would go predominantly to Gore and the Democrats. This was not so much a vote for Gore, as a vote against Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush. Last year, governor Bush moved to end affirmative action for university admission in favor of a racist, so-called ‘One Florida’ policy. It was also a vote against George W’s candidacy, his reactionary record in Texas being well known (the grotesque numbers of executions; a state minimum wage of $3.15 an hour).
The National Association for Colored People (NAACP), which spent $10 million on a national voter registration drive, particularly targeted Florida. While the black turnout was largely unchanged nationally, it jumped in Florida: the “black turnout grew from 10% of the total in 1996 to 15% in 2000, in effect a 50% increase. In addition, African-Americans in the state voted for Mr. Gore over Mr. Bush by 93% to 7%, according to exit polls”. (Washington Post Service/International Herald Tribune, December 13)
During the post-election tussle, Jesse Jackson spoke to a few rallies in Florida, but the Democratic Party leadership did nothing to mobilize protest action, evidently fearing any action on the streets. Nevertheless, anger at their large-scale disenfranchisement will remain strong among African-Americans especially. They will not be impressed by George W’s appointment of figures like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to his government. They will not forget Jeb Bush’s role in the Republicans’ post-election coup. One leading Florida Republican admitted that they are “expecting a holy war in Florida in 2002”, when Jeb Bush will be up for election.
Follow the Money
Although it took 36 days to decide the new face of the presidency, the identity of the real winner was never in doubt: big business. The big corporations and wealthy investors paid for the election, with the total of between $3 and $4 billion for all national and local elections. More than a third (151) of the 435 congressional races on November 7 involved at least one candidate who spent $1 million or more. The number of candidates for the House of Representatives who raised at least $2 million increased from eight in 1996 to 34 in 2000. (US Today, December 26) The national Republican Congressional Committee raised $140 million, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee collected $94 million.
Some candidates finance their campaigns from their own wealth. Most campaign money, however, comes from the big corporations. Gore was favored by Occidental Petroleum, Bell South (telecommunications), Hollywood Studios and the lobby representing trial lawyers. Bush is especially favored by the military industries, insurance companies, and the real estate sector. Many of the corporate lobbies back both Democrat and Republican candidates. Amoco CEO John Browne explained: “We very much welcome a victory by either party”. (Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2000)
Money undoubtedly talks: 92% of the representatives and 88% of the senators elected in November were the candidates who spent the most money. In many cases, their financial advantage flows from the fact they are the incumbents, who are re-elected in 95% of seats. Contributions to their campaign funds are, in reality, payment due for services already rendered.
Around half-a-million wealthy individuals (approximately two-tenths of one percent of the US population) make contributions to the two parties of $1,000 or more. This group approximates to the US ruling class, the boardroom-inhabiting, lobbyist-employing hyper-rich who use their economic power to buy elected officials and set Washington’s policy agenda.
They effectively choose candidates through financing contests in the primaries. They set the candidates’ agendas – and when candidates take office, the financial backers expect their pay-off in the form of tax breaks, deregulation of business activities, subsidies, government contracts, and patronage jobs. This is nothing less than the world’s biggest system of institutionalized, more or less legal, bribery.
Past attempts to restrict and regulate campaign funds, notably measures introduced after the Nixon-Watergate crisis, have had no overall effect. Restrictions on ‘hard money’, that is funding going directly to candidates’ campaigns, gave rise to the growth of ‘soft money’, that is funds that can be used for voter-registration of potential supporters or ‘issue’ advertising which not so subtly favors particular candidates.
The benefits of massive political funding, of course, are not all on one side. Big business naturally expects a pay-off for their contributions, but, like anyone running a powerful protection racket, the politicians also expect their share of the booty. A spokesperson for the new conglomerate AOL-Time-Warner commented: “Washington repeatedly favored those who pay, at the expense of those who do not”. (Time Magazine, February 7, 2000)
While they undoubtedly want the power to determine political decisions, many business leaders have recently been complaining about the pressure to make political donations. According to a poll by CED last October, 74% of senior business executives said that they “fear adverse consequences for themselves or their industry if they turn down requests” for contributions. (American Prospect, December 18, 2000)
The Republican and Democratic politicians are the paid servants of big business. At the same time, they are servants who share the opulent lifestyle and outlook of their paymasters. Many are wealthy capitalists in their own right, others use their positions to accumulate wealth through their political links with big business. Most have become very greedy. At federal, state and city level they have enormous powers of patronage. Altogether tens of thousands of jobs are filled with the friends and family and followers of elected office-holders. While they work for the interests of big business, they have their own, sectional interest in the prestige, power, patronage and perks. It is the bitter competitive struggle to grab the spoils of office which lies behind the Republican-Democratic rivalry, not any fundamental political differences.
Nader: What Now?
Nader mounted his challenge to the Duopoly with only $8 million, collected through a mass of small donations. He raised radical demands on which Bush and Gore maintained a bipartisan silence: a minimum wage of $10 an hour, repeal of repressive anti-trade union laws, a universal health service, abolition of the death penalty, and so on. His message was consistently and boldly anti-corporate, though not clearly anti-capitalist.
Nader is a radical populist, not a socialist, but the progressive significance of his campaign was his challenge to the two big-business parties which have largely monopolized US politics. “The only difference between Al Gore and George W Bush”, Nader repeatedly and correctly stated, “is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations come knocking”. Nader’s campaign started from the correct premise that the Democratic Party cannot in any way be regarded as a progressive vehicle for social reform, let alone radical societal change.
Nader’s campaign reflected the emergence of the radical layer of mainly student youth which burst onto the scene with the anti-WTO protest in Seattle in November 1999. As his massive rallies showed, with ten to fifteen thousand enthusiastically participating in the bigger events, Nader reinforced the radical wave from Seattle through the anti-IMF protests in Washington DC and at the Republican and Democratic Party conventions. Nader’s anti-corporate slogans corresponded to the mood of this layer, composed of different elements with quite a diverse consciousness. While some sections of young people are still primarily concerned with single issues – the environment, sweated labor in underdeveloped countries, etc – others are moving to an anti-capitalist position and are open to socialist ideas.
In the closing stages of the election campaign, Nader was the target of an intensive, extremely vicious campaign by the Democratic leadership and their media supporters. The New York Times, which preferred Gore as a more responsible, reliable presidential candidate than Bush, denounced Nader as a ‘wrecking ball’. Leaders of the left in the Democratic Party, were particularly vitriolic. Some environmental campaigners, like the Sierra Club, joined the ‘A-Vote-For-Nader-Is-A-Vote-For-Bush’ campaign. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, called Nader’s campaign ‘reprehensible’, accusing him of succumbing to an ‘infantile disorder’.
Nader resolutely answered these criticisms with very telling arguments. Organized labor gives massive support to the Democrats, said Nader, but the Clinton/Gore administration gave them NAFTA and China trade legislation, while refusing to abolish the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act or implement universal healthcare. In the closing stages of the campaign, however, when it was clear the result would be close, a big slice of Nader’s support returned to the Democratic fold. As a result, Nader’s national vote was less than 5%, the threshold for receiving federal election funds in future elections. Nevertheless, Nader received more than 5% of the vote in eleven states (and DC) and more than 4% in seven others.
Nader got under 2% of the vote in Florida, a mere 97,000 votes, but more than the margin by which Bush took the state. This triggered a furious broadside from the Democratic establishment and the labor bureaucracy, who are threatening to exclude Nader from Washington politics and cut off funds to any campaigns associated with him. “Well”, responds Nader, referring to the Washington establishment, “they shut out progressive civil society a long time ago”.
It is possible that a Gore administration would have been marginally less reactionary than the Bush administration is likely to prove, especially on social and economic issues. But any ‘lesser-evil’ advantage is completely outweighed by the need to separate the more politically conscious sections of young people, minorities and workers from the grip of the Democrats, and to lay the basis for an independent mass party on the left. Nader’s campaign, whatever its limitations, was a step in this direction.
Dominated by Nader’s personality and with meager resources, his campaign nevertheless shamed the leaders of the labor unions, who poured millions of dollars into campaigning for the Democrats, as well as drafting armies of full-timers to their campaign. It also shamed the leadership of the fledgling Labor Party, which recently adopted an electoral policy, but made no moves towards fielding its own candidates in the 2000 election.
In the course of campaigning for a Nader vote, and taking the lead in building the Nader For President coalition in a number of areas, Socialist Alternative (CWI group in the US) raised the issue of Nader calling a conference after the election to bring together the forces involved in the campaign and also appealing to the unions, minority organizations, community campaigns, etc, to discuss the formation of an independent party which would base itself on the interests of the working class.
Although his campaign has helped prepare the ground for such a development, Nader has regrettably made no steps in this direction. Nader has raised no perspective for the formation of a new, independent party. According to reports, he now aims to promote the growth of the Green Party and bring it together with citizens’ movements across the country. (See David Corn: “Nader, Is There Life After Crucifixion?” The Nation, 4 December 2000) He envisages establishing new, Green-related organizations: a non-profit making educational group, a lobbying arm and a political action committee, parallel to the Green Party. He reportedly wants to encourage Green Party chapters on campuses and to set up Green Party advice centers in poor areas.
The Greens and other organizations will, Nader believes, play a ‘watchdog role’ in relation to federal, state and local government. He envisages developing an ‘or else’ relationship with the Democratic leadership in Washington, targeting Senators or Representatives assessed to be electorally vulnerable from the Greens. If they do not adopt Green-friendly positions, they will be told, they will be challenged by the Greens in 2002 and subsequent elections.
This is not a viable strategy for building a new party. The Greens, for a start, do not remotely resemble even the embryonic core of a mass party. They have long been split between two different entities, the Association of State Green Parties and the smaller, more radical Green Party USA. Nader’s campaign team are reportedly very critical of the Greens’ role. According to an unnamed ‘close Nader adviser’, writes Corn, “in lots of places there was little focus [by the Greens] on the presidential campaign, with Greens more interested in local issues like animal rights or power lines… The super rallies were a success despite the Greens… In many places, they haven’t made the transition from being a debating society to being a political party”.
Many leading Greens, moreover, have not decisively broken with the Democrats. In the closing phase of the campaign, many buckled and came out for a Gore vote. Above all, with its current outlook and middle-class membership, the Greens have no possibility of winning support from working-class organizations, the left in the unions, African-American, Latino or other minority organizations.
Somewhat Quixotically, Nader apparently envisages himself as the de facto ‘leader’ of the Greens, although he is not a member of the party (he is a member of the Labor Party, which refused to support his campaign). “I’m on the outside expanding the Green Party”, Corn reports Nader as saying, “while those on the inside intensify it”.
Nader’s proposed ‘or else’ offensive against Washington politicians may be an irritant, and may even cost them a few seats here and there, but the only way to seriously challenge the Democratic ‘left’ face of big business is through the organization of a mass party with a working-class base and radical anti-capitalist policies.
The 2000 election once again demonstrated this crying need. Only such a party could effectively oppose the two big-business parties, break sections of organized workers, African-Americans, and so on, from their traditional but politically futile loyalty to the Democrats. A mass workers’ party is urgently needed to defend the interests of working people, to provide a political voice for the struggles of workers, minorities, undocumented immigrants, women, young people, etc as they develop in the next few years.
A workers’ party would have to advance a program of democratic demands to counter the corruption of the capitalist electoral system. While exposing the institutionalized big-business bribery that now operates, it would call for the abolition of 18th century anachronisms, such as the electoral college, and above all sweep away the barriers which stand in the way of a third-party or independent candidate getting on the ballot.
A workers’ party would fight, on the electoral level and also through industrial and community campaigns, on social issues of burning importance to workers: for a living wage, against repressive trade union laws, for a universal health system, for an end to capital punishment, documents for all immigrants, and much, much more. Any workers’ party emerging in the next period will inevitably be anti-corporate, but its program from a socialist standpoint would have to go much further, challenging the capitalist system and advocating a socialist economy based on democratic planning.
The formation of a new workers’ party, despite inevitable limitations and peculiarities in the first phase of its existence, would be a massive step forward for the working class. It would play the role of a political catalyst, providing the conscious element necessary for the emergence of the US working class – which, despite denials from all sides, is a powerful economic and social force – as a powerful political force.
The immediate, tangible results of Nader’s campaign may regrettably be very limited. Nevertheless, in 2000 Nader mobilized and enthused a radical layer of young people, joined by some older workers, in a movement which prefigures the much wider, deeper radicalization that will take place in the coming years.
George W’s Bad Luck
“It doesn’t so matter who wins”, pronounced Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senator from New York, elder statesman, and spokesman for the bourgeois order. “The important thing is the legitimacy of the system”. True, the more far-sighted strategists of the ruling class (for whom New York Times and Washington Post editorials spoke) favored Gore as a more balanced, responsible leader, particularly given the prospect of an economic downturn and increased social tensions. But they can live with a Bush presidency. More serious is the erosion of legitimacy, aggravated by the dispute over Florida, but arising from deep cynicism, from mass disenchantment with the whole political system.
Under the heading ‘Political Decadence’, a Washington Post editorial lamented: “The politics of America are in a state of serious disrepair”. (International Herald Tribune, November 27) “Deception of the voters has become an accepted tactic… a reliance on televised imagery plus a low regard for truth produces a kind of demagoguery that has become the background noise of campaigns. Politicians’ credibility has been reduced, as has… public faith and trust in governmental institutions”.
“Congress itself has fallen into a state of impotence and partisan posturing. Restraints on the use of money to buy political office and favor have collapsed. Interest groups – industry associations and labor unions; environmental, right-to-life, rifle and countless other single-issue organizations – together have come to wield even larger sums with greater intensity than the political parties. Politics has never been an innocent profession, but this is different from the past”.
The Post still defends the ‘Republicrat’ system, claiming (against Nader) that there are ‘significant distinctions’ between the Democrats and the Republicans, though ‘they are not radical’. “But the country has drifted into a kind of mercenary, scorched-earth politics where the issue often seems to be the winning of power irrespective of its possible uses”. Referring to the post-election struggle in Florida, the Post comments: “The country has become the prisoner of a kind of political pugilism that is doing it great harm. The candidates could begin to lead in a different direction but haven’t; nor have the parties’ elder statesmen…”
Historically, the two-party system served the ruling class well. The partisan fight for office between Republicans and Democrats for office presented the illusion of a choice and disguised the absence of real alternatives. Other parties were kept out, through massive financial clout and a thousand and one barriers to getting on the ballot. But in the absence of even a European-type social democratic party reflecting the pressure of the working class, the ‘Republicrat’ system has developed grotesque excesses. These are undermining the role of the electoral process under capitalism: to select and test through public debate competent leaders to manage the state and economy in the interests of the ruling class; and to legitimize the role of capitalist government in the eyes of the non-capitalist majority. Nevertheless, the last thing they want is the development of an independent workers’ party, although the events of the next few years will create all the conditions for the emergence of such a party.
The system, on this occasion, has put ‘a profoundly shallow’ candidate into the White House. He will serve, like Reagan before him, as a kind of impresario for a team of right-wing capitalists and bureaucrats, although without the advantage of Reagan’s acting skills. Vice-president Cheney and other veterans of the Bush I administration, together with Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill (friend of Greenspan), John Ashcroft, hard-line right-wing attorney general, and others will write the script: George W will do his best to mumble through it. Nevertheless, through Bush’s cabinet and senior advisers, the capitalist establishment will attempt to school the presidency and mould it to its current needs. There is the problem, however, that the US ruling class, is riven with many factions, reflecting different economic and regional interests, and has never achieved the social or ideological coherence of the bourgeoisie of the major European powers.
The presidency will face a divided Congress, a recipe for continued gridlock. But the real problem facing Bush’s administration is not the congressional arithmetic, but their lack of any thought-out policies to deal with the coming downturn and the social turmoil it will produce. The apparent political complacency of the last period, which is a superficial covering of mounting tensions below, will be shattered by an eruption of political grievances in every section of society.
The main factor will be the downturn in the US economy. Bush has already tried to associate himself with Greenspan, but the Greenspan magic will evaporate in the coming months. Bush has also tried to pre-empt any blame on him for the downturn by ‘talking down’ the economy before his inauguration. This will not relieve him of responsibility in the eyes of the working ‘middle class’ when they are hit by the malign payback for the speculative bubble of the late-1990s. Bush will not be able to give away the Federal budget surplus in the form of massive tax cuts to the rich because the surplus will soon be wiped out by the downturn.
George W, it has been claimed, has been driven by an ambition to avenge his father, victor of the Gulf war of 1990-91 and architect of the New World Order, whose re-election campaign in 1992 was, as bad luck would have it, torpedoed by the recession of that time. According to the Republicans, Bush senior was unjustly ousted by Clinton (with some treacherous help from Ross Perot), who even stole their political clothes. George W’s ‘luck’, however, will be even worse. He now faces the prospect of a downturn which is likely to be much deeper than 1990-91, with far more severe repercussions within the US. Moreover, he will certainly face even bigger, more intractable problems for US imperialism on the world arena.
Socialism Today #53, January 2001