November 29, 2000
There has been a good deal of talk, during this post-election of our discontent, about sparing no effort to discern the will of the people, a process whereby the next president and the next administration will presumably be blessed with a shroud of legitimacy. It is astounding that this term can be used in the wake of the closest election in our history, when the people at least those who voted were almost equally divided without eliciting universal horselaughs and scorn from serious commentators.
How can 50-percent-plus-or-minus-one be viewed as anything remotely resembling the will of "the people?" With regard to this presidential election the people were divided and/or indecisive. Thereís no "will" expressed there, no mandate, no demand for the program one of the two candidates put forward. And no particular legitimacy for whichever contender emerges with the booby prize of the Oval Orifice.
If anything, the will of the people was for these two barely competent scions of second-rate political power families to go away and stop reminding us how degraded politics has become in the last days of the empire. One of the candidates will assume office and gain access to the levers of power. But in a very real sense, it is more accurate to say that both candidates lost. Neither ignited much excitement, admiration or loyalty. Most of those who voted for one or another had to hold their noses while doing so.
The media people on the scene claim to be amazed that some thousands of ballots in Miami-Dade and other counties have chads pushed out for most of the other offices and issues on the ballots but not for the presidential race. I obviously have no more ability to read the minds of the voters than the dimple-hunters, but it wouldnít surprise me a bit. In the weeks leading up to the election most of the people I talked to complained of the dreadful quality of candidates offered by the major parties, and quite a few said they wouldnít vote for either of those two bozos.
But the chattering classes still speak of the sacred will of the people. It suggests that the phrase "the will of the people" as has been the case since the concept came into general parlance with Jean-Jacques-Rousseauís "General Will" and has been used by totalitarians and would-be totalitarians ever since has more to do with giving rulers an excuse to wreak their will on the people than with any respect for the people themselves.
In fact, most of the phrases in general usage among the political classes these days carry a whiff of totalitarianism or fascism. The politicos claim to think that "unity," implementing "the will of the people," "coming together," "working toward consensus," "setting bold national goals and purposes," "respecting the process" are what is necessary in this time of trial. But the unspoken obverse of all these phrases, the logical corollary of focusing on unity, is squelching dissent, marginalizing those who disagree, ignoring those who are indifferent to the absurd process.
The language of national unity is and almost always has been the language of would-be dictators, of Maximum Leaders, of Men on a White Horse. In a genuinely democratic government devoted to protecting the peoplesí liberty such phrases should be as rare as an honest thief, reserved for those dire occasions of attack from outside when a nation might have to come together or cease to exist as a nation.
By voting the way they did. The people have let it be known that a man on a white horse to lead a crusade for national unity is almost the last thing they want. Yet phrases about unity are the customary parlance of the chattering classes.
I donít think itís because many of them really are incipient would-be dictators, repressed Hitlers or Stalins just biding their time until they can achieve power and show their enemies how ruthlessly this ruling thing can be done. The sad thing is that such phrases are used so casually, with so little concern about the political implications of the choice of phrases, a bit like the polite "How are yous?" most people trade in social situations. Most people would be shocked if somebody so addressed told them how he or she really was, especially if it wasnít so hot. The phrase has become a custom not exactly meaningless insofar as polite fictions are important societal lubricants but not to be taken literally.
Maybe the chatter about national unity has entered a similar realm, that is to say it has been drained of literal meaning and become political background music stuff you expect politicians to say but that nobody really expects to be taken seriously. After all, nobody could expect a country as large and diverse as ours, so distinctly multicultural, to be unified about much of anything. Or it could be that the language of fascism national purpose, rally Ďround the leader and all that has gradually and ineluctably become the normal language of politics in these United States.
If the latter is the case, itís potentially dangerous even if the concepts have been drained of most of their meaning and most political actors have forgotten what they used to mean. Words and concepts donít become entirely devoid of meaning even when they become clichés. A political discourse built around authoritarian clichés will ineluctably have an authoritarian tinge and be dangerous to human liberty over the long haul.
Call me Pollyanna if you will, but I still think what we are seeing in Florida even in the incredibly overdone and overwrought news coverage resembles the last gasps of a dying system. The assumptions that have guided American governance since about the New Deal have played themselves out. Democrats and Republicans alike, while they may have some tattered remnants of the ideals that once impelled them into politics, are now fighting almost entirely over power, positions and jobs. The next paradigm is evolving as we watch, but off the radar screens of most observers.
In some senses the very ideological emptiness of American politics explains the bitterness of the current battle. Numerous commentators have noted that the close election suggests a deeply divided American people. Maybe, but maybe not. The differences between Gush and Bore were not all that great, and many boiled down to personality. The struggle is over the spoils of power and which constituencies will get to loot the taxpayers. Thatís raw, right down to the nub, to the essence of the political game, with hardly any sheen of pretended idealism to cloak it. Of course the battle is bitter.
What all this means or might mean is that the political landscape is extraordinarily fluid just now, potentially more open to new ideas and change than at most times in our history. Those with different ideas about how society ought to be organized and ruled who might be interested in reminding people that the founders created a government of limited powers in part so a bare majority with power would be able to do less mischief to the minority of the moment should find more receptivity than usual in the next few years.
Those of us who care about limited government and a noninterventionist foreign policy, then, should view the next few years as an opportunity of the kind that might come, quite literally, once in a lifetime. The people arenít extraordinarily unhappy with their lives for the most part, but they have no particular confidence in the political system. They should be more ready to listen to heterodox ideas, presented in persuasive and relatively unthreatening ways, than at any time during recent memory. The competition in ideas will be stiff, of course. The dominant media are still tied to the old order and a situation of ideological flux will bring out all kinds of alternatives. We must be persistent and persuasive if we want to convince people.
But the opportunities to do so will be available.
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