US Election 2000 Ruthless Criticism

Translated from GegenStandpunkt 1-2001

US Election 2000:

The somewhat awkward birth of the new US president
and the accompanying democratic worries

This wasn’t one for the fans of democracy and their refined taste. First, these candidates. One “inexperienced,” “conservative” but “vulnerable,” somehow always leaving a “less than intelligent impression.” The other certainly “more experienced, more intelligent, and more professional.” But always “vague,” “nebulous,” somehow zero “charisma,” i.e. about as “second rate” as the dullard from the competition. Then this election campaign. Typically American, so “staged,” “Hollywood.” And then, the highlight, this election result and the theater afterwards. First, such a promising “election thriller” – and then this dull business about a “draw”! A “world power in limbo”! A “power without a mandate”! With a “very thin basis of legitimacy”! So it starts all over again, “a never ending election campaign.” And once again, peak cinema: this time a “Hollywood courtroom drama.” America on its way “from a constitutional state to a lawyer’s state.” It’s fucked, the world power, actually: “In America and the democratic world, power can’t really be exercised with such a burden.” And then the powers that be are open to reason after all. One month later, “relief at the end of uncertainty” spreads quite quickly and generally. The democratic world congratulates its highest president and the storm in the teacup of political opinion blows over. Much ado about nothing? Not quite. Even if fans of a perfect election process don’t know anything about the reason for their own excitement and don’t need to know anything: In addition to failing to satisfy their tastes, this democratic election has actually also failed to deliver in terms of substance. But one thing at a time.

Act 1. The campaign: democratically flawless

It’s quite possible that neither candidate for president in Washington knows how to spell potato correctly. It doesn’t matter. They too master the intellectual challenge of a promising democratic election campaign quite brilliantly. After all, the majority of an entire nation wants to be convinced that the “best man for America” is standing in front of them, and they both know the right way to do this. They tell this to their voters, over and over. They know exactly what the state’s tasks are and promise their people that they really don’t want to do anything but deal with them. Of course, they attach particular importance to the message that the economy and the unemployed, the sick and the blacks, education, the environment, retirees and morale in the country in general will be in especially good hands with them, that is, much better than in those of their competitor. And to ensure that the citizens make no mistake in their decision to send the best man to Washington, the candidates are happy to help them. As befits an election campaign, they address all the grievances of their clientele. Whether rich, poor, sick, old or even just black: everyone should think of themselves, their own interests and needs – just to imagine as a rich, sick, old or Negro person how well he would govern America. Sure: that’s the only thing the candidates want. But for them to be able to do this, they have to convince their people, whose needs and interests they want to govern, of their qualification for government office. This is the democratic custom, and they spare no effort for this. In the “most expensive election campaign in human history,” they constantly bombard their citizens in the press, on the radio, on television and in person so that they really only have to worry about one thing: How to choose the best man for America with their vote. Obviously, victory in an election campaign in America depends on the same persuasive efforts as in other countries. But insofar as the substance is limited to ensuring that one of the candidates can chalk up the majority of votes for himself, the mental effort required for this is also kept within very narrow parameters in America. Both of them know quite well what ultimately matters: that they truly and really, and much more truly and really than their competitor, have the personality of a leader which qualifies them to be the executive of a world power – that’s all, but they have to credibly convey this to their citizens all the more thoroughly. So balloons and marching music. They themselves always walk around as ‘v’ for victory, and because real credibility can only come from within, they also make out with their wives in front of their screaming followers. In this way, they convince quite a few people how irresistibly good and well received they are, and in the end each of them has pulled it off. Half of the nationalistically motivated people allows themselves to be captivated by one or the other. Of this half, one half sees the will and ability to govern properly represented better in one candidate; the other half sees it in the other. This is also part of the democratic process, is not a major problem, and does not really divide the nation. Because everything is arranged just for election day and the decision that results.

Act 2. The election: democratically unblemished

That’s how it happens. The sovereign in a democracy does what’s wanted of it and steps into action: it makes a checkmark or punches a hole. This – compared to the work of persuasion that went into it beforehand – is a rather monosyllabic performance. But the ballot is certainly not intended for an explanation of one’s convictions or even a comment of any kind. As a voter, the private individual has nothing to say with his vote, but simply has to cast it. Whatever arguments he may have prepared and whatever concerns he may be committed to are completely irrelevant to the act for which he is asked to enter the booth. All the political convictions that he has honed within himself count just as much as everyone else’s, that is, nothing on their own, but as one vote. So as the smallest unit in the process of collective decision making, it is added up with all the others, and the resulting numerical ratio determines who is the “best man for America”: it’s the winner. Because the majority of the electorate in all their freedom have appointed him and not the other person to carry out their official duties, he and his team are now the rulers appointed and empowered by the people, thus “democratically legitimized.” Just in time for the decision, which is all that matters for them, the candidates focus their acting skills entirely on the office they want to hold. Suddenly there is an end to all the posturing, idiocies and deceitfulness that is calculated to captivate popular opinion and to defame their rivals. Now they prepare to become statesmen, getting their campaign armies in position for the victory celebration and having their speeches written. It begins with the incredible happiness and expressions of thanks to all the helpers –- and to the fair opponent too – and ends with God Bless America. Otherwise, they simply wait until the people have finally delegated the power that comes from them to themselves so that they can then actually exercise it.

Act 3. The result: democratic, but no result!

But unfortunately this doesn’t happen. A huge prelude to an even bigger climax – and it simply doesn’t happen. Two equally qualified, convincing, and credible candidates for president convince their fellow countrymen of their qualifications and credibility – and then neither of them makes it into office! All the effort of an election campaign: polarizing the people into two camps of supporters over the question of who should be in power – for nothing. The whole meaning and purpose of the election: to allow the majority of public opinion to choose the legitimate winner under whose leadership the nation will unite once again – wasted. And only because the decisive votes were simply missing at a crucial point. Instead of concluding lege artis the “battle for power in the White House” so that governing from there resumes again, the election leaves it open. The election is over, but not yet finished.

Act 4. Instead, yet again: “A struggle for power”

And already America and interested parties of the outside world have reason to register a danger to the democratic community: The battle for power in Washington, which has come to an end with the election of the legitimized new incumbent, continues, and what the two candidates and their voting organizations have always been about is now even more important to them: because the vote has not conclusively decided their competition, they and their parties return to the front lines of the election campaign – and continue undaunted to compete for the office that awaits them after its official conclusion. ‘Nothing to lose and everything to gain!’ is their slogan, and the means by which they want to win everything is only secondarily the success they have achieved in winning votes: For them, it now boils down to, first and foremost, finding a judge who will somehow certify their success, that is, that they have won the battle for the people’s votes. So they prepare the interested interpretation of the votes that have been counted, not yet counted, are no longer to be counted or are now by all means to be counted, and because everyone notices the interest, this then attracts widespread objection. Where the competition for victory by votes has not produced a legitimized ruler and the competitors for power are therefore setting out to decide their competition themselves, this noticeably degrades the act of voting which is specifically intended to legitimize a new ruler. It doesn’t help if the rivals claim they are only going to court to determine the unclear vote of the electorate. When they send their lawyers to court to present their knowledge of the psychology of human hole-punching behavior, of stochastic problems in translating the will of the voters into a number, of court jurisdiction in general and in Florida in particular, and similar related expertise, even the blindest Yank sees what the whole drama is about: It is by no means the voters and their vote that brings the power struggle to its final decision, but they themselves intend to settle this among themselves. Where everyone knows judges are there to bestow justice on their own interests, now everyone also knows that even the candidates for the highest state office by no means persist in their respect for the vote of their electorate, but find in the law the instrument that is supposed to bring them to power: The route through the courts is their way of manipulating the decision of the democratic sovereign to suit their wants, and that is not good for the prestige of the mode of rule in which the office holder is legitimized by the people and not manipulated into power by well-disposed judges.

It is therefore clear – and this is also not good for the reputation of this noble and sublime form of government – for democratic souls that it is mere party hacks who are fighting over the White House and “bitterly” “clinging” to one court decision after another. One could also make the discovery that the deeper meaning underlying free elections and the whole complicated empowerment process, with which democracy likes to shine, is not particularly deep: to open a dispute about power in order to close it; to send one of several power-hungry suck-ups to a place where he is no longer just a party figure, but can rule the state and command its people – for this and for nothing else, all rule in democracy comes from the people. But the small scratch that the “power obsessed” candidates in America inflict on the democratic ethos is something that the fine intellects and fans of a popularly commissioned rule notice in their own way, so they do not express what they find objectionable as a judgment on a truth about democracy, but as a condemnation of the opponents: They, and not the grand joke of this form of government which has been laid bare in all its banality, are so embarrassing. Because they simply have nothing else on their minds but their – now that the shenanigans of the election campaign are over: “egotistic” – “interest in power.” So someone who has never liked Bush finally knows why: “Bush campaigned as a conciliator, now he is selfishly dividing the nation.” And for exactly the same reason, a colleague from the same newspaper who has never liked Bush now dislikes Gore whom he has always liked more than Bush: “The legal channels are almost exhausted, patience has long been exhausted. ... A political and legal small businessman is taking stock at the end of his career.” In this way, the question is then raised whether, in view of the unscheduled power struggle, Republicans or Democrats are “no longer democrats.” Experts on democracy once again make the sensational discovery that the electoral system in America is doubly and triply designed in such a way that a winner emerges after an election in any case. But because this election did not immediately spit out the winner, they consider the issue of the Electoral College to be a clear “anachronism.” And just because a democratic election did not immediately and unambiguously put the finishing touches to the staged “division of the nation,” without which a democratic election battle for power is simply not possible, they blather on about “America’s test” and offer good advice on how a world power that flies to the moon could avoid “embarrassing mishaps” of this kind in the future. The love of democracy is as blind as it is stupid.

Act 5. Finally: the will of the people is heard

But then everything will be ok again. The people have actually elected him, their 43rd president, and the highest court will determine who he is. The pretense that the candidates and their lawyers had nothing else in mind but having the ambigious will of the people decided by the court has suffered quite a bit in the lively back and forth between the authorities anyway – now it is finally being exposed. It is by no means the famous “will of the voters” that comes to light in the numerical arithmetic of the electoral process, but rather the highest legal authority in the country that has the authority to decide which of the two is authorized to exercise power, and that is very fair. The authority of the law decisively prevents the tiresome procedure of the law in the form of its judges from taking a side with one of the two candidates and helping him win power – by taking a side with the winner one last time in the form of its highest judges and declaring him the legitimate power holder. The rule of law in the form of the board that represents the sovereignty of the law, which stands above all particular interests, makes the instrumentalization of the law for the interests of the rivals for power into its business in order to put an end to it. Ultimately, in a democracy, the decision over the personnel who sits in state offices must not be a question of legal-tactical maneuvers on the part of the candidates, but solely of the institutionalized democratic process – even and especially in the exceptional case when the election fails to completely fulfill its purpose as the tried and true procedure of empowerment. And if the people cannot agree on the legitimacy of a ruler, the rule of law itself declares who is authorized to exercise power within it. In this way, the highest authority attests to the whole role that the people play as the sovereign of democracy: The people and their will are really only intended and called on as an auxiliary factor in the routine replacement of the ruling personnel, because where they do not clearly decide in favor of their political master, the rule of law remedies the omission, steps in for one of the elected officials with its procedure which is above all partisanships and interests, and declares him to be the legitimate office holder. Although it is finally and officially clear that from now on his use of power has been democratically legitimized, it still depends on the selected loser whether the judges’ decision that the power struggle has come to an end with the election really ends the power struggle after the election. And lo and behold, he bows to the fact that the law does not favor him, but the other party. Because it does not at all go without saying, he is highly credited with the fact that, against the “party resentment” and despite the “disappointment of many supporters,” he acknowledges his responsibility to heal the rifts in the nation which he has been instrumental in bringing about, now that it simply no longer makes political sense. To do so, he must call on all Americans, “especially those” who supported him, “to stand united behind our next president.” And as soon as he does, the people have learned that the volonté générale is different from the volonté de tous.