Elections 2000


Noam Chomsky

The
most striking fact about the November 2000 elections is that they were a
statistical tie (for Congress as well, virtually). The most interesting
question is what this shows, if anything, about the state of functioning
democracy. For many commentators, the fact that the presidency “is hinging
on a few hundred votes” reveals the extraordinary health and vigor of
American democracy (former State Department spokesperson James Rubin). An
alternative interpretation is that it confirms the conclusion that there was
no election in any sense that takes the concept of democracy seriously.

Under what
conditions would we expect 100 million votes to divide 50-50, with variations
that fall well within expected margins of error of 1-2 percent? There is a
very simple model that would yield such expectations: people were voting at
random. If tens of millions of votes were cast for X vs. Y as president of
Mars, such results would be expected. To the extent that the simplest model is
valid, the elections did not take place.

Of course, more
complex models can be constructed, and we know that the simplest one is not
strictly valid. Voting blocs can be identified, and sometimes the reasons for
choices can be discerned. It’s understandable that financial services should
overwhelmingly support Bush, whose announced plans included huge gifts of
public resources to the industry and even more commitment than his opponent to
the demolition of quasi- democratic institutions (Social Security in
particular). And it is no surprise that affluent white voters favored Bush
while union members, Latinos, and African-Americans strongly opposed him
(“supported Gore,” in conventional terminology).

But blocs are
not always easy to explain in terms of interest-based voting, and it is well
to remember that voting is often consciously against interest. For example, in
1984 Reagan ran as a “real conservative,” winning what was called a
“landslide victory” (with under 30 percent of the electoral vote); a large
majority of voters opposed his legislative program, and 4 percent of his
supporters identified themselves as “real conservatives.” Such outcomes
are not too surprising when over 80 percent of the population feels that the
government is “run for the benefit of the few and the special interests, not
the people,” up from about half in earlier years. When similar numbers feel
that the economic system is “inherently unfair” and working people have
too little say, and that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands
of large companies for the good of the nation.” Under such circumstances,
people may tend to vote (if at all) on grounds that are irrelevant to policy
choices over which they feel they have little influence. Such tendencies are
strengthened by intense media/advertising concentration on style, personality,
and other irrelevancies (in the presidential debates, will Bush remember where
Canada is?; will Gore remind people of some unpleasant know-it-all in 4th
grade?).

Public opinion
studies lend further credibility to the simplest model. Harvard’s Vanishing
Voter Project has been monitoring attitudes through the presidential campaign.
Its director, Thomas Patterson, reports that “Americans’ feeling of
powerlessness has reached an alarming high,” with 53 percent responding
“only a little” or “none” to the question: “How much influence do
you think people like you have on what government does?” The previous peak,
30 years ago, was 41 percent. During the campaign, over 60 percent of regular
voters regarded politics in America as “generally pretty disgusting.” In
each weekly survey, more people found the campaign boring than exciting, by a
margin of 48 percent to 28 percent in the final week. Three-fourths of the
population regarded the whole process as largely a game played by large
contributors (overwhelmingly corporations), party leaders, and the PR
industry, which crafted candidates to say “almost anything to get themselves
elected,” so that one could believe little that they said even when their
stand on issues was intelligible. On almost all issues, citizens could not
identify the stands of the candidates—not because they are stupid or not
trying.

It is, then,
not unreasonable to suppose that the simplest model is a pretty fair first
approximation to the truth about the election, and that the country is being
driven even more than before towards the condition described by former
President Alfonso Lopez Michaelsen of Colombia, referring to his own country:
a political system of power sharing by parties that are “two horses with the
same owner.” Furthermore, that seems to be general popular understanding.

On the side,
perhaps the similarities help us understand Clinton’s great admiration and
praise for Colombian democracy, and for the grotesque social and economic
system kept in place by violence. The fact that after a decade in which
Colombia was the leading recipient of U.S. arms and military training in the
hemisphere—and the leading human rights violator, in conformity with a
well-established correlation—it attained first place worldwide in 1999, with
a huge further increase now in progress (Israel-Egypt are a separate
category).

When an
election is a largely meaningless statistical tie, and a victor has to be
selected somehow, the rational procedure would be some arbitrary choice; say,
flipping a coin. But that is unacceptable. It is necessary to invest the
process of selecting our leader with appropriate majesty, an effort conducted
for five weeks of intense elite dedication to the task, with limited success,
it appears.

The five weeks
of passionate effort were not a complete waste. They did contribute to
exposing racist bias in practices in Florida and elsewhere—which probably
have a considerable element of class bias, concealed by the standard refusal
in U.S. commentary to admit that class structure exists, and the race-class
correlations.

There was also
at least some slight attention to a numerically far more significant factor
than the ugly harassment of black voters and electoral chicanery:
disenfranchisement through incarceration. The day after the election, Human
Rights Watch issued a (barely- noted) study reporting that the “decisive”
element in the Florida election was the exclusion of 31 percent of
African-American men, either in prison or among the more than 400,000
“ex-offenders” permanently disenfranchised. HRW estimates than “more
than 200,000 potential black voters [were] excluded from the polls.” Since
they overwhelmingly vote Democratic, that “decisively” changed the
outcome. The numbers overwhelm those debated in the intense scrutiny over
marginal technical issues (dimpled chads, etc.). The same was true of other
swing states. In seven states, HRW reported, “one in four black men is
permanently barred” from voting; “almost every state in the U.S. denies
prisoners the right to vote” and “fourteen states bar criminal offenders
from voting even after they have finished their sentences,” permanently
disenfranchising “over one million ex-offenders.” These are African-
American and Latino out of any relation to proportion of the population, or
even to what is called “crime.”

“More than 13
percent of black men (some 1.4 million nationwide) are disenfranchised for
many years, sometimes for life, a result of felony convictions, many for
passing the same drugs that Al Gore smoked and George W. snorted in years gone
by,” University of New Mexico Law Professor Tim Canova writes. The few
reports in the mainstream U.S. press noted that the political implications are
highly significant, drawing votes away from Democratic candidates. The numbers
are large. In Alabama and Florida, over 6 percent of potential voters were
excluded because of felony records; “for blacks in Alabama, the rate is 12.4
percent and in Florida 13.8 percent”; “In five other states—Iowa,
Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia and Wyoming—felony disenfranchisement laws
affected one in four black men” (NY Times, November 3, citing human
rights and academic studies).

The academic
researchers, sociologists Jeff Manza (Northwestern) and Christopher Uggen
(Minnesota), conclude that “were it not for disenfranchised felons, the
Democrats would still have control of the U.S. Senate.” “If the Bush-Gore
election turns out to be as close as the Kennedy-Nixon election, and Bush
squeaks through, we may be able to attribute that to felon
disenfranchisement.” Re-examining close Senate elections since 1978, they
conclude further that “the felon vote could have reversed Republican
victories in Virginia, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Florida and Wyoming, and
prevented the Republican takeover” (Los Angeles Times, September 8).

Citing the same
studies, the Santa Fe New Mexican (November 19) pointed out that 5.5
percent of potential voters in New Mexico—where the election was also a
statistical tie—were disenfranchised by felony convictions. “As many as 45
percent of black males in the state can’t vote—the highest ratio in the
country,” though the total figures are not as dramatic as Florida. Figures
were not available for Hispanics, who constitute 60 percent of the state’s
prisoners (and about 40 percent of the estimated population), but the
conclusions are expected to be comparable. “Neither party seems interested
in addressing the issue, Manza said. Republicans feel they have little to gain
because these voters are thought to be overwhelmingly Democratic. And, he
added, ‘Democrats are sufficiently concerned about not appearing to be weak
on crime that I’m sure they would not be jumping up and down on this’.”

The last
comment directs attention to a critically important matter, discussed
prominently abroad (see Duncan Campbell, Guardian, Nov. 14; Serge
Halimi and Looc Wacquant, Le Monde diplo- matique, December 2000; also
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Christian Science Monitor, December 14). For the
past eight years, Clinton and Gore disenfranchised a major voting bloc that
would have easily swung the election to Gore. During their tenure in office,
the prison population swelled from 1.4 to 2 million, removing an enormous
number of potential Democratic voters from the lists, thanks to the harsh
sentencing laws. Clinton-Gore were particularly devoted to draconian
Reagan-Bush laws, Hutchinson points out. The core of these practices is drug
laws that have little to do with drugs but a lot to do with social control:
removing superfluous people and frightening the rest. When the latest phase of
the “war on drugs” was designed in the 1980s, it was recognized at once
that “we are choosing to have an intense crime problem concentrated among
minorities” (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the few Senators who paid
attention to social statistics). “The war’s planners knew exactly what
they were doing,” criminologist Michael Tonry wrote, reviewing the racist
and class-based procedures that run through the system from arrest to
sentencing—and that continue a long and disgraceful tradition (see Randall
Shelden, Controlling the Dangerous Classes: A Critical Introduction to the
History of Criminal Justice
).

Twenty years
ago, the U.S. was similar to other industrial countries in rate of
incarceration. By now, it is off the spectrum, the world’s leader among
countries that have meaningful statistics. The escalation was unrelated to
crime rates, which were not unlike other industrial countries then and have
remained stable or declined. But they are a natural component of the domestic
programs instituted from the late Carter years, a variant of the “neoliberal
reforms” that have had a devastating effect in much of the third world.
These “reforms” have been accompanied by a notable deterioration in
conventional measures of “economic health” worldwide, but have had a much
more dramatic impact on standard social indicators: measures of “quality of
life.” In the U.S., these tracked economic growth until the “reforms”
were instituted, and have declined since, now to about the level of 40 years
ago, in what the Fordham University research institute that has done the major
studies of the topic calls a “social recession” (Marc and Marque-Luisa
Miringoff, The Social Health of the Nation; see Paul Street, Z
Magazine,
November 2000). Economic rewards are highly concentrated, and
much of the population becomes superfluous for profit and power.

Marginalization
of the superfluous population takes many forms. Some of these were the topic
of a recent Business Week cover story entitled “Why Service Stinks”
(Octember 23). It reviewed refinements in implementing the 80-20 rule taught
in business schools: 20 percent of your customers provide 80 percent of the
profits, and you may be better off without the rest. The “new consumer
apartheid” relies on modern information technology (in large measure a gift
from an unwitting public) to allow corporations to provide grand services to
profitable customers, and to deliberately offer skimpy services to the rest,
whose inquiries or complaints can be safely ignored. The experience is
familiar, and carries severe costs—how great when distributed over a large
population, we don’t know, because they are not included among the highly
ideological measures of economic performance. Incarceration might be regarded
as an extreme version, for the least worthy.

Incarceration
has other functions. It is a form of interference in labor markets, removing
working-age males, increasingly women as well, from the labor force.
Calculating real unemployment when this labor force is included, the authors
of an informative academic study find the U.S. to be well within the European
range, contrary to conventional claims (Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett, American
Journal of Sociology,
January 1999; also Prison Legal News, October
2000). They conclude that what is at issue is not labor market interference,
but the kind that is chosen: job training, unemployment insurance, and so on,
on the social democratic model; or throwing superfluous people into jail.

In pursuing
these policies, the U.S. has separated itself from other industrial countries.
Europe abandoned voting restrictions for criminals decades ago; in 1999, the
Constitutional Court of South Africa gave inmates the right to vote, saying
that the “vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and
personhood.” Prior to the “neoliberal reforms” and their “drug war”
concomitant, the U.S. was heading in the same direction, the National Law
Journal
(October 30) comments: “The American Bar Association Standards
on Civil Disabilities of a Convicted Person, approved in 1980, state flatly
that ‘[persons] convicted of any offense should not be deprived of the right
to vote’ and that laws subjecting convicts to collateral civil disabilities
‘should be repealed’.”

Without
continuing, the Clin- ton-Gore programs of disenfranchising their own voters
should be understood as a natural component of their overall socioeconomic
conceptions. The elections themselves illustrate the related conception of the
political system of two horses with the same corporate owner. None of this is
new. There is no “golden age” that has been lost, and this is not the
first period of concentrated attack on democracy and human rights. Insofar as
the November 2000 elections are worth discussing, they should, I think, be
seen primarily from these perspectives.
                Z