all computer errors involve vote counts in Florida. Writing in Funny Times,
Richard Lederer tells about a computer glitch that caused the publisher of an
economics report to have to issue an apology to subscribers: "Instead of
the figures on the sales of soybeans to foreign countries," the sheepish
publisher explained, the computer printed out "the chest measurements of
the Female Wrestler’s Association."
Hazard your own guess as to why the soybean statistician had FWA chest
measurements programmed into the computer, but the lesson here is that it’s not
only important to get your statistics right, but also to get the right
statistics. In the aftermath of November 7th, the media and the political pros
have been zeroed in on one set of election figures, while totally ignoring
another set that may be even more revealing about the presidential race. The
national focus, of course, has been on the few hundred vote difference between
Gore and Bush-a thin divide that was breathlessly termed a "crisis"
for our democracy by assorted pipe-smoking pundits. Yet these same pundits
didn’t give a puff about a far wider electoral divide that I think poses an
actual crisis for our democracy: the more than 100 million votes that went
astray on election day.
These votes weren’t "lost" to misaligned butterfly ballots, pregnant
chads, or some conniving election official who deposited them in a closet.
Rather, these were the uncast ballots of almost half of the American electorate
who chose not to vote this year, largely because they feel they’ve been cast out
of the process by a vacuous, cynical, and elitist political system that no
longer addresses their needs and aspirations.
These mostly are middle and low income folks, people making less than $50,000 a
year. While they make up some 80 percent of the U.S. population, exit polls on
November 7th found that for the first time they’ve fallen to less than half of
the voting population. As the Clinton-Gore-Lieberman Democrats have jerked the
party out from under this core populist constituency, pursuing the money and
adopting the policies of the corporate and investor elites, the core
constituency of the party has-Big Surprise-steadily dropped away from the polls.
In 1992, the under $50,000 crowd made up 63 percent of voters. In 1996, after
Clinton and Gore had relentlessly and very publicly pushed NAFTA, the WTO, and
other Wall Street policies for four years, the under-$50,000 crowd dropped to 52
percent of voters. After four more years of income stagnation and decline for
these families under the regime of the Clinton-Gore "New Democrats,"
the under-$50,000 crowd dropped this year to only 47 percent of voters. At the
same time, those who are prospering under the Wall Street boom, cheered on by
the policies of both the Republican and Democratic leadership, have become
ever-more enthusiastic voters. In 1996, voters with incomes above $100,000 made
up nine percent of the turnout; this year, they were 15 percent of the turnout.
This rising income skew among voters causes both parties to push more
policies that favor the affluent minority, which causes an even greater turn-off
for the majority, which causes . . . well, you can see the downward spiral we’re
in. This is especially damaging to Democrats, since the non-voters are their
natural constituency. This constituency feels discarded, not only by the
Democrats, but by the whole process. What a dismal, disheartening, dismaying
campaign this had to be for them. Gore and Bush spent less time with working
class folks than they did posturing for the cameras with elementary school kids,
day after day squishing their broad Boomer bottoms into tiny classroom chairs to
get their pictures made while reading to the tykes. Were they running for
president of the U.S. or president of the school board?
And so it went, a silly non-campaign that treated voters as consumers of phony
political events designed and test-marketed to entertain and distract attention
from anything real. Gore planted that Big Wet Kiss on Tipper at the Democratic
convention, wowing the media, so Bush responded by going on Oprah and planting a
smack on her cheek. Bush traded jokes with Leno, so Gore went on Regis and
hypnotized a chicken-Ha! Top that Bush boy!
Meanwhile, no talk of a living wage, of renegotiating NAFTA to stop its
job-busting impacts across the country, of the 100 farmers being forced out of
business each day, of universal health-care coverage, or of other issues that
might cause the majority’s ears and hearts to perk up. Even when Gore went
skittering across the country in August on a widely-ballyhooed "Working
Families Tour," he had the Clinton Administration’s favorite Wall Streeter,
Robert Rubin, by his side, sending a stage wink to the corporate powers,
assuring them that all his quasi-populist posturing was only rhetoric-not to
worry, Rubin still has a grip on policy.
It’s no surprise then that Thomas Patterson, director of Harvard’s Vanishing
Voter Project, reports that throughout the election year, even among those who
voted, his weekly surveys consistently found that more than 60 percent agreed
that "Politics in America is generally pretty disgusting." In a New
York Times op-ed piece, Patterson writes that "there was no week in which
more Americans thought the campaign had been exciting rather than boring. Even
in the final week, the margin in favor of ‘boring’ was 48 percent to 28
percent." In only a fourth of the weeks did people find the presidential
campaign informative, and in two-thirds of the weeks people found it
The media pontificates about whether the new president can be considered
"legitimate" after the counts, recounts, non-counts, and court cases
in Florida. But there is a deeper question of legitimacy than that posed by a
few hundred votes. Neither Bush nor Gore can claim to be the people’s choice,
for the only clear finding of this election is that Americans didn’t want either
of them. The close popular and electoral votes were not a reflection of
evenly-divided support, but of which guy people would vote to throw off the
island first. Both "won" this negative contest. Let’s do the math:
percent of eligible voters either did not vote or voted for third party
the 48 percent of Americans who cast ballots for Bush or Gore, there was an
even split, giving each roughly 24 percent of eligible voters.
wait-a good half of these voters were not actually for the candidate they
checked on their ballots, but rather were voting against the other guy.
This means that neither Bush nor Gore could muster the support of more than 12
percent of the electorate. There is the illegitimacy of the election process,
and there is the crisis for our democracy.
How is the Democratic party establishment dealing with this crisis of legitimacy
and its own declining numbers? By blaming Ralph Nader. Partisans wail that Ralph
denied Gore the few hundred votes he needed to prevail on election night.
Indeed, Nader polled some 95,000 votes in Florida, which prompted New York
socialite and Hillary Clinton money-man, Harry Evans, to blurt angrily, "I
want to kill Ralph Nader."
Hold your horses, please. Ralph’s not the message-he’s only the messenger.
Again, the politicos and pundits are ignoring another set of election statistics
in Florida that are way more revealing about the core weakness of the corporate
Democrats. I’m grateful to Tim Wise, a Nashville-based writer and activist who
dug into the Florida tallies and exit polls to find some stunning results that
refute the "Ralph Did It" assault. Tim’s full report will appear in a
forthcoming issue of Z Magazine, but the essence of it is that Gore was the
problem, not Nader. Start with two constituent groups that Democratic nominees
usually win in the Sunshine State:
(1) Seniors. By a 51-47 percent margin, Gore lost the over-65 vote in
Florida. Bush got 67,000 more senior votes than Gore did. Had Gore simply broken
even with this constituency, he would have won on the 7th.
(2) White Women. This group typically votes Democrat in Florida, or splits
evenly. Gore lost them to Bush by 53-44 percent. Had he gotten 50 percent of
these votes, he’d have added 65,000 votes to his total-plenty enough to have put
the state in his column election night.
Now it gets really ugly for the Gore campaign, for there are two other Florida
constituencies that cost them more votes than Nader did. First, Democrats. Yes,
Democrats! Nader only drew 24,000 Democrats to his cause, yet 308,000 Democrats
voted for Bush. Hello. If Gore had taken even one percent of these Democrats
from Bush, Ralph’s votes wouldn’t have mattered. Second, Liberals. Sheesh. Gore
lost 191,000 self-described liberals to Bush, compared to less than 34,000 libs
who voted for Nader.
Why would Democrats and liberals vote for (gag) Bush? Some Democrats were likely
so appalled by Clinton’s personal behavior and Gore’s fundraising escapades that
they flipped all the way to Bush, while others found no defining economic
difference between Gore and Bush, so they voted on the basis of George W.’s
(false) claim to be the integrity candidate. Some liberals noted that Bush
actually has proposed less of an increase in the Pentagon’s already-bloated
budget than Gore did, and some were so angered by the vice-president’s atrocious
record of selling out working families, environmentalists, and farmers that they
wanted to give him the double-whammy of taking a vote from him and giving it to
Bush. In any event, Gore failed to close the deal with these voters-a fact that
has nothing to do with Nader. There are plenty of other points that can be made
about Gore’s loss, including the fact that if he’d carried his own state of
Tennessee (where Nader was not a factor), all of this would be moot. But the
real need is for progressives (whether Gore-backers or Naderites or neither) to
get beyond this presidential election and get down to the real business of
building a longterm, grassroots movement that taps into the latent power of more
than 100 million discarded voters. If we don’t do it, some super-ugly right wing
force will, and then we progressives and our country will be in a heap of hurt.
But if we do reach out to this disenchanted majority of middle and low income
Americans, we can produce a historic political realignment, creating both a
politics that people can be proud of and a country with a bright, democratic
future. Now that’s a fight worth making.