Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the waters of the next presidential election, the Jaws soundtrack thrums in the background. We may wake up screaming. In any event, we will surely wake up the day after the elections litigating. The Supremes brought us here, that frivolous judicial nine, tap-dancing their way into the 2000 election from stage-left, robes flapping and rolling their eyes.
In that vote-along-party-lines flight of fancy with which they seated an unelected president, they promised us a “one-off” decision that would have no bearing on legal precedence. Sure! Here we are, a couple weeks ahead of the 2004 election and chaotic circumstances abide in several of the swing states, with Florida once again leading the pack. The European Commission is sending observers to an American election as if we were a banana republic.
Perhaps we are.
At any rate, lawyers from both parties are zeroing in on approximately 30,000 precincts that one or both sides consider opportunistic to fraud, deviant behavior, racial grievances, petulant attitudes or some other form of the black arts. Jimmy Carter, who has some experience world-wide in the observance of rigged elections, speaking of Florida, says “the disturbing fact is that a repetition of the problems of 2000 now seems likely, even as many other nations are conducting elections that are internationally certified to be transparent, honest and fair.” Carter goes on to say (see article) “It is unconscionable to perpetuate fraudulent or biased electoral practices in any nation. It is especially objectionable among us Americans, who have prided ourselves on setting a global example for pure democracy.”
I lay that blame directly at the feet of the Supreme Court. Had the court allowed the Florida recount to proceed, no matter if it took two or three months, we would have retained the confidence we deserve as citizens in our electoral process. Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, those who would interfere in elections would have found no profit in the activity.
Now it’s open season, the trust factor in our most cherished constitutional right has been gutted and tossed in the street to profit the quick, the devious and the clever. Republican or Democrat, what has always been healed by faith in the process is torn by charge and countercharge, stripped of its legitimacy and left to the devices of our worst political instincts.
We choked it down four years ago because we are not a nation of anarchists and the unelected-but-seated president seemed, on the face of it, not that distinctively different a choice. But it rankled and it really began to sting when the president, acting as if he had a landslide mandate, turned each of his campaign promises on end. Still, merely an annoyance. As a nation, we survive and even thrive during lapses of presidential popularity.
The Supremes no doubt thought they had made a relatively benign and abridged decision, but bad law is bad law and seldom lies down in the corner to snooze. No one suspected that this anomaly would have to withstand a trial-by-fire and, as if the gods were indeed punishing bad law by the highest court, the tests just kept coming. Terrorist attack, war, a wounded economy, blinding debt and failures of leadership all conspired to bring us—the left, the right and the center—eyeball to eyeball in a polarized environment of distrust and blame.
Well, we are all to blame. Our blame is that we shout rather than come together. Our blame is we have too little compassion for another point of view and not enough interest in hearing a minority voice. Our blame is allowing a climate that advances the politics of fear and the institutionalizing of retribution within our government. Our blame is that we sue the hell out of everyone because we are too intellectually lazy to work through problems to reach common understandings. Our blame is our rage and the transfer of that rage to the driver in the next lane, the homeless man on our street, the delay of our flight to Houston and being out of coffee on Sunday morning. Our civility within the nation is unravelling at the hem.
We’ve always been a litigious society because our founding principle is equality under law and it is the law (at least in part) that civilizes us. But the law takes away as well as gives and we have lost our right to pray in public to the lawyers, as if we were too poor of spirit to be allowed that freedom of individual choice. The law has given our schools a poverty of discipline from which they may not recover and has made us unresponsive to the small civil courtesies that lubricate a society. It may well take from us our ability to elect a leader within a time frame that allows him (or her) to lead. The law may cloud the public trust that the choice by ballot is truly ours in a fairly counted majority.
I pray for an election that is not close, but this doesn’t seem likely. We need an undisputed election, some breathing space, a world that, if it is not normal, has at least some aspects of normality. We need to grin, punch one another on the shoulder, watch Boston play St Louis in the world series and thread our way back to being American again.
Otherwise, the Supremes may find themselves once again on stage for a second act no one expected or desired.