The most disturbing thing about the 2000 election, even more disturbing than the prospect of W as President, is the evidence that political spin so thoroughly distorts our vision that Americans of different parties are incapable of agreeing about anything at all.
All through the post-election struggle we were treated in all the media to dueling experts, one from each party. Whether it was ballot design, machine vs. hand counting, or the details of Florida election law, we had a Democrat ready to interpret things in Gore's favor and a Republican ready to do the same for Bush. I don't recall seeing a single neutral observer anywhere. Equally striking, I neither heard on the radio nor spoke in person to a Gore supporter who thought Bush won the Florida vote, nor to a Bush supporter who thought Gore's recount pleas were legitimate.
No principle seemed capable of surviving the partisan warfare. We saw Republicans suddenly developing an intense dislike of hand- counting ballots, Democrats arguing that the federal government should stay out of state matters like elections, and so on and so forth, as if the Florida vote were a giant Rorschach Test to be interpreted as each observer chose. Fact and precedent seemed to count for nothing at all: if Democrats saw white, Republicans saw black.
The partisanship peaked in the Supreme Court, making a mockery of the claim that the courts are neutral interpreters of the law: the liberals all wanted the recounts to go on, while the conservatives all wanted to stop them. On every point of law, from the hitherto obscure "McPherson vs. Blacker" to the Equal Protection clause, ideology reigned. So far as I could tell, the justices agreed on nothing. What's more, the Florida cases didn't turn on some high and contentious principle, like the separation of church and state. These cases were about procedure for resolving a contested election. Procedures! If we can't agree on how to interpret the description of a procedure, what can we agree on?
If nobody can agree on what the law says, is there even such a thing as law?
From all the bitterness this election has created, you would have thought we were witnessing a momentous struggle between diametrically opposed ideologies. Far from it. I thought there were important differences between the candidates, but both were trying to run as moderates, and on issues from gun control to Social Security reform they had much more in common than they ever wanted to admit. The tone of the contest was civil throughout. And yet this civil, moderate election has divided us like few others, exposing political fault lines through our very perceptions of the world. I don't really know what this strange polarization means, but I can't help but think that it is a very bad sign.
December 16, 2000
"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a Liberal, who wants to replace them with others."
--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary