Sincronía Summer/Verano 2001

Elections 2000
Noam Chomsky
(This article first appeared in Z Magazine)


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%?  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% of the electoral vote); a
large majority of voters opposed his legislative program, and 4%
of his supporters identified themselves as "real conservatives."
Such outcomes are not too surprising when over 80% of the
population feel 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. And 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% 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%.  During the campaign, over
60% 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% to 28% 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.  And the fact that after a decade in which Colombia was
the leading recipient of US 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 US
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% 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% 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," U. 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% 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, Nov. 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, Sept. 8).
Citing the same studies, the Santa Fe New Mexican (Nov. 19)
pointed out that 5.5% 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% of the state's
prisoners (and about 40% 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
diplomatique, Dec. 2000; also Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Christian
Science Monitor, Dec. 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
Twenty years ago, the US 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 US, 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" (Oct. 23).  It reviewed
refinements in implementing the 80-20 rule taught in business
schools: 20% of your customers provide 80% 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 US to be well within the European range,
contrary to conventional claims (Bruce Western and Katherine
Beckett, Am. J. of Sociology, Jan. 1999; also Prison Legal News,
Oct. 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 US 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 US was heading in the same direction, the
National Law Journal (Oct. 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 Clinton-Gore programs of disenfranchising
their own voters should be understood as a natural component of
their overall socioeconomic conceptions.  And the elections
themselves illustrate the related conception of the political
system of two horses with the same corporate owner.  None of this
is new, of course.  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.

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