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Right-wing coup that shames America

Con­tin­u­ing unof­fi­cial counts reveal the full extent of Al Gore’s lead and the mas­sive abus­es that have put George W. Bush into pow­er

by Will Hut­ton
The Observ­er

I nev­er thought I would live to see it. There has been a right-wing coup in the Unit­ed States. It is now clear beyond any doubt that the win­ner of the Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was Al Gore. In Flori­da the votes are being count­ed unof­fi­cial­ly in a way the Supreme Court would not per­mit: he was already 140 votes ahead when count­ing stopped for Christ­mas and his final lead promis­es to be in the thou­sands. Nation­al­ly he leads by over half a mil­lion votes. What has hap­pened is beyond out­rage. It is the cyn­i­cal mis­use of pow­er by a con­ser­v­a­tive élite naked­ly to serve its inter­ests — and all of us should be fright­ened for the con­se­quences.

The issue is not George W. Bush’s con­ser­vatism, oppo­nent though I am of what Bush plans to do; a democ­ra­cy only has vital­i­ty and polit­i­cal ten­sion if its phi­los­o­phy and stream of think­ing is artic­u­lat­ed and pitch­es to win elec­tions. The incon­tro­vert­ible abuse is that Bush has won pow­er despite los­ing, and crit­i­cal­ly he only pulled off this feat because the Repub­li­cans con­trol the Supreme Court. The Right has sub­vert­ed piv­otal US insti­tu­tions to win pow­er — a cam­paign of which the dis­cred­it­ing and attempt­ed impeach­ment of Clin­ton was part — and in the process dis­graced the legit­i­ma­cy of US democ­ra­cy at home and abroad, and under­mined con­cep­tions of the rule of law. It is a poor augury for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry.

In Britain the response has been woe­ful — itself a token of our own lack of hard demo­c­ra­t­ic instincts. The com­men­tary, espe­cial­ly in the right-of-cen­tre press, has been to decry Gore as a poor los­er and to insist that he had to accept the rules of the elec­toral game, respect­ing the votes in the US elec­toral col­lege which, when Flori­da was lost, gave Bush the elec­tion. But as the great lib­er­al defend­ers of free­dom, Karl Pop­per and Isa­iah Berlin, both argued when unjust, ille­git­i­mate gov­ern­ments win pow­er through sub­vert­ing the rules it is our respon­si­bil­i­ty to con­test them.

The nine-mem­ber Supreme Court, apart from the heady decade of the 1960s when it advanced the cause of civ­il rights in the South, has always been a bas­tion of a regres­sive con­ser­vatism. In the 1930s it tried to rule that key ele­ments in Roo­sevelt’s New Deal were uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. Its defence of the sov­er­eign­ty of states rights has been fun­da­men­tal in extend­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and allow­ing bible-belt states to resist imple­ment­ing fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion ban­ning vio­lence against women. Yet its gen­er­al pro­hi­bi­tion in inter­fer­ing in a state’s rights has been over­turned in one instance; the high­ly politi­cised inter­ven­tion in Flori­da.

The more you exam­ine it, the more out­ra­geous the now famous judge­ment was. What the Court had to do to serve its polit­i­cal pur­pose was to find a way of acknowl­edg­ing a sov­er­eign state’s rights and the con­tin­u­ing legit­i­ma­cy of hand recounts in close­ly con­test­ed elec­tions — after all George W. Bush had passed a law as Gov­er­nor in Texas in 1998 endors­ing hand recounts — but at the same time give the elec­tion to their Repub­li­can cham­pi­on by find­ing that events in Flori­da were a spe­cial case.This was tricky. In the first place, even the con­ser­v­a­tive judges shared the unan­i­mous view that it was rea­son­able for hand recounts to be under­tak­en because, as the judg­ment con­cedes: ‘Punch card bal­lot­ing machines can pro­duce an unfor­tu­nate num­ber of bal­lots which are not punched in a clean, com­plete way by the vot­er.’ Con­se­quent­ly indi­vid­ual states are oblig­ed, when the win­ning mar­gin is tight, to mount an effort to find out what the ‘clear intent’ of each vot­er was. In oth­er words Gore was com­plete­ly with­in his rights to demand the hand recount.

The five con­ser­v­a­tives had a prob­lem. How could they deliv­er the coup? The solu­tion was ele­gant. The process was too sub­jec­tive, said the Supreme Court, unless the Flori­da court put in place even more pro­tec­tive mea­sures to ensure impar­tial­i­ty than the Flori­da leg­is­la­ture had pro­vid­ed for — a posi­tion that is con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly impos­si­ble, as the judges knew, because it meant the Court would have to change rather than inter­pret Flori­da law. Hand recounts are thus legal in prin­ci­ple but impos­si­ble in prac­tice because of pos­si­ble par­tial­i­ty. And in a telling aside in its judg­ment, the Court said that hand recounts would ‘cast a cloud’ over Bush’s ‘legit­i­ma­cy’ that would harm ‘demo­c­ra­t­ic sta­bil­i­ty’. It nev­er crossed the five-strong con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty’s mind that the oppo­site might be the case; that not count­ing votes which would give Gore the pres­i­den­cy when nation­al­ly he had won half a mil­lion more votes than Bush would dam­age, not demo­c­ra­t­ic sta­bil­i­ty, but the entire demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ple.

But then right-wing Amer­i­ca is not much inter­est­ed in the demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ple. It believes that its duty is to sus­tain Amer­i­ca in its unique des­tiny as a Chris­t­ian guardian of indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty, a place — I joke not — that will deserve Christ’s sec­ond com­ing. It sees itself in a holy war against a lib­er­al ene­my with­in, and its uses every tool at its dis­pos­al ruth­less­ly to dis­pose of its foe.

The Right enjoyed 12 years of pow­er under Rea­gan and Bush, lost the Pres­i­den­cy to Clin­ton in 1992 when Ross Per­ot split the con­ser­v­a­tive vote and pledged to con­tin­ue their jihad against what they saw as his ille­git­i­mate vic­to­ry from the begin­ning. Hence the fan­tasies of White­wa­ter. Hence the Starr inquiry into the Lewin­sky affair, where now we learn key evi­dence was fab­ri­cat­ed. Hence the attempt­ed impeach­ment. Mud sticks, they reck­oned, and even though they knew impeach­ment would fail, they cal­cu­lat­ed it would put any Demo­c­rat pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in 2000 in a pre­sen­ta­tion­al bind — asso­ci­a­tion with the suc­cess­ful Clin­ton years would be attacked as an asso­ci­a­tion with immoral­i­ty.

But for all their efforts Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion remained stub­born­ly tol­er­ant, scep­ti­cal of tax cuts and mod­er­ate­ly cen­trist. To win Bush had to out­spend his rival two to one in the last month and build on the strate­gic dilem­ma faced by Gore about the Clin­ton years. But even then it has tak­en the Supreme Court to com­plete the coup.

For all the talk of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Bush is build­ing a trib­al con­ser­v­a­tive admin­is­tra­tion bent on sup­port­ing busi­ness at home and assert­ing US uni­lat­er­al­ism abroad. His next Trea­sury Sec­re­tary has been picked not for his capac­i­ty to nego­ti­ate the US and the world through the mine­field of a frag­ile inter­na­tion­al finan­cial sys­tem, but his inter­est in feath­er­ing the nests of cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca. And so it goes on, offer­ing the US and the world a pol­i­cy and per­spec­tive not want­ed by the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans.

The con­sen­sus view is that with­in months the whole Flori­da affair will be for­got­ten, and Bush will be installed as a legit­i­mate US Pres­i­dent. I don’t agree. The val­ue of democ­ra­cies is they pro­duce admin­is­tra­tions broad­ly in tune with the times and will of the peo­ple, and thus able to mar­shal both con­sent and the cor­rect pol­i­cy respons­es for the vary­ing crises that hit them.

Not so in Amer­i­ca. Whether the need to respect inter­na­tion­al treaties abroad or the desire to uni­ver­salise med­ical pro­tec­tion at home, the US has the man in pow­er it did not want and whose instincts are oppo­site to those of the major­i­ty. This will prove a dis­as­trous admin­is­tra­tion for Amer­i­ca and the world, and the coup will become wide­ly under­stood as a moment of par­ti­san infamy. It is a bru­tal les­son for us lib­er­als. Nev­er, nev­er for­get the treach­ery and poi­son on the Right.


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