November 2, 2004
The Day After
One reason I could never quite summon the outrage that committed Democrats felt about Florida in 2000 was that the battle over a few hundred votes here or there to me overlooked the much more fundamental fact. No matter which system you preferred for the accounting of Florida’s votes, no matter whether you wanted a recount or not, the vote was by any measure exceptionally close. I’m not sure there is any system for allowing millions to vote that’s going to be terribly robust when it’s faced by electoral margins of a few hundred voters. This is not to say that the Republicans weren’t underhanded or that the Supreme Court decision wasn’t a bad piece of jurisprudence. It’s just that the real social fact I took away from the debacle was that the two parties were in a dead heat, that Americans were evenly divided.
That’s even truer now, but the stakes and nature of the contest have been changed enormously. You could vote for George Bush in 2000 and not be sure of what you were getting and tell yourself some pleasant things about what might happen. You might plausibly have been right. I myself didn’t think there would be all that much of a difference, that it would be two flavors of American centrism, two slightly different styles. I was basically okay with George Bush on January 20th, 2001. Not happy, but figuring that he’d be decent enough.
You can’t think that today. I don’t think that much of John Kerry, but the difference between Bush, a proven catastrophe, and Kerry, a probable mediocrity, is huge.
If Bush is the victor tomorrow (assuming we know by tomorrow) then I promise not to blame Kerry or his campaign staff. He’s a weak candidate like most Democratic presidential candidates in the past two decades, a weak candidate from an intellectually and politically confused party. But he’d be good enough. He’d be better than disaster, better than incompetence, better than mendacity, better than bad. Better than a man who has made so many mistakes but can’t admit to even having made one.
I won’t blame Kerry. In an odd way, I won’t blame Bush, either. When someone screws up again and again in a workplace, after a while, you stop blaming the screw-up and start blaming the screw-up’s boss, the person who can’t or won’t see how badly the bungling of their subordinate is damaging the company. Bush and his people are responsible for all their failures, but they’re not responsible if a slim majority of voters choose to put them back in office.
I will have only one accusing finger to point, should the worst happen: the guilty parties will be anyone who pulled the lever for George W. Bush. They’re George W. Bush’s bosses, and by voting for him, they’re saying, “There is nothing you can do that is wrong enough, bad enough, foolish enough, destructive enough, that will lead us to vote for someone else. Here’s your blank check: write in what you like”.
Even if Kerry wins, tomorrow there will still be the problem of the people who voted for Bush. Some of them are dumb as a rock, and use their ignorance like a shield. Some of them are the smartest people I know, and that’s worse: they’re choosing to make Bush into a figment of their own imaginations, to overlook the facts, to cherry-pick the truth, to drift in an opium den dreaming of the world as they wish it. You can forgive an idiot, but you cannot forgive someone who would rather blind himself or herself than see reality.
Some Bush voters, as I’ve noted here many times, are neither ignoramuses nor self-deluding geniuses. They’re people with a plan. The plan is to capture the state and impose their order on the rest of us, to squeeze out all possible hope of a middle, to crush the last embers of an American consensus. They may have already gotten their wish. Because tomorrow they will still be there, undeterred, unbroken, unrepentant, regardless of what happens.
If Bush wins, so much the better for them. If Kerry wins, the Bush hardcore will immediately crank up the machinery of hatred and obstruction. Bush for them is only a symbol, a synecdoche of their larger social aspirations. Kerry, too, is only a placeholder. Behind Kerry are the real targets: all those who would vote for Kerry, the enemies in a barely-undeclared civil war.
There will be no peace on November 3rd. I have given up any hope of that, and with it, much of my desire to try and talk peaceably with people determined to choose ruin and incompetence, no matter how noble or ignoble their aims.
Nothing is really going to change in American life until the pressure we have relentlessly built up under the electoral surface blows catastrophically in some fashion. The election of either candidate will release almost none of that tension. It will now take enormous social trauma, political upheaval, bold leadership: some unforeseeable stroke of genius or idiocy, suffering or joy, to resolve the struggle into something else. Better or worse I cannot say, nor can I say when or what might blow the volcano. I only know that the pressure has risen to a point where an eruption seems inevitable.