Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2004 - 22:31
This election confirms the brilliance of Karl Rove as a political strategist. He calculated that the religious conservatives, if they could be turned out, would be the deciding factor. The success of the plan was registered not only in the presidential results but also in all 11 of the state votes to ban same-sex marriage. Mr. Rove understands what surveys have shown, that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin's theory of evolution.
This might be called Bryan's revenge for the Scopes trial of 1925, in which William Jennings Bryan's fundamentalist assault on the concept of evolution was discredited. Disillusionment with that decision led many evangelicals to withdraw from direct engagement in politics. But they came roaring back into the arena out of anger at other court decisions - on prayer in school, abortion, protection of the flag and, now, gay marriage. Mr. Rove felt that the appeal to this large bloc was worth getting President Bush to endorse a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (though he had opposed it earlier).
The results bring to mind a visit the Dalai Lama made to Chicago not long ago. I was one of the people deputized to ask him questions on the stage at the Field Museum. He met with the interrogators beforehand and asked us to give him challenging questions, since he is too often greeted with deference or flattery. The only one I could think of was:"If you could return to your country, what would you do to change it?" He said that he would disestablish his religion, since"America is the proper model." I later asked him if a pluralist society were possible without the Enlightenment."Ah," he said."That's the problem." He seemed to envy America its Enlightenment heritage. Which raises the question: Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation? America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what was then modernity. They addressed"a candid world," as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, out of"a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the elections showed that 75 percent of Mr. Bush's supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11.
In his victory speech yesterday, President Bush indicated that he would"reach out to the whole nation," including those who voted for John Kerry. But even if he wanted to be more conciliatory now, the constituency to which he owes his victory is not a yielding one. He must give them what they want on things like judicial appointments. His helpers are also his keepers. The moral zealots will, I predict, give some cause for dismay even to nonfundamentalist Republicans. Jihads are scary things. It is not too early to start yearning back toward the Enlightenment.
Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2004 - 21:06
Part of me perversely hopes that Tuesday's election is a replay of 2000.
Three years ago, I undertook a fool's errand to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta to urge the National Commission on Federal Election Reform to recommend altering or even abolishing the electoral college. The former president, host and honorary chairman, received me graciously, but when Carter heard my message, he said: "It is a waste of time to talk about changing the electoral college…. I would predict that 200 years from now, we will still have the electoral college."
The conventional wisdom that Carter voiced has an obvious source. Any effort to replace our state-based electoral system with a national popular vote would require a constitutional amendment, and its ratification could easily be blocked by a coalition of the 13 smallest states, which would naturally resist their presumed loss of political influence.
This is a formidable obstacle. But I also believe that Carter got the basic point backward. If we never talk about the electoral college, we will remain stuck with it for another two centuries. But if we discuss it, the arguments made in its defense can be exposed for the fallacies they are.
Logic alone would never be sufficient. Compelling evidence of the need for change would also be needed. This requires hoping that the electoral college misfires another time, as it did in 2000, when it gave an electoral majority to George W. Bush and a popular plurality to Al Gore.
The conditions for chaos in Tuesday's election already exist. Turnout will be decisive, and a good dozen states appear in play. It's plausible for Sen. John Kerry to gain an electoral victory while President Bush carries the popular vote. Electoral numerologists also have scenarios for an electoral tie (269-269), which would throw the decision into the House of Representatives.
But my own preferred if perverse formula for chaos involves Colorado.
Appearing on that state's ballot is Amendment 36, which would divide Colorado's nine electoral votes proportionally, based on statewide results, and take effect immediately. So consider this wild scenario:
The amendment passes and the election turns on Colorado. Give Kerry 269 electors, Bush 260, allow Bush to carry the state's popular vote, even while its confused citizens approve Amendment 36. Presto, we're back in Florida. Kerry picks up four electors, surpasses the magic electoral number of 270, and Republicans immediately go to court. They argue that when the Constitution says that electors in each state are to be appointed "in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct," it means the "legislature" as an institution, not legislation enacted by popular referendum. Democrats reply that the people also act as a legislature when they approve a referendum, and that in 18th century usage, legislature meant the supreme law-giving power within a state, and not merely the people's elected representatives. You make the call.
As the campaign comes to an end, public opinion and turnout may still move decisively in favor of one candidate, sparing the nation its second electoral debacle in a row. Yet whatever its fate and effect, Amendment 36 nicely exposes the problematic nature of our electoral college. It recognizes that one effect of the winner-take-all rule that has prevailed since the early 19th century is to disfranchise the minority within any state....
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - 05:46
As the campaign to select the putative Leader of the Free World ends, myth-making proliferates amid the image-making. Even when the conventional wisdom errs, it will nevertheless shape this election. The most popular misconceptions, festering left, right, and center include:
That This is The Nastiest Campaign Ever: In fact, most campaigns get vicious, and there is a grand tradition of American political mudslinging. The slick Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads pummeling John Kerry as a poseur, a coward, and a traitor, pale in comparison to the Coffin Handbills circulated in the 1828 election. These coffin-shaped pamphlets accused Andrew Jackson of murdering soldiers who deserted his command. As for the attacks on George Bush, the candidate in 1884, Grover Cleveland had not even served in the National Guard during the Civil War. Critics mocked Cleveland for paying $500 for a Polish immigrant to serve as his surrogate – although his opponent had done the same.
That African-Americans were Disenfranchised En Masse in 2000: Quick, barely half the American electorate bothered voting last time, what percentage of eligible African-Americans voted? Americans and Canadians, leftists and rightists, having absorbed the Michael Moore-Jesse Jackson spin, invariably guess 15%, 20%, 25%. In fact, according to the New York Times, 57 % voted – a higher percentage than whites. Of course, there must be zero-tolerance for electoral intimidation, but we may need to rethink stereotypes, considering blacks MORE politically engaged overall than whites.
That The Campaign is Too Expensive: True, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that Campaign 2004 will nearly cost $4 billion, with the presidential race alone costing $1.2 billion. Yet in a country of 300 million people, where Procter & Gamble budgets $2 billion to advertise detergents and the Yankees’ spend $180 million on baseball salaries, averaging $4 per American to provoke a transcontinental conversation about choosing a President is not bad.
That Bush is Too Stupid to be President: Ignoring the obvious contradiction that the same people who condemn nasty campaigns often trash their leaders – "Bush and Stupid" gets 1,760,000 hits on Google – this is doubly misleading. First, Bush’s IQ is not the issue, his ideology is. Second, great presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt were considered to have first rate temperaments but second-rate minds, while one of the smartest recent presidents, Jimmy Carter, was quite the disaster. Maybe the issue is not formal brainpower but emotional intelligence or people smarts.
That Kerry is Too Much of a Waffler to Win: Two words: Bill Clinton. Clinton’s verbal acrobatics put Kerry’s on-again, off-again $87 billion authorization votes to shame. In 1992, the man who as president would teach us that "it all depends on what your definition of the word is, is," frequently proclaimed: "We can be pro-growth and pro-environment, we can be pro-business and pro-labor… we can be pro-family and pro-choice. The Republican Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle called such waffling "pulling a Clinton." Many Americans nevertheless, shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders, and pulled the lever for Clinton, twice. Apparently, Americans don’t mind being served waffles.
That the Press is Biased: Conservatives are sure that the liberal media elite disrespects them; liberals complain that the media corporate shills serve the status quo. The New York Times ombudsman, after certifying his paper’s news coverage as bias-free, ceded his column space to two critics, one Left, one Right, each of whom berated the Times for its slanted coverage. In truth, the press is biased, but not toward one party or the other necessarily. The media’s bias is toward action, conflict, over-simplification and polarization, mindlessly reducing complex issues to a polarized he-said-she-said, and selling newspapers – or advertising space.
The German leader Otto von Bismarck supposedly once said: "God protects children, fools and the United States of America." Thanks to a hyperactive press corps, overly aggressive partisans, hysterical observers – and a perilous world -- we may need that prayer again this year. Then again, as this exercise in myth-busting suggests, the conventional wisdom just may be wrong – the United States may be more mature, stable, focused and free than the stereotypes suggest. Perhaps the country, like its current incumbent, should not be "misunderestimated."
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2004 - 04:32