Friday, September 09, 2011

Ten years after

In less than a year, between November 2000 and September 2001, the United States was blind-sided by two almost unprecedented events. On the eve of the anniversary of the second of those events, I am convinced that they marked one of the great turning points in American history, one whose effects will surely be felt for the rest of my life and well beyond. Unfortunately, together they put the United States irretrievably, it would seem, on the wrong track for decades to come. That does not mean the end of America or of hope for the future, but it makes this anniversary a very sad one for national, as well as personal, reasons.

The first event, of course, was the accession of George W. Bush to the White House, in one of the two U.S. elections that was almost surely decided in defiance of the expressed wishes of the American electorate. On November 7, Al Gore won the national popular vote by over half a million votes, but the voting in Florida was microscopically close. The results had been altered in two critical ways, one purposeful, one inadvertent. The Republican candidate's brother, the Governor of Florida, had evidently encouraged a purge of the voter registration rolls, removing hundreds of people whose names approximated those of convicted felons from other states. Since most of them were black, this meant that several hundred people found themselves unable to vote. Then came the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county, one of the great accidents of history, which led a number of Al Gore voters to cast their votes for Pat Buchanan. All that made the results close enough, on election night, for John Ellis, a cousin of George W. Bush then working at Fox News, to convince his network to call the election for Bush long before the counting in Florida was sufficiently complete. The other networks followed suit, and a Bush victory became the default result that Al Gore was trying to overturn.

In an America that still cared about civic virtue the whole process would have been held in abeyance pending a recount. I have seen this happen, in New Hampshire in the early 1970s, when a recount in a comparably close Senate election reversed what seemed to be a Republican victory. As it was Al Gore was on the defensive from the beginning and did not even push for the state-wide recount which the situation obviously demanded. Instead, he focused on four counties likely to favor himself, weakening his case. The Florida courts properly sided with him. But the Supreme Court made an unprecedented, partisan intervention in the case, stopped the recount, and handed Bush the election. Although it is not generally known, when elements of the media eventually carried out the full recount that should have been ordered, it turned out that regardless of the standards used, Gore won the state, and therefore, the election.

Had Gore won the election there would have been no first round of Bush tax cuts. I believe 9/11 would most likely have happened anyway--it was the kind of one-off, surprise event which, although detected by intelligence, rarely leads to timely counteraction in advance. But I suspect that Gore would have reacted to it in a completely different way. Rather than invading one country after another, he almost surely would have used the attack as an excuse to move away from dependence on foreign oil. Given what President Bush was able to do in the wake of the attack, he might well have succeeded. But in any event he never would have proposed the successive rounds of tax cuts that have now crippled the federal government's response to the economic crisis. (After making this post I read an outstanding article by George Packer in this week's New Yorker, entitled "Coming Apart: After 9/11 transfixed America, the country's problems were left to rot." It makes essentially the same points with the help of very detailed micro-examples. Unfortunately, for the time being, at least, it is available to subscribers only.)

Instead, George W. Bush has, on the one hand, drastically cut back the capacities of government by creating a permanent large deficit; made it impossible, as I have said many times, for his successor to respond adequately to the economic crisis; and involved us in an endless war with Middle Eastern extremists. The shifts in federal resources have had unforeseen consequences. The FBI, it turns out, moved 500 agents from white collar crime to terrorism, a large part of the reason why the greatest financial crisis since 1929 has produced virtually no prosecutions. Our involvement in Central Asia seems nearly as solidly established as part of our foreign policy now as NATO was in the 1950s (even though it is on a much smaller scale.) Although Bin Laden is finally dead and Al Queda is weakened, our tactics continually generate more terrorists. The Arab spring is almost certain to lead to more Islamist governments in the Middle East. The Middle East peace process came to a crashing halt after 9/11 and has not been effectively revived. Israel and the US are more isolated than ever. Nuclear-armed Pakistan has a tottering government and a large militant Islamic presence. Indeed it is now clear beyond any doubt that elements within the Pakistani government have been protecting Al Queda all along.

This is, in my opinion, the third great crisis of American national life, after the Civil War and the Great Depression and Second World War. It is ending like the Civil War, but lacking one positive accomplishment on the scale of the abolition of slavery. As in the 1870s, we are deeply in debt, with an unstable economy dominated by corporate giants--railroads then (I will have more to say about that soon), and big banks now. Now as then, our political system belongs to corporate money. An unhappy electorate, now as then, swings wildly from one party to the next without making anything new happen. We are again preoccupied above all else with our national debt, even though this time it is severely exaggerated, as I pointed out a month ago. A whole political party is now dedicated to the end of government as we have known it, and the question is how far they will be able to go.

The events of November 2000 and September 2001 must not be given too much weight. The trend towards corporate freedom, economic inequality, and deregulation was already well advanced before that. And the left, as well as the right, has contributed to it. But those events deepened and accelerated those trends. Still, as I survey the events of my adult lifetime, now in its 46th year, the most striking feature of it is the almost complete failure to grow a new generation of effective progressive leaders. The heirs of the New Deal took their parents' achievements for granted, turned their back on them, and then undid them. The children of the losers in the last national crisis, an the great-grandchildren of the losers in the one before that, had more to prove. They have won a series of victories; the best we can do is halt things where they are. Younger generations, including some yet born, will have to chance to revive the dreams of the Enlightenment--if they choose to do so.


James50 said...

David, your wiki link to the Bush/Gore Florida recount does not say what you said it says.

"The media recount study found that under the system of limited recounts in selected counties as was requested by the Gore campaign, the only way that Gore would have won was by using counting methods that were never requested by any party, including "overvotes" — ballots containing more than one vote for an office."

Unless you want to use pure conjecture about voter intent on the butterfly ballot, Bush wins every time.

I also think your memory is faulty about election night reporting. The state was called first for Gore even before the polls in western Florida were closed. There is anecdotal evidence that this call suppressed turnout in this heavily Republican area. When Bush heard this projection, his team went into overdrive to deny it and later the networks backed off.It was relatively late in the evening before anyone called it for Bush.

David Kaiser said...

No, James, you stopped reading the article when it suited you. The study also found that a complete recount of the entire state would have given it to Gore.

David Kaiser said...

p.s. I remember the call for Gore. It was after the polls closed. The networks haven't made calls before the polls closed for decades.

James50 said...

Or perhaps this:

"With regard to some states with more than one time zone and different poll
closing times, CNN and others did not always wait until all polls were closed in those
states before calling a winner. One such state was Florida, where CNN projected Gore as
the winner 10 minutes before polls closed in the state’s western panhandle, which
contains 5 per cent of the population and where, as in most polling places, voters on line
at poll closing time may still cast their ballots. Viewers were not told that those polls
still were open. Viewers were told the Florida polls closed at 7 p.m., when in fact the
polls in the panhandle closed an hour later at 7 p.m. Central Time."

David Kaiser said...

I remember that night well. You are claiming networks called Florida for Al Gore at 8:00 PM. I am certain it was later than that. In any case, calling at 7:50 would not keep anyone away from the polls who wasn't on the way. And more important than that, in any case, the point is to count the votes that were cast, accurately. That was not done until it was too late.

James50 said...

What I posted was direct from a CNN "mea culpa" afterwards. NBC called Florida for Gore at 7:50 PM without realizing part of Florida (a republican part) was on central time and that they were creating a temptation for the many people who were waiting in line to go home. This generated a cascade of calls from other news organizations with only ABC holding back until after 8 PM. It all came from the Voter News Service which was later disbanded because of the mess they created on election night 2000. If you think this did not happen, then you do not remember the night as well as you think you do.

Anonymous said...

Your assertion that call for Gore was note made
BEFORE the polls were closed is FACTUALLY

Read below directly from CBS News President
Andrew Heyward's response to Chairman of the
Commerce Committee Rep. Billy Tauzin.

"The networks’ mistaken early calls Election Night
that Al Gore — and later George W. Bush — had
won Florida were due in part to flawed exit polls
in the Tampa area and a “significant computer
error” in Volusia County’s election agency, CBS’
news chief told Congress.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward said in a
letter to Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House
Commerce Committee’s telecommunications panel,
that his network’s initial call for Gore at 7:50 p.m.
on Nov. 7 was based on Voter News Service
exit polls and actual vote data, interpreted through
tested statistical models."

David Kaiser said...

It looks like I was wrong about those ten minutes, yes. There are, however, two issues here.

1. Was everyone in Florida who wanted to allowed to vote, or properly encouraged to vote? You are claiming that significant numbers of west Floridians were discouraged. I doubt that very much. (And remember that not everyone in that part of the state was voting for Bush by any means.) Ten minutes just isn't enough to reach many people. But in any case, if you want to open up that argument, then you also have to consider the Palm Beach butterfly ballot, which cost Gore, by the best estimates, at least 1000 votes, and the purge of the rolls that cost him a good many as well. However, that kind of argument can't possibly settle anything, and shouldn't, because we have to go by the votes that were cast. Which leads me to point:

2. The only proper thing to do was to count every vote in the state as carefully as possible. Civic virtue had fallen so low, on both sides, that NO ONE tried to insist on that. (Gore mentioned it as an option but wasn't even smart enough to make it his preferred option.) But if you believed in democracy, that is what you should have done. US states have routinely done full recounts when elections are that close for decades. Texas law called for such recounts. And the data we have shows that, had such a recount been done, Gore would have won and become President.

I never questioned whether Bush was actually President. He was, just as Rutherford B. Hayes was, because he received a majority of the electoral votes when they were counted in the Congress. But had the votes been properly counted he would have lost. It's a terrible judgment on all of us that they were not.

Gerald Meaders said...


Great short essay.

(I don't know enough about the voting details of the Bush v Gore controversy to make any comment.)

I am very much looking forward to railroad comments to come,

and any references to the history of railroad development you might care to drop, along the way.

Reading Allison's account of pre 1776 colonial America, I wonder if there was ever a time when 'Americans' cared very much about civic virtue, other than frustrated, or mainly rhetorical, occasional exclamations.

The United States, until after the Civil War was usually spoken about, apparently, (according to Allison) in the plural rather than in the singular, after all.

All the best,

Brodie said...

Re the matter of a statewide recount, FL required the petitioner to submit a request before the canvassing board in each of the state's 67 counties -- thus Gore was unable to make a simple single request before the sec'y of state. This fact complicated Gore's decision making as it also would have required much more legal manpower to do all the work quickly within the narrow window for recount requests.

His team -- led by cautious types like campaign chair Bill Daley and recount chair Warren Christopher -- seemed overly concerned about looking like they were trolling for votes with a request for many or all counties to be recounted, and also wanted to avoid losing momentum with challenges that could turn out to lose them votes here and there or in the case where the board would refuse their request (as legally it had the right to do). Gore's team actually thought they would win the PR battle with their minimal request but they failed to appreciate how the Bush campaign and the hostile MSM would turn it against them.

Sort of reminds me of Obama -- trying to avoid the bold move which could be portrayed as too politically self serving and politically partisan, the decision is made to go completely in the other direction in the hopes of winning the statesmanship award, only to be received with scorn and derision from their opponents and great disappointment from their supporters as the approach fails.
Dems have produced quite a few tepid nonfighters like this in recent times, always worried about what the grown up Villagers will say and never as concerned about standing strong on principle.

JR said...

Leaving Florida for another alternative history scenario: I actually think the 9/11 attacks would have been prevented had Gore been president, because his administration would have been paying attention. Just as the Millenium attacker was caught at the border: he made a mistake, and people were watching. The 9/11 attackers made plenty of errors but were not caught because no-one at the highest levels was trying. I am sure that Richard Clarke's warnings would have been listened to (had the hypothetical Gore adminstration needed reminding, which I don't think they would have), and as a result the conspirators' errors would have resulted in detection of the plot.

David Kaiser said...

To JR:

It is possible that a Gore Administration would have done better, but frankly, I doubt it. It is extremely difficult to anticipate an unprecedented event of that magnitude. That was part of Bin Laden's brilliance: to make it so huge, just like the Japanese in 1941. Richard Clarke never claimed he had information that would have enabled us to stop the attack. But. . . we will never know.

Robert Martin said...

It is an unprovable assumption that all those votes for Pat Buchanan were really meant for Al Gore. Buchanan was an outspoken opponent of unlimited immigration from Spanish-speaking countries like Cuba, and the senior citizens of Florida felt swamped by the "Hispanic Tide." Since they could not speak out in public for fear of being labeled "bigots" they did the next best thing and voted in large numbers for Pat Buchanan. Nobody EVER proved that those votes were "mistakes"!

Anonymous said...

I agree with JR. I too believe 9/11 would not have occured because Mr. Gore would have been listening to Richard Clarke. He may not have known exactly what was going to happen, but he warned the Bush administration that there was much "chatter" going on.

Mystikel said...

I always enjoy your posts and appreciate your perspective. I wanted to remind you that it's always darkest before the dawn (even if it is a cliche).

I agree with you here:
"This is, in my opinion, the third great crisis of American national life, after the Civil War and the Great Depression and Second World War."

I don't completely agree with you here though: "It is ending like the Civil War, but lacking one positive accomplishment on the scale of the abolition of slavery."

The Great Depression through World War II was a long crisis. It's also a long way to the Great War in the 2020s spoken of by Toynbee or Strauss and Howe, or that moment of ekpryrosis when we jump track and seem to cross over into a new era. I hate to say it but it will be pretty much downhill from here until we (hopefully) find ourselves on top again, like a good model of time would be a moebius strip in some scheme dreamt up by Escher.

You might be interested in the following, David, which touches on the dating of Strauss and Howe cycles. I would be interested to hear what you think:

Also I have to say this statement is a little broad:
The children of the losers in the last national crisis, and the great-grandchildren of the losers in the one before that, had more to prove." Some great grandchildren of winners in the first war were the losers of the next of course. Things don't always shake out in exactly the same way when the world turns upside down.

"Younger generations, including some yet born, will have to chance to revive the dreams of the Enlightenment--if they choose to do so."

Or the Reformation! I thought you might be interested in the idea of the "internet reformation" developed by Anthony Wile at the Daily Bell which I first read about here:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

the name is "AL QAEDA". Please check it here:

Al-Qaeda (Arabic: القاعدة‎, al-qāʿidah, Arabic: [æl
ˈqɑːʕɪdɐ], English: /ælˈkaɪdə/ al-ky-də, translation:
"The Base" and alternatively spelled al-Qaida and
sometimes al-Qa'ida) is a global Sunni Islamist
militant group founded by Osama bin Laden
sometime between August 1988[11] and late 1989.