‘Grand Theft 2000: Media Spectacle and a Stolen Election’, by Douglas Kellner
(Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield,
ISBN 0-7425-2103-6, paperback, xxi + 242 pp., European price approx. EUR 29.38
As historical amnesia is one of the more unfortunate phenomena of our time, those with truncated memories may already have forgotten the chequered saga of the United States’ Election 2000, with its paraphernalia of superannuated voting machines and hanging, dimpled and pregnant chad – let alone the bizarre spectacle of the planet’s sole superpower suddenly falling victim to ‘banana-republic’ gibes. It does immediately have to be added that, less than a year later, the tragic events of 9-11 intervened, casting the Bush presidency in a different light. However, some still believe that nothing that happened afterwards, however appalling in itself, can actually erase the significance of the US Supreme Court decision of 12 December 2000; and for those who continue to think that way, Douglas Kellner’s book, published in 2001 and evidently completed before 9-11 (to which it makes no reference), can fairly be called essential reading. This book does not seem to be as well-known as it should be, and I therefore feel justified in giving it a detailed examination in this review.
Kellner, a professor of philosophy of education at UCLA, has a long list of publications behind him in the field of media studies. He stresses that he is not writing as a ‘partisan for the Democrats’, but, rather, as a supporter of ‘progressive social movements’ (181n). Despite this, the tone of his book is far from dispassionate. A strongly-felt and vehemently expressed distaste for the Bush-Cheney brand of right-wing Republicanism is patent on every page; at the same time, Kellner marshals a bristling array of evidence to buttress the position that this particular ideology, and the social forces behind it, are, to say the least, not to be trusted at the helm of the nation. Indeed, any reader not wedded to the twin causes of Christian and free-market fundamentalism may reasonably conclude from this book that there are excellent intellectual and political justifications for admitting a certain degree of bias against the Bush clan and their attendant ‘superhuman crew’.
Point of view apart, the great virtue of this study is that it assembles the facts of the case in a coherent sequential order, and backs them up by with detailed contextual analysis. A formal chronology (not included) would have been useful as an appendix, but Kellner has a strong sense of narrative, and unfolds the sorry tale in clear and lucid fashion, albeit with some repetition. The text has, regrettably, not been as rigorously revised and proof-read as it could have been, and the generally articulate flow of the writing is at times marred by ill-constructed sentences or by typos. The basic message, nonetheless, comes over loud and clear: Election 2000, in its conduct and denouement, marks a serious crisis of legitimation for America’s democracy.
A few basic facts may here be recalled. 51% of eligible voters took part in the election (this does not, however, mean 51% of the adult population, thanks to the large number of prison inmates plus that other disfranchised group, the released felons and/or ‘ex-felons’ who are, in certain, mostly southern states, deprived of their civil rights). Al Gore won the popular vote with a majority which Kellner gives as 540,435 (174), and the official sources as 543,895 (at all events, Gore’s margin was slightly more than the population of Luxembourg!). In percentage terms, Gore scored 48.38% to his rival’s 47.87%. George W. Bush was elected President by the Electoral College by 271 (50.4%) votes to 266 (49.4%; one Gore-mandated elector in the District of Columbia abstained), after the hotly disputed state of Florida was finally awarded to him – thanks to the US Supreme Court – by a wafer-thin margin of 537 votes (48.85% to 48.84%, or a difference of one-hundredth of a percentage point). This was one of the most closely contested presidential elections in US history. Only three times before, all in the nineteenth century, had one candidate gained a plurality in the popular vote and another triumphed in the Electoral College (the most dramatic case was the 1877 duel between Democrat Samuel Tilden and the eventual winner, Republican Rutherford Hayes, in an election in which, ironically, Florida was among the disputed states); curiously, Kellner chooses not to mention any of these precedents. A century and a quarter later, the contest between an avowedly liberal Democrat who had been Bill Clinton’s vice-president and an abrasively right-wing Republican yielded an unprecedented social and geographical polarisation of US society. As Kellner puts it, ‘the United States was deeply divided along gender, race, class, regional, religious and ideological lines … between northerners and southerners, those living in the city and those living in the country, pro-choicers and pro-lifers, … secular and religious folks, people of colour and whites, the wealthy and the poor’ (25-26). This polarisation was evident from the political map, with Gore taking almost all the North-East and the entire West Coast, while Bush swept triumphantly across the South and Midwest. In such a context, the assertion of the third-party candidate, Ralph Nader, that the choice between the two main parties was a mere ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’ option must seem without substance. It is clear that, when they voted on 7 November 2000, the citizens of the United States were choosing between two opposing and irreconcilable views of the world. The still-open question is whether the world-view that they got in the person of their new President was the one the country had actually chosen, even under the established rules of the game.
Kellner believes that, on the available evidence, Al Gore would almost certainly have won Florida and the presidency had the statewide recount been allowed to proceed and had all the overvotes and undervotes been counted (205). He acknowledges that this view remains contentious and that no-one can be 100% sure who ‘really’ carried the Sunshine State, but, this concession made, is adamant that the US Supreme Court’s refusal to sanction the Florida recount amounted to a premature and arbitrary short-circuiting of the democratic process, and, therefore, the hijacking of the presidency by and for the GOP. To put it bluntly, Kellner believes ‘the presidency was stolen’ (xv).
No-one can doubt that under the US Constitution as it stands, the taker of the Electoral College is the legitimate President – provided, that is, that every state’s delegation to the College is constituted following a free and fair vote. The Electoral College system may, as Kellner argues, be a ‘highly outmoded and dangerously undemocratic’ eighteenth-century relic that should be either overhauled or abolished, but, as he points out, to do so would require a constitutional amendment that would need the approval of two-thirds of the states and a two-thirds majority in both Houses (160). This is obviously not going to come to pass between now and 2004. Kellner recalls, however, that all Senators were indirectly elected until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment brought in direct elections (ibid.), and also provides the interesting information that if the allocation of seats in the College were strictly proportional to population (in fact, each state gets a starting minimum of two and only after that is population taken into account), Al Gore would now be President (180-181n). He further notes that only two states, Maine and Nebraska (162), send a ‘mixed’ slate of electors reflecting the votes cast for both parties (the other 48 and the District of Columbia use winner-takes-all). It appears possible in theory, instead of abolishing the Electoral College outright, to reform it so that it would more closely reflect the popular vote. These possibilities for change, which Kellner considers fairly briefly, could have usefully been looked at more closely.
The visible drama of Election 2000 lay elsewhere, in the irregularities that marked the campaign and the voting in Florida, and the legal and political shenanigans in the wake of the disputed votes in that state, which were only brought to an end by the highly contentious ruling of the US Supreme Court that aborted the Florida recount on 12 December. Kellner provides an enthralling, if disturbing, narrative of the recount saga, ruthlessly laying the scalpel to the stratagems and sophistries of the local Republican establishment. His account must surely give the lie to the view expressed in some right-wing circles that the Democrats were ‘just as corrupt’ as the GOP in the whole affair. The fact of the matter is quite simply that the Democrats had precious little chance of playing dirty tricks, whether they wanted to or not, since it was the Republicans who controlled the state apparatus in Florida, through Governor Jeb Bush-of-that-ilk and Secretary of State Katherine Harris. It was Bush frère and Harris who masterminded the notorious pre-election ‘spike-the-felons’ purge of the voting lists that disfranchised many eligible voters, most of them African-American (170); it was Jeb Bush again who had blocked a pre-election voter education bill; and it was the Miami Republican apparatus that bussed in the protestors whose illicit direct action crucially blocked the recount in Miami-Dade. Meanwhile, despite Gore’s premature concession and subsequent retraction, it was – as Kellner points out – not Democrat perversity but Florida law that demanded the initial recounts in the disputed counties (28n). Kellner certainly admits that the Gore campaign made a number of tactical errors (168). It was, notably, unwise on the Democrats’ part to call for the throwing-out of contested absentee ballots when they were simultaneously demanding that all overvotes and undervotes be counted from the domestic vote. But it was, at the end of the day, the Republicans who controlled the legislature and the executive in Florida (the state judiciary, by contrast, displayed a laudable independence); and it was they who abused that power.
The abuse of power did not happen only at state level, and it was finally the US Supreme Court itself which, in a 5-4 ruling, overruled the Florida Supreme Court, killed off the recount, and installed Bush junior in the White House by judicial fiat. Kellner reserves his fiercest vitriol for the conservative majority on the Court, who invoked the Constitution’s ‘equal protection’ guarantee to ensure that some citizens’ votes would never be counted, and suspended Florida’ statewide recount only to declare a few days later that it couldn’t be done because time had run out. His barbed, no-holds-barred rhetoric here is arguably overdone on the personal level (as when he calls the five conservative justices ‘the Gang of Five’ – 103 or ‘the Partisan Supremes’ – 147); but this lexical abrasiveness should not detract from his parallel awareness that the attitudes shown by conservative individuals, be they politicians, judges or media pundits, are symptomatic of a wider malaise that is collective in nature.
Today’s hard-right Republican establishment, Kellner argues, believes it has some kind of divine right to rule, and, from the moment it has power in its sights, will stop at nothing to secure that power for itself, by fair means or foul. In his view, these people for whom ‘the end justifies the means’ (142) are not traditional conservatives, but specimens of a meaner, harsher breed: ‘From the beginning Bush camp officials had presumed that they were going to win the election, that they had indeed won it on election night, and that anyone who disputed their right to ascend to power was going to get crushed. The Bush family clan had always assumed that it was born to rule, that the election was theirs through family privilege, and that anything they did to advance their ends was justified’ (144-145). This is the mentality of the hard-bitten ultra-conservative who pays lip-service to democratic rights but who, just below the civilised surface, actually believes that opposing discourses have no right to exist and that anyone who articulates them deserves elimination. Kellner concludes that ‘conservatism itself in the age of Reagan/Bush/little Bush has turned into a mere ideology of political power and partisan interest’ (143). The vindictiveness shown by the forces of reaction against Bill Clinton throughout his presidency, culminating in the near-success of the impeachment bid, and their demonisation of the Clinton couple as nefarious exemplars of ’60s liberalism’, would, of course, provide a specific and immediate motivation for the implacable and ruthless attitude of the conservative camp in Campaign 2000; but if we go beyond particular individuals and circumstances, Kellner appears to have identified an ultra-authoritarian streak in the New Right that runs very deep indeed.
Turning to American society as a whole, Douglas Kellner sees an even deeper malaise. Pointing up the contradiction between the extraordinary resources created by the Information Age and the continuing ignorance and disinformation of huge swathes of the USA’s population, he lambasts the role of the mainstream media in Election 2000. He believes that, over the campaign and throughout the Florida saga, the bulk of the press and nearly all of network TV (only CNN is let partly off the hook) operated a clear and visible bias in favour of Bush, while at the same time not providing the detailed information which would allow citizens to make up their own minds. Kellner backs up this claim with a mass of detail, while adding that, despite this mainstream bias, a far wider range of perspectives and information *was* available on the Internet – and deploring the fact that only a minority of the ‘honourable and literate’ (129) made use of those alternative sources. It is clear that, in the author’s view, only far greater voter awareness can resolve the crisis of US democracy, and that he believes that for this purpose the Internet is a far more useful medium than TV. The reader thus finds him lamenting a wider ‘failure of education and culture in the United States’, and here Kellner’s critique of what he calls a ‘frightening social regression’ (124) chimes with that of other dissident intellectuals, from Morris Berman to Harold Bloom. His proposed remedy is improved political education, but, aside from some stray references to the role of media studies, he does not really say how he thinks this can be done, or how he would marshal the power of the Internet to such an end. Kellner also touches on other social dilemmas raised by the election debacle. He deplores the scandalous condition of the voting machines in certain less-favoured Florida counties, and calls for an across-the-board overhaul of voting technology; he does not, however, stop to ask whether this problem might not reflect the wider plight of resource-starved public services in a time of free-market triumphalism. He also comments briefly on the disfranchisement of felons and ex-felons in states such as Florida – an aspect of election law in the US which many outsiders did not know about until this election – and proposes a ‘national debate’ on the subject (159); he does not, however, raise the possibility that this practice might, like the post-Civil War recourse to property qualifications, be a ruse by the southern white establishment to disfranchise a significant proportion of African-Americans (who remain, in general, poorer than whites, less able to afford decent lawyers and more likely to fall foul of the criminal justice system).
The great unanswered question raised by Election 2000 is whether any serious attempt will be made to address the severe disfunctionings that it exposed in the practical workings of American democracy. In Kellner’s words, these events ‘treated the world to an astonishing display of the failure of the US voting system’ (153); if his analysis of the current presidency is correct, however, any change whatever seems, for the moment, highly unlikely. Even so, the jury is still out as to whether the extreme free-market model espoused by the USA’s present leaders is compatible in the long term with genuine participatory democracy. Meanwhile, Kellner’s study, for all the repeated stridency of its invective and despite some avoidable presentational lapses, has the great merit of fashioning a tangled web of events into a coherent and compelling narrative. When the time comes to write a similarly coherent narrative of the Bush II presidency, from Election 2000 through 11-9 to whatever the future may hold, this book suggests that Douglas Kellner may prove to be one of the few analysts up to the task.