To European Friends:
Explaining the 2004 Election Disaster
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, "The Crisis Papers."
November 16, 2004
Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Thank you for your long, handwritten letter (don't see many of those these
days). Yes, I know that our election and our vote-counting process do not
make sense to you citizens of Europe. But I'll try to answer your questions
as best as I can -- it's not easy, since the situation is confusing on this
end as well.
As I understand it from your letter, here is the gist of what puzzles you
about our electoral process. My explanations follow below.
1. Why do you Americans go crazy at times and choose such unqualified
(and/or dumb) leaders?
2. How can you Americans be so politically divided right down the middle for
such a long time, until it winds up with one or two states being the
deciders? Why can't you settle the fight once and for all, or divide your
voting blocs proportionally into your Congress, as we do in our countries?
3. How can you Americans even hope to convince your citizens, and us in
other countries, that you have reliable, honest elections when private
companies (who have ideological/monetary relationships with one party)
manufacture the voting machines, write the secret software that runs them,
and, worst of all, have access to the vote-counting tabulation process? Why
should anyone accept the legitimacy of those results?
4. How come in the last two U.S. presidential elections, even though the
final vote was unclear -- with hundreds of thousands of ballots still to be
counted, amid allegations of fraud -- the Democrat candidate meekly conceded
and didn't put up any fuss? Doesn't your Opposition party want to win?
5. How come Bush can win a second term when a substantial majority of the
U.S., according to polls, thinks the war in Iraq was a bad idea and won't
turn out well at all? The war, as has been demonstrated convincingly by
official study after study, was based on the false premises that Iraq
possessed huge stockpiles of WMDs and would use them on its neighbors and
against the U.S. mainland, and that Saddam was connected to Al Qaida and the
9/11 attacks. Even the Bush Administration eventually had to admit the
falsity of those claims, and now your young men and women Occupiers are
being slaughtered, along with more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Why elect
the man who got you into that mess in the first place?
1. WHY DO YOU ELECT CLOWNS & DOLTS?
Where I live, in California, we elected a song-and-dance man (George Murphy)
and rabble-rousing university president (S.I. Hayakawa) to be United States
Senators, and a Grade B movie actor (Ronald Reagan) to be governor, who then
went on to be elected President. We also recently recalled a competent if
plodding governor and replaced him with another Grade B actor, a former
body-builder (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Minnesota recently had a professional
wrestler for governor (Jesse Ventura).
Americans have elected would-be dictators as President (Richard Nixon,
George W. Bush).
We have passed on clearly highly-qualified candidates (Adlai Stevenson, for
one) and had to endure dolts and mediocrities (Gerald Ford, George H.W.
On the other hand, we have elected those from whom we weren't expecting all
that much (Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton),
only to be pleasantly surprised with how they grew into the job, despite
their tragic flaws and policies of great error.
So, as you can see, we Americans exhibit absolutely no consistency with
regard to the person we elect as President. And their election often has
little to do with their innate intelligence, or lack thereof.
I think what you're really asking is how -- having watched for four years as
George W. Bush has disgraced the presidency and demonstrated his inability
to rise to the occasion -- we could have elected this guy.
Virtually all of the presidents mentioned above behaved civilly to their
political opponents. (Nixon was an exception: dirty tricks to win election,
compiling an "enemies" list to punish, heinous felonies.) And the mass media
were much more investigatory and independent.
But the Hard-Right, which cares not a fig for democratic institutions --
other than in how it can manipulate them -- decided to forego civility and
go for total annihilation of their opposition. Rightwing billionaires
established think-tanks, bought up and founded mass-media outlets (national
radio talk shows, cable TV shows, Fox News, et al.), spent millions on
training college-age Republicans, etc. That Hard-Right infrastructure was in
place for nearly 15 years or more, and is getting stronger, especially given
its current tight alliances with the fundamentalist/evangelical churches.
The Democrats, meanwhile, still dreaming of their glory days in the
ascendancy decades before, were essentially clueless about what was
happening beneath the radar -- and even when the Hard-Right boasted loudly
of their plans, they still didn't get it.
DAY-BY-DAY FIGHT OR EVERY 4 YEARS?
The Republicans view the political war as ongoing, day by day building their
fortress stronger, whereas the Democrats treat politics as a
once-every-two-or-four-year battle. No wonder they continually get their
butts stomped, even when the public in so many areas of policy agrees more
with their domestic programs. (Plus, the Democrats have yet to figure out
how to both maintain the moral high ground and fight back against the GOP's
cutthroat brand of politics.)
In short, the Karl Roves in that Hard-Right world figured out how to use the
conglomerate-owned mass media and the "religious" rightwing to their
advantage, while the Democrats tend not to get in gear until late in the
election game -- too late, as it turns out.
One more thing: So many Americans lead circumscribed lives of quiet
desperation, just trying to get by economically and deal with the
fast-moving social and cultural changes that are going on. They look for
someone to lead them through the chaos and confusion. This helps explain, as
in Muslim cultures as well, the pull of religious fundamentalism and the
desire for a theocracy.
Those with simple answers, simple slogans, name-recognition and celebrity
tap into this social phenomenon; those who "do" nuance, who understand
complexity, who listen to what reality is telling them, tend to be dismissed
(Stevenson, Kerry). Hence, George W. Bush -- who thinks with his "gut,"
exhibits no curiosity, admits no mistakes, you "know where he stands" --
hence is able to lead so many down the greased ramp toward an incipient
The Hard-Right has been able to subtly shift the voting public's attention
away from economic issues -- i.e., those that truly and often negatively
affect their daily lives -- to a kind of cultural class struggle, fanning
the flames of fright against enemies they don't know but fear greatly
(homosexuals, immigrants, secularists, et al).
2. ABOUT THAT GREAT POLITICAL DIVIDE
The political divide is strong, immense and real. It seems fairly constant,
not destined to disappear anytime soon.
If you examine it closely, you can see that the coastal states and those
with huge population-centers tend to be more liberal, secular, diverse,
well-educated, in touch with foreign cultures. Those internal states, among
them the once Solid (Democratic) South, are less diverse, more
religiously-affiliated, less conversant with the larger world beyond our
Those are generalizations; larger metropolitan areas within the internal
("red") states, and those which house major universities, tend to resemble
the coastal ("blue") outlook and attitudes. Indeed, what has to be
understood is that Bush didn't "sweep" all those red states by huge margins;
many of those states are split down the middle as well -- often described,
in color terms, as neither wholly red nor blue but "purple."
Why that divide? My guess is that it has something to do with the end of two
WOMEN AND AFRICAN-AMERICANS
The first was World War II. All wars generate in their wake enormous social,
economic and political upheavals.
Women, who assumed traditionally "male" jobs during the war while their
husbands and sons were fighting in Europe and in the Pacific, subsumed their
desire for equality once the soldiers returned. But that ache for a fuller
female role in the body politic and in the workplace would gestate and
explode 25 years later in a resurgent feminist movement.
African Americans, who served in the Armed Forces and who worked in
traditionally "white" jobs during the war, were more immediately adamant for
social justice after WWII, especially since they had fought Aryan racism
abroad only to find it still exercising brutal power over their lives when
they got back to the States. This pent-up desire for equality and freedom
led directly to the civil rights struggle for racial equality in the South
In both instances, white men, especially in the South, felt threatened by
moves toward feminist parity and the desire by minorities for equality of
treatment. The solid Democratic South gradually, and then swiftly, moved to
the Republican Party, which masterfully played the underlying racism and
misogyny of the South to their advantage. (Obviously, for brevity I'm
oversimplifying here, as many other factors were in play as well.)
LOCATE THE NEW "ENEMY"
The other war was the Cold War. Our obsession with, and fear of, world
communism provided a unifying container for Americans, a way of approaching
the world that made sense, an enemy all Americans could revile.
Certainly, the American rightwing could concentrate on that enemy, using
fear of communist expansion as their ticket to power. When the Wall came
down in East Germany, when the entire communist system imploded of its own
contradictions in the Soviet Union and its satellites, a new "enemy" had to
That new enemy became change itself, the social and political landscape that
was shifting so rapidly -- symbolized by everything we understand by the
term "The Sixties" -- causing such confusion and personal/social upheaval.
Some found comfort in their churches, which offered more simple ways of
observing and dealing with the rapidly changing scene around them. Some
looked for possible progenitors to punish for all that confusing change; the
new "devils" became homosexuals, secular liberals, feminists, immigrants,
and so on.
And the Republican Party, way more prescient than the Democrats in running
with demographic shifts -- and understanding the desire of many for a simple
way of dealing with rapid-fire, dislocating change -- managed to meld church
and fear together for electoral victory after victory.
When 9/11 happened, the GOP attached that running train engine to the new
foreign enemy, the "Islamic terrorists," and off they rode into the sunset,
untouchable. The Republicans' victory margin is razor-thin, but it's enough,
time and time again, and the Democrats are only now, a decade or so late,
starting to have a serious internal discussion about how to climb back into
real competition for power.
3. WHO VOTES COUNTS, BUT WHO COUNTS THE VOTES RULES
Everyone knew that our balloting and vote-tabulating system was a thorough
disaster, as Florida 2000 demonstrated. But the Democrats were asleep at the
wheel when Congress passed HAVA (Help America Vote Act) that mandated an
eventual switchover to computer-voting machines in all precincts by 2006.
Nearly one-third of American voters cast their ballots on such machines in
the 2004 election -- machines that provided no paper trail for auditing in
case of recounts -- with another healthy chunk voting on optical-scanner
machines that do provide paper receipts of the numbers on their ballot in
case a recount is in order.
The same Republican-supporting companies manufacture the machines, and
control the secret software regulating those machines -- and tabulate the
votes from those machines. At any point along that path, security is so lax
that those numbers easily can be manipulated without anyone being the wiser.
As a result, nearly half of the population has no idea if their votes were
altered. Thus, two suspect presidential elections in the past four years
(along with one midterm vote in 2002). No wonder few Americans or observers
from abroad have any reason to trust in the integrity of the U.S. voting
process -- and thus in the legitimacy of the person serving as President.
THE ELECTORAL TRAIN WRECK
The Congressional Democrats, who should have and could have stopped this
electoral train wreck before it built up steam, permitted HAVA to pass and
required no changes in procedures before the November balloting. Further,
neither Kerry nor Edwards nor anyone from their campaign raised the issue of
the integrity of balloting and vote-counting prior to November 2. In short,
the Republicans were given a virtual free ride -- right into the White
As I write this, there are recounts ordered in several key states and court
challenges to the balloting and vote-tabulating process, but whether they
will yield anything significant in terms of possibly changing the 2004
result is problematic -- though many of us are doing what we can to promote
these recounts and investigations.
If Bush is indeed certified as the winner of the 2004 election, he will
enter the presidency with an understood asterisk next to his name, as his
campaign engaged in all sorts of electoral skullduggery to suppress the
Democrat (mainly minority) vote, by intimidation, harassment, destroying
voter registration forms, and so on -- and may have taken advantage of
vote-counting manipulations in optical-scanner and touch-screen voting
machines that probably are devoid of "smoking gun" evidence that would
definitively prove the rigged vote.
One would hope that, given this constant suspicion about vote-stealing, the
system would be fixed for the next (midterm) election in 2006, and for sure
for the 2008 presidential vote. But, unless Democrats and worried
Republicans join hands to force these reforms, nothing will change. And, of
course, the party officials in power, in the White House and in the GOP,
have no desire to change anything, since the corrupt system works for them
just fine, thank you. (Indeed, they also are trying to prohibit future "exit
polling," one of the few ways one can gauge whether vote tallies are
The logical solution for providing an honest balloting -- at least for the
next several elections, or until the vote-tabulating can be taken out of the
hands of private businessmen -- is to return to paper ballots, marked by
voters, and counted one by one by monitored voting officials. It's done in
Canada, with no problems. But don't count on that logical solution in the
U.S. unless the citizenry rises up and absolutely demands it.
4. KERRY DOES A GORE WITH EARLY CONCESSION -- WHY?
That is a great mystery, and Kerry hasn't gone into detail, only that the
numbers weren't there for him in Ohio. He didn't even mention the
possibility of miscounting and fraud there or in other states; he just
called it quits.
Because Gore also conceded way early (before going to court) -- and then
when the Supreme Court installed Bush, was gracious and positive about the
need to heal the country -- your question is a good one. Are the Democrats
just too wimpy, much too gentlemanly, still not realizing that they're
facing smashmouth politicos across the aisle, anxious to utterly destroy
them as an effective opposition?
There is a theory circulating that Kerry is engaged in political
rope-a-dope, that behind the scenes he's watching how the various recounts
and court challenges (some by Nader and Cobb) are going, and if things look
positive, he'll come out pounding. But I'm not sure I buy it. For one thing,
the Democrat establishment and legal team does not appear to be engaged in
an energetic effort to get all the facts and numbers and votes counted. And
not much energy seems to be expended by the Kerry-Edwards camp either.
Sad to say, unless there is that "smoking gun" -- massive mistakes made in
vote-counting, incontrovertible evidence of fraud rather than statistical
circumstantial evidence, or a confession by a GOP technician as to how some
vote numbers may have been manipulated -- Bush will be certified as the 2004
As to why the Democrats aren't fighting back more openly, I simply don't
know the answer. Maybe they believe all the vote-recounts in the various
states still won't yield a victory and don't want to appear to be "bad
sports" and "obstructionists." Maybe Rove threatened Kerry in some
meaningful way that we're not aware of. Maybe the Dems just don't want to
play gutter politics, choosing to retain the high moral ground for the next
time out, even if they appear weak now. Who knows?
5. THE IRAQ WAR'S INFLUENCE ON ELECTORATE
Much of the public was quite aware of how badly the Bush Administration has
botched the Iraq Occupation and how much they were bamboozled into
supporting the invasion on phony assertions, but they chose to stay with the
devil they know rather than go with a new guy they don't know. (Plus, Kerry
had painted himself into a no-wiggle-room corner by having voted for the
war-authorization bill, and then saying he would have done the same thing
now, even knowing about the lies and miscalculations.)
It's entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Iraq will blow up even more
explosively in Bush's face in the next several months, further highlighting
the bad policy decisions made, and the incompetence of the neo-con war plan.
But Bush, like a huntin' dog on scent, is too arrogant and stubborn to
concede that he might have made a mistake, so he'll just continue getting
young Americans killed in the service of a disastrous failed policy, and
maybe try to save himself by attacking another country -- Iran? Syria?
Yemen? At which point, conceivably, either he might be impeached by a
Congress worried about its re-election chances, or his party voted out of
Congressional control in 2006. (Assuming an honest, paper-ballot election.)
Of course, if he were smart -- what a concept! -- Bush would start devising
plans for getting out of Iraq, and engineering a just peace in the Middle
East, but he's tied to the neo-con agenda of "changing the geopolitical map"
in that area of the world (while controlling the oilfields and establishing
military bases there, of course), and to backing Ariel Sharon in whatever he
wants to do in the Occupied Territories. So it's unlikely there will be any
meaningful breakthroughs on the Palestine/Israel issue, and probably not
much positive happening in Iraq. But lots of negative stuff will happen, for
sure, including a rise in terrorism directed at Americans and our allies.
Well, Jacqueline and Wolfgang, I hope some of this has helped you understand
a bit more about our strange, crazy-quilt politics in America right now.
It's confusing, I grant you, but don't be too pessimistic; as I wrote last
year, things are bound to get worse before they get worse, and then they'll
get as bad as they can get, and then the American people will demand major
change. Hang in there, and keep on keepin' on.
Your friend, Bernie
Copyright 2004, by Bernard Weiner