Ira Chernus  


George W. Bush became president because Ralph Nader was right: There is no significant difference between Bush and Gore. Let me explain by suggesting a fantasy.

Imagine that, the day after Election Day, the editors, pundits, and opinion-makers had asked only one question: "Who REALLY won Florida?" Imagine that this question had dominated the headlines and the talk shows. As the reports of uncounted votes poured in, imagine how quickly Florida officials could have arranged to count those votes. Public opinion would have forced them to do it.

But that would have been some other country, not the USA of 2000. Here the question that dominated all others was not, "Who won?" but "How long?" "How long can Gore hold out?" "How long will the publicís patience hold out?" "How long can we endure this agonizing crisis?" The length of the process became the problem, not the accuracy of the count.

Words like crisis and agony put the burden of proof on the Democrats to show why we should endure all this. They made efforts to find out who won seem wrongheaded, even dangerous. In this atmosphere, shrill calls for a quick recount sounded like wounds to the body politic. It was easy to ignore Goreís now-forgotten call for a state-wide recount, because it would "just prolong the agony." Republican stalling tactics, on the other hand, seemed perfectly legitimate and even patriotic.

Why did the media choose this spin? The human drama it provided, the skill of the Bush spinmeisters, and the mediaís pro-Republican tilt were all factors. But something else was more crucial.

In the days right after the election, the newspapers that set the pace for U.S. journalism, The New York Times and The Washington Post, warned of frightening problems if the matter were not resolved quickly. They predicted a huge public demand for a quick end to it. When that didnít materialize, they backed off. But the die had been cast. The leading question would not be "Who won?", but "How long?".

The Times and the Post never said exactly what dangers they saw in their crystal ball if the process went on too long. But it is not hard to guess. They worried about the same things that mainstream editors and opinion-makers, and the elite leaders they lunch and golf with, always worry about. They worried about U.S. power and influence around the world. Would our word be respected as long as the next president remained unknown? Might other nations try to take advantage of us in this time of uncertainty? Would our unsettled election trigger global instability?

Instability was surely the great fear, not only in world affairs but in the economy. Investors hate uncertainty. Would they still rush to invest here if the future were so unknown? Might dollars start flowing outward? How would the stock market respond to prolonged uncertainty?

Whether they are Republican or Democrat, the political and journalistic elite of the U.S. agree on our role in the world. We must lead. We must keep the world system humming along. We must keep the international community in line, so that the global economy can continue to integrate and flourish. Anything that threatens to throw a monkeywrench in the works must be stopped, and quickly. That is the role of our government and our elected officials.

Above all, it is the role of the president. Regardless of what party he comes from, he must be the chief symbol and the chief architect of stability. As long as he does that well, it hardly matters what else he does or does not do. And it hardly matters whether his name is Gore or Bush.

The mainstream media focused our attention on "How long?" because they agree with Nader. There is no important difference between Bush and Gore. What matters is that both are committed to stability, to preserving the status quo. The media were trying to tell us, without quite saying it directly, that we too should prize stability above any differences between the candidates.

The 5-person majority of the Supreme Court probably agreed, though they would not come out and say it either. But Chief Justice Wells of the Florida Supreme Court was not so bashful. In his dissent, he rejected a recount because it "will ultimately lead to chaos." And he quoted a line from a Florida newspaper, which sums up the elite view pretty well: "The election is a tie, so letís get on with it."

For the elite, it was a tie because either man would be just as good a president, as long as he preserves stability. Now the "crisis" is over. We can "get on with it." Of course, we will never know who won. Whether this all makes our system more or less stable remains to be seen.