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Right-wing coup that shames America

Continuing unofficial counts reveal the full extent of Al Gore's lead
and the massive abuses that have put George W. Bush into power

Will Hutton
Sunday December 24, 2000
The Observer (uk)

I never thought I would live to see it. There has been a right-wing coup in the United States. It is now clear beyond any doubt that the winner of the Presidential election was Al Gore. In Florida the votes are being counted unofficially in a way the Supreme Court would not permit: he was already 140 votes ahead when counting stopped for Christmas and his final lead promises to be in the thousands. Nationally he leads by over half a million votes. What has happened is beyond outrage. It is the cynical misuse of power by a conservative elite nakedly to serve its interests -- and all of us should be frightened for the consequences.

The issue is not George W. Bush's conservatism, opponent though I am of what Bush plans to do; a democracy only has vitality and political tension if its philosophy and stream of thinking is articulated and pitches to win elections. The incontrovertible abuse is that Bush has won power despite losing, and critically he only pulled off this feat because the Republicans control the Supreme Court. The Right has subverted pivotal US institutions to win power -- a campaign of which the discrediting and attempted impeachment of Clinton was part -- and in the process disgraced the legitimacy of US democracy at home and abroad, and undermined conceptions of the rule of law. It is a poor augury for the twenty-first century.

In Britain the response has been woeful -- itself a token of our own lack of hard democratic instincts. The commentary, especially in the right-of-centre press, has been to decry Gore as a poor loser and to insist that he had to accept the rules of the electoral game, respecting the votes in the US electoral college which, when Florida was lost, gave Bush the election. But as the great liberal defenders of freedom, Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin, both argued when unjust, illegitimate governments win power through subverting the rules it is our responsibility to contest them.

The nine-member Supreme Court, apart from the heady decade of the 1960s when it advanced the cause of civil rights in the South, has always been a bastion of a regressive conservatism. In the 1930s it tried to rule that key elements in Roosevelt's New Deal were unconstitutional. Its defence of the sovereignty of states rights has been fundamental in extending capital punishment and allowing bible- belt states to resist implementing federal legislation banning violence against women. Yet its general prohibition in interfering in a state's rights has been overturned in one instance; the highly politicised intervention in Florida.

The more you examine it, the more outrageous the now famous judgement was. What the Court had to do to serve its political purpose was to find a way of acknowledging a sovereign state's rights and the continuing legitimacy of hand recounts in closely contested elections -- after all, George W. Bush had passed a law as Governor in Texas in 1998 endorsing hand recounts -- but at the same time give the election to their Republican champion by finding that events in Florida were a special case. This was tricky. In the first place, even the conservative judges shared the unanimous view that it was reasonable for hand recounts to be undertaken because, as the judgment concedes: `Punch card balloting machines can produce an unfortunate number of ballots which are not punched in a clean, complete way by the voter.' Consequently individual states are obliged, when the winning margin is tight, to mount an effort to find out what the `clear intent' of each voter was. In other words, Gore was completely within his rights to demand the hand recount.

The five conservatives had a problem. How could they deliver the coup? The solution was elegant. The process was too subjective, said the Supreme Court, unless the Florida court put in place even more protective measures to ensure impartiality than the Florida legislature had provided for -- a position that is constitutionally impossible, as the judges knew, because it meant the Court would have to change rather than interpret Florida law. Hand recounts are thus legal in principle but impossible in practice because of possible partiality. And in a telling aside in its judgment, the Court said that hand recounts would `cast a cloud' over Bush's `legitimacy' that would harm `democratic stability'. It never crossed the five-strong conservative majority's mind that the opposite might be the case; that not counting votes which would give Gore the presidency when nationally he had won half a million more votes than Bush would damage, not democratic stability, but the entire democratic principle.

But then, right-wing America is not much interested in the democratic principle. It believes that its duty is to sustain America in its unique destiny as a Christian guardian of individual liberty, a place -- I joke not -- that will deserve Christ's second coming. It sees itself in a holy war against a liberal enemy within, and it uses every tool at its disposal ruthlessly to dispose of its foe.

The Right enjoyed 12 years of power under Reagan and Bush, lost the Presidency to Clinton in 1992 when Ross Perot split the conservative vote, and pledged to continue their jihad against what they saw as his illegitimate victory from the beginning. Hence the fantasies of Whitewater. Hence the Starr inquiry into the Lewinsky affair, where now we learn key evidence was fabricated. Hence the attempted impeachment. Mud sticks, they reckoned, and even though they knew impeachment would fail, they calculated it would put any Democrat presidential candidate in 2000 in a presentational bind -- association with the successful Clinton years would be attacked as an association with immorality.

But for all their efforts American public opinion remained stubbornly tolerant, sceptical of tax cuts and moderately centrist. To win, Bush had to outspend his rival two to one in the last month and build on the strategic dilemma faced by Gore about the Clinton years. But even then it has taken the Supreme Court to complete the coup.

For all the talk of reconciliation Bush is building a tribal conservative administration bent on supporting business at home and asserting US unilateralism abroad. His next Treasury Secretary has been picked not for his capacity to negotiate the US and the world through the minefield of a fragile international financial system, but his interest in feathering the nests of corporate America. And so it goes on, offering the US and the world a policy and perspective not wanted by the majority of Americans.

The consensus view is that within months the whole Florida affair will be forgotten, and Bush will be installed as a legitimate US President. I don't agree. The value of democracies is they produce administrations broadly in tune with the times and will of the people, and thus able to marshal both consent and the correct policy responses for the varying crises that hit them.

Not so in America. Whether the need to respect international treaties abroad or the desire to universalise medical protection at home, the US has the man in power it did not want and whose instincts are opposite to those of the majority. This will prove a disastrous administration for America and the world, and the coup will become widely understood as a moment of partisan infamy. It is a brutal lesson for us liberals. Never, never forget the treachery and poison on the Right.

Guardian Unlimited -- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000

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