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Should the Left Ignore the "Stolen Election"? < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Should the Left Ignore the "Stolen Election"?
By Bertell Ollman

In the course of his very rich article, "The Non-Election of 2004" (Z Magazine, Jan., 2005), Noam Chomsky sought to minimize the importance of the fact that the 2004 presidential election was stolen. And if there is still any doubt in the anti-Bush camp that this past election was stolen, it is—in my view—chiefly because most opinion formers (including writers in the "New York Times", the "Nation" and the "Village Voice") have (mis)understood "stealing" on the model of robbing a bank, where someone has to catch the winning candidate piling boxes of unopened ballots into the back of his pick-up truck before one can say it has occurred. Stealing an election, however, is more like stacking a deck of cards where a devious sleight of hand ensures that the same party wins every time.

The relevant question, then, is whether the well publicized scandals over electronic voting, the numerous problems people had in registering and casting their ballots, the irregularities in counting votes, the politically biased actions of the secretaries of state in the key states of Florida and Ohio, the unwillingness of Republican politicians at all levels of government to address these problems over the last four years, the huge discrepancies between the "official" vote count and usually reliable exit polls, and the fact that practically all of the admitted incidents of blocked, lost, changed, and added votes favored Bush—the question is whether all this constitutes a "stacking of the political deck". If so, there should be no doubt in anybody's mind that the country that likes to bill itself as "the world's foremost democracy" has just gone through a stolen election.

For there to be a stolen election, however, or at least one that deserves to be taken seriously as such, there would have to have been a "real election". And this is what Chomsky says did not happen. While ignoring the often progressive views of the public, the two major political parties together with their public relations and media allies orchestrated a campaign based on lies, distortions, photo ops, trivialities and assorted feel-good slogans. In such a contest, whoever won it is clear that the public could only lose. That does not mean that Chomsky did not see that a victory by one or the other candidate would have some different consequences, but this does not compensate for the completely manipulated and undemocratic character of the entire electoral process. Moreover, most people are broadly aware that the elections are not serious affairs and therefore do not take them very seriously, which is why there has been so little public outrage at the possibility that the election was stolen, both now and in 2000. According to this view, the task of radicals is to explain why there was no real election and to protest that, and not to get sidetracked into relatively trivial debates over the tampering of ballots on election day (which seems to take for granted that a real election did occur).

Having said this—and it sorely needs being said—it doesn't follow that the Left should ignore or even try to play down the current controversy over Bush's theft of the election. First, there is the matter that the right to vote in this country—as limited and distorted as it is—was won by over 200 years of popular struggle and marks an important advance over what existed before.

Second, apart from those who voted for Bush, and to the extent that people are aware of the facts listed at the start of this piece, there is widespread if still diffuse and largely repressed anger over the stolen election. Many students, in particular, were extremely upset to witness what the democracy that gets touted every day in class comes down to in actual practice. Chomsky claims just the opposite, that apart from a relatively small group of intellectuals, most of Bush's victims—who know that neither party really represents their views—have responded to his hold-up with a "yawn". To the extent this is so, I believe it is mainly a media induced yawn. If people's thinking and feeling leading up to the vote were so affected by the media, why would their reaction after the vote reflect that influence any less? And once the votes were in, practically the entire media (including some progressive voices) did everything they could to dismiss or trivialize all the so-called "irregularities". This apparent indifference also arose from the refusal of Democratic Party leaders to countenance mass protests, the obscene rapidity with which Kerry accepted his loss (in part, no doubt, to avoid the social instability associated with such protests), and the removal of all the issues in contention to the courts, where—as we saw in 2000—political problems are transmuted into legal ones, and the only popular participation allowed is rising when the judge enters the courtroom. A lot that appears like indifference, therefore, is really the other side of a frustration that comes from a media imposed uncertainty regarding what happened and not knowing what to do about it.

Still, we know that shocking events can deliver quite a jolt to people's habitual ways of being in the world. It was said that being sentenced to hang concentrates the mind wonderfully. So do things like Love Canal (even when the conditions for it have been present all along), and so does a stolen election (ditto), especially when some of the means used to steal it were as brazen as they were in 2004. Remember, faulty electronic voting machines did not play such a big role in 2000; nor was the discrepancy between the official count and the exit polls as great then; nor did the G.O.P. have four years to fix what everyone knew did not work. The last act in our current electoral drama has not come to an end, and the simmering anger of those who feel terribly wronged by the official outcome—including many who did not vote for Kerry and others who did but never liked him—may yet play a significant role.

Third, it is important to note how seriously our ruling class in both of its political parties takes democratic elections as a means of legitimating its right to rule. As House Majority Whip, Roy Blunt, pointed out, in the Congressional debate over the Ohio vote, "Every time we attack the process, we cast doubt on that fabric of democracy that is so important". He is right to be worried, because once people recognize the fundamental dishonesty of our electoral process, it is only a matter of time—and sometimes of what more one reads or hears—before many of them begin to see what "that fabric of democracy" (that is, Blunt's, Bush's and Kerry's version of democracy), in which this process is embedded, really consists of. Bush won, or so those who counted the ballots say, but his manner of winning (sic) has been bought at the cost of a heightened vulnerability, a new brittleness, that he shares with the entire system of rule that made America's descent into a banana republic possible. That is also why the entire mainstream media, aided by most leaders of the Democratic Party (including those who say all they want to do is ensure that every vote is counted), are insisting that the number one task for the country today is to "restore faith in the voting process".

Absent a belief in the divine right of kings (or presidents), and without evident superiority of breeding or intelligence or wisdom, and unable to obtain sufficient popular support through brute force, this government badly needs to have most of the Americans who voted for other candidates (or didn't vote at all) believe that they lost fairly and squarely. Otherwise, why should they do any of the things this government and its agencies and representatives ask— except for their fear of being fined or arrested, and even then? And right now a large portion of Americans are starting to ask this question.

We on the Left do not and cannot always determine the particular issues over which we do battle. This is usually decided by events, the Government's more egregious mistakes and provocations, and the ebb and flow of popular anger against ongoing injustices. The stolen election brings together all these factors in a way no less striking than the war in Iraq, with which, of course, it is intimately connected. Remember—Johnson and Nixon won their elections, so the rebellion against the Vietnam War could never claim that the president had no right, no democratic right, to issue the orders that he did. In the Iraq war, we can, and this difference could have a huge impact on both the nature and scope of the opposition to the war in the period ahead.

Does all this mean that the stolen election should replace the lack of a "real election" as our major concern? Not at all. But, rather than being a minor side show and a tactical dead-end, this stolen election (we can never repeat these words often enough) is an American tsunami, whose waves have not only ruined millions of ballots but pulled off a corner on the operations of a social and economic system that is inherently biased and unjust. Surely, it is our task—and opportunity—to complete the job, which is to explain this cataclysm in a way that helps the dazed survivors see that the robbery goes beyond Bush and the G.O.P., beyond Kerry and the Democrats, and even beyond all the biases and outright fraud in the electoral system, to include the capitalist relations of unequal wealth and power that structure all of the above. Yes, it's possible to begin with what happened on election day and to move with only a few middle steps to all the rottenness that Chomsky so relentlessly and thoroughly brings out about American society... and more.

Abraham Lincoln's famous comment on democracy as government of, by and for the people offers one arresting way of linking these two levels of analysis. If we take "OF" as referring to those who have the status of citizens in the country, "BY" as referring to the much smaller group who control the means and instruments by which political decisions are made, and "FOR" as referring to different groups depending on how they are affected by these decisions, it becomes clear that we are not talking about the same people under each of these rubrics. On first reading Lincoln's words, it would seem as if we are, but we aren't. Furthermore, it is equally evident that the small group that makes the key political decisions ("BY THE PEOPLE") not only determines who gets what ("FOR THE PEOPLE") but who are the citizens and how they will participate in our democracy ("OF THE PEOPLE"). With power over the diverse outcomes of the political process as well as the ways in which citizens (who they define) are called upon and allowed (as in elections) to legitimate this power, it is no wonder that our politicians lie, cheat, threaten, bully, bribe, buy, flatter, fake, steal and, occasionally, when it suits them, follow their own rules/laws in order to safeguard the status quo (starting with their privileges as part of the status quo). It has been going on for over 200 years.

The stacked deck of cards with which the government forces us all to play the game of politics goes far beyond the many frauds that emerged on election day, and encompasses all that politicians do after they get elected (which includes preparing the ground—socially and psychologically as well as politically—for the next fraudulent election). It also makes our elections—once people's attention is drawn and their anger aroused by the outright theft of our highest office—an ideal prism for seeing American democracy as a capitalist class democracy, run BY that class (and the few outsiders they hire to help them out) and FOR that class. For the rest of us, living in a democracy most take to be OF the people, politics can only be a series of false hopes and tragic deceptions.

Bush's stolen election is but the tip of the iceberg, but it is the tip that is now showing, and tens of millions of people can see it, many for the first time, and they are raging (if still too silently) about it. The Left must be part of this protest and accompanying debate, widening and deepening both—making the connections, making the connections—however we can. And don't forget the Ukraine. Rather than trying "to restore voters faith in elections", and rather than playing down the dispute over Bush's victory as missing the main point, ours must be a POLITICS OF DELIGITIMATION that seeks to undermine whatever's left of people's faith in American elections in order to help build a real democracy that is OF, BY and FOR all the people.