What Constitutes a "Stolen Election"? Toward a Politics of Delegitimation


To the question "A Stolen Election?" (The Nation, Nov. 29, 2004)—and after offering different interpretations for some of the evidence collected by those who answer "yes"— David Corn, the political correspondent of the magazine, replies with a resounding "maybe" (while directing most of his doubts and sarcasms at the "conspiracy theorists").  Could the two sides in this dispute be using different definitions? Stealing an election, after all, is not as obvious as robbing a bank.  Stealing an election is more like fixing a deck of cards, where most of the stealing takes place out of sight and the outcome is never is doubt.

As regards the recent presidential election, then, we must ask: 1) whether the process of voting, including the machines and methods used and the conditions that applied, lacked the transparency needed for everyone to see and to understand what was going on; 2) whether checking the result to ensure that votes were attributed to the right party and that all were counted and counted correctly was often impossible; 3) whether large numbers of voters from groups likely to vote for the losing candidate experienced great difficulty in registering or voting, either at the poll or by absentee or provisional ballot; 4) whether almost all of the admitted incidents of blocked or lost or changed or added votes favored the winning candidate; 5) whether  key people in positions to create these "problems"—such as the Republican owner of the company producing most of the electronic voting machines, the Republican Secretaries of State of Florida and Ohio, and President (sic) Bush himself—had said or done things earlier which showed that they could not be trusted;  6) whether these and similar problems surfaced in 2000, and, if so, whether the declared winners in that election—in the White House, in Congress and in the states—acted to obstruct the kind of reforms that would have done away with such problems in this one; and 7) whether the Zogby exit poll and the Harris last-minute voting poll, both of which were accurate within 1/2 point in the 2000 election and which don't suffer from any of the problems that plague our national electoral system, were more credible in giving Kerry a sizeable victory than the "official" count that differed from their figures by over 5% (well over the margin of error for polls of this sort).

Now, think -- Venezuela. If the answers to all these questions were "yes" for Venezuela, which recently held a hotly contested election, would any of us have difficulty concluding that the "fix was in" and that their election was stolen? Well, it didn't happen in Venezuela, where all the electronic votes left a paper trail (it was possible and easy), but it did happen here. All these things happened here. So how can Corn suggest that the various, numerous, deep-reaching, widespread and almost entirely Bush-serving problems that bedeviled the Nov. 2nd election were due to "minor slip-ups and routine political chicanery"?  Only because he thinks stealing an election is like robbing a bank and not like fixing a deck of cards.

It is important, therefore, that we don't focus in a single-minded way on the details of this past election, as revealing as many of them are (and, no doubt, will continue to be), because they often allow for other interpretations and it is unlikely that we will ever know most of what happened. But that shouldn't keep us from insisting loudly, and again—on the basis of the kind of evidence that applies to elections and not bank robberies—that this was a stolen election. Remember, the more widely this view (this accurate view) gets accepted and repeated, the less legitimacy Bush will have as president and the more difficulty he will have in getting people to cooperate with his policies, both at home and abroad. Sovereign power, to be effective, has always required a minimal degree of popular acceptance based on reason and not force, and in democracies that has come largely from democratic elections in which people freely choose their leader. But can anyone who learns what really happened in our presidential election do anything but laugh (or cry) on hearing that the goal of U.S. foreign policy is to promote democracy? And just let Bush try to draft American youth who think he stole the election to fight in his next war.

Furthermore, if we accept that Bush stole the election, that also means that "value voters" did not determine its outcome, but that the massive turnout of youth and minorities did—in which case, the pressure that many Democrats and some others feel to adopt a more value-oriented politics would be replaced by a pressure to adopt programs that better serve the interests of these, often first-time voters.

What I am proposing is that the Left—progressives of all kinds and degrees—take advantage of Bush's more or less open theft of the election (of the advantage he has taken of us) to pursue a politics of delegitimation, which starts with not being afraid to apply the proper name to what happened (THEFT) and to say who did it (BUSH and the REPUBLICANS). While many on the Left may need to be convinced, our government is well aware of the power that comes with legitimacy and of the role that democratic elections play in providing it, or it would not have devoted as much effort and fortune in trying to stage such elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, the Administration also seems to believe that sham democratic elections can have the same effect as real ones. Why else would they have tried to pull the same shoddy trick twice right here in the U.S., and the second time more brazenly than the first? But maybe, just maybe, there are a growing number of Americans who don't like being treated like multiply abused Afghani tribesmen and are ready to let our own President Karzai know what they think about his theft of our election. 

In forging a politics of delegitimation—not so incidentally—we shouldn't expect much help from Kerry and the other leaders of the Democratic Party. Recall the heart-rending scene in Michael Moore's movie Farenheit 9/11, where several black members of Congress tried to get at least one Democratic senator to sign a letter calling for a debate on the 2000 election. Without success. That Democratic Party leaders, then and now, conceded so quickly only shows that they care more about legitimating the current governmental system and maintaining social stability than they do about the interests of their voters and the declared principles of democracy. And if we need a slogan to help power our new movement, how about—"Two, Three, Many Ukraines!"

An alternative approach to our stolen election has been advanced by Noam Chomsky in a typically rich article, "The Non-Election of 2004" (Z Magazine, Jan., 2004).  For there to be a stolen election, he argues, 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 either 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).

The absence of a real choice in the election, however, does not mean that the Left should ignore or even try to play down the current controversy over Bush's theft of it. 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 Demoratic 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” has brought a heightened vulnerability, a new brittleness, to the entire system of rule that made America's descent into a banana republic possible. That is also why the 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? Right now a large number 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 make such a claim, and this difference could have a huge impact on both the nature and scope of the antiwar opposition.

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 sideshow 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 intermediate 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") determines not only who gets what ("FOR THE PEOPLE") but also who the citizens are 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 (whom 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 own privileges). 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 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 delegitimation that seeks to undermine whatever is 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.