November 13th, 2006


Political Science :)


"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it." -- George Bernard Shaw

(1) If he'd said it today, he might have used "paranoia" instead. ;)

(2) The faith in American exceptionalism runs very deep -- among some Americans, anyway* -- including, e.g., the belief that techniques the United States routinely uses to intervene in foreign governments, and the elections that legitimize them, would never be used here at home. Much as there is some localized fraud in nearly all elections, this faith has pretty much been justified over the years. There's a simple reason for this: when your political system allows only two parties, both firmly committed to protecting the privilege of the same ruling class, the difference between them poses no serious threat to that class. That doesn't mean there is no difference between the parties -- Democrats are traditionally far more concerned with regulating the effects of business activity on the general populace, Republicans (until recently!) better at keeping a firm grip on U.S. privilege abroad -- but the difference has been within tolerances. The folks who run things here were usually willing to put up with whichever party got into power,** another election being only two to four years away, in any event. In fact, regular elections provide (I would argue) a crucial safety valve, stabilizing the American system as a whole.

(3) The disposition to hold elections and let the chips fall where they may is a luxury the United States has not been able to afford, in all sorts of foreign elections. The usual examples are from the Cold War -- postwar Greece and Italy, Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, and so forth -- but the techniques of intervention continue today, up through Haiti, the Palestinian Authority, Venezuela and Nicaragua (again) just in the current presidential term (and just to pick the more or less public examples; some, e.g., would add Mexico to the current list). At the height of the Cold War intervention was not infrequently overt and military; today it is more often than not nonviolent. But the principle is the same: in the face of some threats, honest elections are dangerous and must -- or will, anyway, if possible -- be subverted.

(4) After the fall of the Soviet Union, the divisions in the U.S. ruling class became, in some ways, more dramatic. One school of thought (led most vocally by former Australian Rupert Murdoch) felt deeply that all notions of socialism -- or even, largely, of taxation for the public benefit -- needed to come to a permanent end; another began to contemplate some expansion of same (e.g., the ill-fated Clinton attempts at health care). In the wake of growing unrest against the world corporate system,*** the anti-socialist school began taking a firmer hand (whence, e.g., Murdoch's creation of FOX News, the domestic analogue of nonviolent covert intervention in foreign elections).

(5) Historically speaking, power is important, and people will, in a pinch, use fairly dramatic means to ensure where it flows. While we tend to forget recent examples, you might recall what happened to Russia's first elected parliament, during the Clinton years.**** Bottom line: historically speaking, it is neither stupid nor crazy to wonder whether some members of a divided ruling class will use non-electoral means to try to achieve a given outcome in an election. But that gets us back to:

(6) American exceptionalism, which argues that while all of the above is unquestionably true, only those fond of tinfoil hats would think it could ever possibly apply to elections held in the United States. Why, you ask? Because it's just stupid and crazy and everybody knows that. Have exceptionalists actually looked into, say, the reliability of e-voting machines? They don't need to. As a matter of religious faith they know for a fact that the U.S. is an exception to such least at home. Their certainty in such matters is like some folks' certainty of the existence, and nature, and preferences, of God almighty: examination of contradictory evidence would only confuse the issue.

(7) For the record, I am describing myself in that last paragraph: I used to belong to the American exceptionalist school. As you may have been able to tell, today I'm somewhat more agnostic on that score -- like a lot of other amateur students of history, thanks to events from the late 1990s to the present. I have lost count of how many things that "can't happen here," have in fact happened here during that time. I am no longer certain what can be ruled out.

(8) Finally, then, on the issue of those e-voting machines (Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S, you name it) I feel sort of like Ronald Reagan did about the Soviets: "Trust, but verify." The point is not, to my mind, that critics of such machines must first prove their vulnerability to fraud (though that's apparently been done, not least as shown in the recent HBO documentary "Hacking Democracy" (showing again tonight, as it happens)) -- the point is that we should not have to place blind faith in nontransparent technology: in machines whose lack of security, verifiability and trackable transaction record would render them unacceptable for use as cash registers in any sandwich shop in this land.***** If we are to continue to hold actual elections here, we should not have to leave it up to chance whether the votes will be fairly counted; those who rule the country should, in their own interests, once again make domestic election-stealing as difficult as possible. If they fail to do so, and thereby endanger the safety valve which, IMO, provides stability to the entire American system, they will (also IMO) have only themselves to blame for the predictably unstable outcome.

93 93/93 -- AJ

* It mars, e.g., John Brady Kiesling's otherwise superb Diplomacy Lessons. Kiesling can see with striking clarity how other countries operate; he refuses to apply the same analysis to U.S. motives, preferring accident, inadvertence, coincidence, "blundering," and so forth, to explain actions which happen to serve cold power interests.
** The exceptions might, however, give us pause: e.g., the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton; or the political disruptions of the 1960s generally. Each, you may recall, featured some fairly melodramatic extra-electoral political adjustments. :/
*** The vaunted "Battle of Seattle" and its ilk provide dramatic recent examples.
**** Boris Yeltsin sent tanks to kill them...the sort of "election" I hope we'll never see here. :(
***** Dumping non-verifiable voting machines won't guarantee honest elections -- not, e.g., while election officials get away with routinely rejecting thousands upon thousands of votes as "invalid" -- but it will make any actual dishonesty one hell of a lot more visible, and a good deal more cumbersome to carry out. This is not, btw, a partisan issue: though it may surprise you, some conservatives do not list "blind faith in government" among their core values. ;)
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