Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Dawn of the grackles
On grey November mornings in Austin like today, the boat-tailed grackles gather like the black birds of Mordor in denuded urban habitats — downtown street lamps, the pathetic trees lining the parking lot medians of a run-down old shopping mall, the double decker concrete of the freeway — and cackle en masse, a din that lets you know these hardy adaptable earth-mates of ours are making fun of us.
This morning reminds me of a very similar morning in Austin, eight years ago and a day. The morning after election day 2000. I had gone to bed the night before without knowing who won the election, something I could not remember doing in my adult life. When I got up to go to work the next morning, they still didn't know who won. Clouds were gathering as I drove to work through the grackled dawn, after a crisp sunny day before.
My day job office at the time happened to be next door to the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, which was where then-Governor George Bush and his entourage were staying to watch the returns. There was a weird, looming vibe about the whole scene, fundamental grammar school civics class certainties about the infallibility of American democracy already called into question by the absence of a definitive midnight answer, even before the full Constitutional crisis began to bloom that afternoon.
In no time, we were mired in hanging chads and the battle of the partisan lawyers. Dueling CNN spiels by wily statesmen — Bushie James Baker and Clintonian Warren Christopher (who I once rode an elevator with in the Hart Senate Office Building, causing me to conclude there is no human being on Earth who could so completely resemble one of the puppets from Kukla, Fran and Ollie). A month of grim Constitutional limbo, watching the process degenerate into a brazen partisan power struggle completely devoid of any idealism, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
The 2000 election exposed for me how much of the vaunted sanctity of the American electoral process is a myth. The process is riddled with errors, always has been, and every cycle there are races that need to be resolved by judges.
Uncounted ballots aside, for me the biggest imperfection of all for me was the fact that so many races are statistical ties, and most remarkably, that the presidential contest could end in what was, basically, a tie. Nothing could better illustrate my emerging sense at the time that political choice in America had become an illusion, a Coke versus Pepsi selection between avatars of converging pseudo-ideologies.
Perhaps 9/11 has changed that, rendering today's election one of more consequence. While I see real difference in the leaders proffered today, I remain unpersuaded that there is much real diversity in the system, believing that the two-party system is a red team-blue team factionalism that would have made the authors of the Federalist Papers cringe at the ossification of their system into a means for a small political class to perpetuate their own careers, using the power of the public fisc, the campaign finance system, and election laws designed to preclude outsiders to make sure that no candidate who represents real change will have an easy time getting in front of the voters.
As I await the unfolding of the day, and wonder if the clouds are going to break or thicken, I share the apprehension of the big-brained open source intelligence analysts down the street at Stratfor, when they remark that another uncertain election result a la November 2000 would be a very bad thing:
There is one critical thing for this coming election: that a president be elected without any ambiguity. The greatest destabilizing threat to the international system would be for the election to end in a complex deadlock as in 2000, with the courts forced to adjudicate. An extended period of uncertainty about the American presidency, considering the range of international issues on the table, would increase international political risk dramatically. It would also create a massive domestic crisis, not only for the usual reasons, but also because the polls have consistently shown Barack Obama ahead. His supporters would view a deadlocked election in the face of these polls with deep suspicion...
This election is bitter on all sides. There is already some emotional expectation among Obama supporters that someone will try to steal the election from their candidate. If there is a massive weekend swing (which may not become apparent until election night) that forces the election into recounts and litigation, the atmosphere surrounding this election could create political chaos in the United States, and that would mean that issues from Bretton Woods II to the status of forces in Iraq, to Russian plans in the former Soviet Union would all be affected. Bush’s ability to govern — as with all lame ducks — would be compromised, no transition would be in place, and the United States would be paralyzed politically. And, we might add, at that point Ralph Nader would again have been the pivot of an election.
I want to say keep your fingers crossed and hope there's a definitive result by the time you go to bed. But then I wonder, if we really want to see real change to the system, is there any better way to bring that on than an even more dramatic crisis that puts maximum pressure on all of the fundamental assumptions of our polis? I am not sure how long the 21st century will tolerate 19th century nation states that practice 18th century republican political citizens, when new networked forms of socio-political organization are aborning. Which science fiction theme are we going to get: war world dystopia or technocratic utopia? I guess we'll see what happens.
If you want a diversion from the returns, at least there's a new issues of the Internet Review of Science Fiction out today.