Politics as War (Re: The rhetoric of the post-election period - #5689)

January, 17, 2001

Metaphorical wars

Mr. Roth asserts, in closing his most recent post, that "Politics, after all, is the sublimation of war to other means." I think that this assertion represents a key divide in this discussion. I doubt that anyone reading this discussion would disagree that this assertion, posed metaphorically, would lead to a stimulating discussion and some measure of insight into the nature of both war and politics. We would know, in such a discussion, that war and politics are really different. We would understand that politics can be used as a weapon in war and that war can be used as a weapon in politics. We would understand that today's casualties are, in politics, tomorrow's debaters, and in war, the subject of tomorrow's funeral addresses. In discussing the metaphor, we know that we will inevitably have to push our use of the term politics to a black and white extreme that ignores its gray reality in pandering and compromise and dilute our use of the term war to a mere win/lose action that ignores the reality that regardless of who wins in war, everyone loses for the war having occurred at all. This is, of course, a fundamental difference between war and politics. In war, everyone loses regardless of who wins (although some lose more than others). In democratic politics, everyone wins regardless of who loses so long as the democracy continues.

I would assert, however, that the Bush campaign, like the Nixon campaign (and probably the Reagan campaign), has treated the assertion that "politics is war" as reality rather than metaphor, that their actions in Florida are consistent with this treatment, and the result is that, at least to some extent, we are all losers (although some stand to lose more than others). It is politics as war that caused Kathleen Harris, when faced with two applicable laws, one of which created a time deadline for submitting election results and the other of which preserved the right of candidates for a detailed manual recount in close elections, to not only strongly favor one law over the other, but to actively delay the start of the recounts guaranteed by the other through the use of "binding opinions" that asserted conditions for recounting that had no basis in law or prior tort. It is politics as war that caused the Bush campaign, knowing full well that 20,000+ votes had never been properly counted, to assert that the machine recount abnegated the need for a manual recount, to call those 20,000+ votes "votes for nobody", and to assert that counting such votes in counties where 10% or more of the ballots were "undervotes" somehow diluted the votes of counties where less that 0.5% of the votes were undervotes. It is politics as war that caused the congressional staffs of several Republican leaders to riot in a Miami courthouse in a successful attempt to intimidate a Board of Elections. It is politics as war that caused the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the recount on the grounds that they would find that recount unconstitutional and then came back with a decision that said that the recount was perfectly constitutional, but that, at least in part because of their stay of the process, it was now too late to conduct that recount. It is politics as war that has caused George W. Bush to forward an ideological nominee like John Ashcroft as Attorney General when good politics would suggest a more political choice (e.g. a popular figure with moderate to conservative credentials like Rudolph Giuliani).

The reasons for this war are, I suppose, understandable. There is a substantial minority of people in this country that believe that "abortion is murder", and who, understanding that they will probably never convince a majority of Americans of anything stronger than "abortion is to be avoided if at all possible", are now willing to "win at any cost". There is a smaller, but still substantial minority of people in this country that believe that "teaching evolution is equivalent to denying the word of God", and who, understanding that they will probably never convince a majority of American's of anything stronger than "evolution is just a theory" are now willing to "win at any cost". They are joined by a somewhat larger minority that believes that "school without public prayer is a playground for the devil" but which understands that they will never convince a majority of Americans of anything stronger than "everybody has a right to pray at school, especially just before tests", and who are now willing to "win at any cost". Similar minorities can be found who feel that licensing gun owners and registering guns is not only wrong, but inconsistent with language in the constitution that guarantees the right to bear arms "in a regulated militia"; who favor plundering our remaining old growth forest and other limited natural resources so long as it results in jobs and profits; who question the reality of global pollution/warming, the nature of our contribution to it, or the things we need to do to preserve our world for our children; who feel that any tax is too much, unless its to support our military, and sometimes not even then; who feel that systematic discrimination is OK, especially if they aren't discriminated against; who feel that people who keep their sex lives to themselves should be excluded from military service if they are gay; who feel that integrated schools are a bad thing; etc. Each of these groups is faced with the same problem. They believe something strongly, cannot compromise, cannot convince large numbers of Americans of their perspective, but feel that they are so right that they can justify "winning at any cost". It is these no-compromise minority perspectives that may have turned politics into war for the Bush campaign. I am not going to say such perspectives are a bad thing. I would assert that they are an inevitable byproduct of diverse human beliefs.

There are a similar list of potential "no compromise" issues from the so-called left, and our country has a long, although hardly unblemished, history of resolving such intractable issues, including slavery, woman's suffrage, the equal rights of minorities, the intersection of property rights and the public good, the nature of the separation of church and state, the rights of the accused, the balance between freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, the prohibition of alcohol, and many others by political and judicial means. I will assert that turning politics into war is a bad thing, and that it the treatment of politics as an act of war that has created the problems of legitimacy that Bush now faces.

I would think that while most of us are willing to cede, on the general presumption that in doing so we allow the democracy to continue, that Bush "won" the election and is a legitimate president. Most of us do so knowing that he probably didn't actually win the election, suspecting that our constitution is the worse for wear in the outcome, and afraid that fundamental individual liberties that are currently guaranteed on a federal basis (the right to choose, the rights of the accused, and even some measure of our freedom of speech) may be ceded to the discretion of individual states as a result. But we acknowledge Bush's legitimacy because we know that there is another congressional election in two years, another presidential election in four years, and a series of hurdles that must be negotiated before real damage can be done to our democracy.

There is considerable evidence, however, that not everyone is willing to concede the legitimacy of Bush's election. The reasons for not ceding that legitimacy vary, but in the end they boil down to 20,000+ votes that were never counted in an election that was decided by about 500 votes. We all know that the normal conduct of close elections in every state in our union is a mutually agreed upon and monitored hand recount of the undercount. Most of us have seen such a recount occur in some other election, usually without contest, without much publicity, and without changing the result. Most of us understand, whether we supported it or not, that it was the "win at any cost" "goal line stand" by the Bush campaign that prevented those votes from being counted. Most of us understand that regardless of the legal arguments, that not doing the recount sharply contrasts that norm. And a majority of us understand that the failure to count those votes casts a cloud on the result that might easily have been avoided by simply following normal precedent and accepting Gore's call for a mutually agreed on state-wide recount. In politics as war, however, the only thing that mattered was that any manual recount, statewide or otherwise, might not elect Bush, and thus that recount was to be avoided at any cost, whether that cost was precedent, truth, honor, or even our constitution. I am willing to cede the legitimacy of the Bush presidency despite all this, but I can understand why some will not, especially among those who suspect that the worst damage is yet to come.

In the end it is treating politics as war that has created the biggest challenge to the legitimacy of Bush's election. That challenge is real, and while most people are willing to accept the outcome because such acceptance insures the continuation of our democracy, it is up to Bush to nurture that legitimacy by acting like a politician by pandering to his base while compromising with everyone else. If Bush treats his election as if it were a victory in war by insisting on pushing ideological nominees and legislation, support for the legitimacy of his election will shrink. If he seeks common ground and compromise positions, support for the legitimacy of his election will grow. In the end this is a choice between politics and war. If Bush follows the path of politics, all will probably be well. If Bush follows the path of war, I fear the result may very will be exactly that. People who don't feel that a government legitimately represents them may very well go to war, as what is now the United States did in 1776, and our nation did in 1861.

Politics is not war, and when we treat it as such, everyone loses.


Davis Foulger

As Published in CRTNET NEWS # 5693

Both volumes have been distributed via the CRTNET list. It can be expected that both volumes will be made available as a part of the January, 2001 CRTNET archive. Presented here at the request of several readers of the original distribution.