Political Perspectives

The Onion led today with the story "Bush or Gore: 'A New Era Dawns'". The article featured such lines as "Bush or Gore continued, 'And as a devoted family man with a wonderful wife and [two or four] wonderful children, I promise to make the White House a place Americans can feel good about.'" It occurred to me today that incredibly enough, the Onion, in printing the absolutely safest possible story, got it completely wrong. The coin really did come down on the edge today.

I went to a lecture given today by Jeanette Winterson at Benaroya Hall. During his introduction of her, the head of the sponsoring organization thanked us, the audience, for tearing ourselves away from the election coverage. He then pointed out the number of votes separating Bush and Gore in Florida was smaller than the number of people in the room. Try visualizing fifteen hundred people. Even set against my limited capacity to visualize two hundred and fifty million people, it's still stunning.

I've previously spouted on the subject of rational voting systems, and the impossibility thereof. There's no deep and philosophical sense in which either a direct-majority or an electoral college system is "better" than the other. They're both ways for collapsing a set of individual votes into a binary decision, but I don't especially think that a margin one way or the other of a smallish fraction of a percent in the popular vote is a philosophically meaninfgul basis for discerning some sort of will of the people, either at the national (popular-vote) or statewide (electoral college) level. A practical basis for actually choosing a government, sure, but one that's meaningful on its own, no, I don't really think so.

That said, I see two arguments against the electoral college, neither of which have I heard people making. First, you can make the same case against it that you can make against the states: we've drawn fairly arbitrary boundaries and tried to make them politically meaningful -- only they're less meaningful than most political boundaries, simply because even gerrymandered districts tend to have some relationship to local political differences. [For example, Washington and Oregon make sense as two states, but the dividing line should be the Cascades, not the Columbia River. That division would actually give us two reasonably coherent polities, instead of the strong urban-vs-rural dynamic that drives state politics.] Second, you can make the same case against the Electoral College that you can make against the Senate: it overemphasizes small states. Especially if you think (as I do) that the states are silly units anyway, there's no good reason to skew the voting power in that particular direction.

It's enormously strange to be watching and waiting. Nobody knows what's going to happen. Watching the coverage last night, it was clear that nobody knew what was going on -- the stations were contradicting each other, the vote totals flashed on the screen were full of obvious internal inconsistencies, some large fraction of what I learned was pure rumor and guesswork. Who knows where all this is going? And yet, also, nobody seems very concerned, which is what boggles me. Where are the every-fifteen minute updates to the news sites? Why was MSNBC the only network that was always running election coverage last night? Why did NPR cut away at 3AM? The candidates are radiating calm, but where is the nervous seething that they're trying to still? I get the sense almost that America is apathetic even about its political crises: the coverage has started to run to the "ha ha, look at the silly foreigners sending premature congratulations" variety.

Put it all this way: I'm calm, but I feel somehow that I shouldn't be.