Short Cuts America: il blog di Arnaldo Testi

Politica e storia degli Stati Uniti

The Tribulations of an Old Democracy

While concerns about the integrity of the electoral process in the coming election, particularly in key battleground states such as Ohio and Colorado, are widespread, I post here an article I wrote after the (fateful) presidential contest of 2000. It was published in the September 2001 issue of the  Journal of American History (a very fateful month), with this cartoon from the Italian newspaper, il manifesto.

The Tribulations of an Old Democracy

I think, after all, the sublimest part of political history, and its culmination, is currently issuing from the American people. I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.

Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871

Perhaps that was not so for the 2000 presidential election, to non-American as well as American eyes. Or was it? After all, delays and disputes in counting votes, inaccuracies, partisan maneuverings, and even, God forbid!, irregularities and downright frauds are far from unknown to the history of electoral democracies anywhere they exist. So, what’s the fuss? Certainly there was the abrupt 5-4 decision of the federal Supreme Court that ended the long postelection agonizing “in the worst possible way” (here I agree with the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin). There was the public realization that the presidency of the United States might be secured, and indeed was eventually secured, by the candidate who ran second in the popular vote; that outcome is intrinsic to the system and has occurred in the past (albeit a distant past), but it came as something of a shock to contemporary American citizens and international observers. There was, finally, the extraordinary media coverage of the event that reached anybody who cared to watch at home and, through the United States-dominated international media conglomerates, abroad; many abroad watched and passed judgment, arriving at two antithetical conclusions.

Some thought they were witnessing the collapse of the hypocritical Yankees’ way of conducting their so-called democratic affairs, a collapse that disqualified Americans from lecturing the universe on their superior polity, on their being the perfect “city on the hill” shedding light on an imperfect world. (Leftist Italian political cartoonists reveled in the ironies; Vauro’s cartoon for the November 10 Il Manifesto, Rome, shows tough-looking Serb “observers” arriving, in Washington to “monitor” unruly local elections.) Others, on the contrary, hailed the umpteenth triumph of American democracy, a system able to deal with its fiascoes openly, for all to see. Both reactions were neither particularly surprising nor particularly illuminating. The United States is, to an extent that Walt Whitman could only dream of more than a century ago, the self-appointed beacon of democracy and freedom and the arrogant center of an empire, the “indispensable nation,” the last and only superpower – and therefore, inevitably, an object of passionate, often slavish, admiration or passionate, often blind, contempt.

There is another side of the story that intrigued me as a non-American professor of United States history and that, I came to realize, equally intrigued Italian colleagues, students, and interested citizens who called on me to “explain” what was going on “down there.” Most Italians and, I would say, most Europeans usually associate American life with speed, technology, and machine-driven innovation; furthermore, they associate America with everything that is new, modern, and forward- looking. But the electoral and political crisis of November-December 2000 exposed a system whose inner workings are slow, low-tech, and hand-driven, and some Americans were not even apologetic about it. One of the most startling passages from the November 21 decision by the Florida Supreme Court on the counting and recounting of ballots reminded readers that “our society has not yet gone so far as to place blind faith in machines. In almost all endeavors, including elections, humans routinely correct the errors of machines.”

Above all, the crisis exposed a system that, far from being new and modern, is packed with old-fashioned political features, procedures, and institutions. One of the most frequent comments by the European and American media was that the problems were the result of antiquated institutional and voting mechanics that would shame any nation, let alone one of the world’s oldest democracies. This statement does not strike me as ironic or paradoxical. The nation has antiquated mechanics precisely because it is one of the oldest democracies in the Western world. It has political features, institutions, and procedures that go back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has the oldest written Constitution. By now, the United States of America is an old country. Perhaps the procedures, institutions, and features we call “old-fashioned” are not passé, having no present purposes or functions; they are there, part of the system, for historical reasons and need to be taken into account in any serious analysis; they are bridges that connect the American present to the American past, sometimes in contradictory and uneasy ways. The persistence of the old regime is part and parcel of any new regime. Continua a leggere qui.

Categories: Electoral process, Elezioni

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  1. “We have to fix that”: aggiustare la macchina elettorale? | Short Cuts America: politica e storia

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