Monday, October 30, 2006

The no-brainer election

In this election, there are many references to “competitive races.” The attention of the nation is focused on the handful of seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate that may actually sway the majority from one party to the other. Does anyone ever wonder why, in a country that prides itself as a democracy, that so few races are considered competitive? Why aren’t all of them competitive? The reality is the system is structured to be unrepresentative and, if that were not bad enough, the district boundaries in the House of Representatives are gerrymandered to protect incumbents.

Thus, in a year when the public overwhelming disapproves of the performance of the ruling party in the White House and both branches of congress, there is a fair chance the majority will change in the House of Representatives, slightly less than a 50/50 chance the majority will change in the Senate, and there will be no change in the leadership of the executive branch. We have many rights that are very important but our representative system of government is less of a democracy than many would like to believe – a subject explored before on this blog. Apathy is less a symptom of uninformed voters than an unresponsive system.

Despite all the system’s faults, it is the one we are stuck with and must do what we can with it because too much is at stake – Iraq, Korea, Iran, the national deficit, stem cell research, Social Security, lack of oversight by the legislative branch of the executive branch, the incredible stamp of approval for our government to use torture, etc.

Hendrik Hertzberg has some interesting observations about the upcoming elections in the current New Yorker,

The great bafflement of next week’s midterm congressional elections is that there is even a sliver of a hint of a shadow of a doubt about the outcome. The polls are unequivocal. In a mid-October NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, the public’s “job approval” of the Republican Congress stood at a wan sixteen per cent, as against seventy-five per cent disapproving. Another measurement normally regarded as electorally predictive, the one pollsters call “right track/wrong track,” is nearly as one-sided. In last week’s Newsweek survey, twenty-five per cent of respondents pronounced themselves satisfied with “the way things are going in the United States at this time,” while sixty-seven per cent registered dissatisfaction. The Newsweek poll also found that, by a 55-37 margin, likely voters generically prefer Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives to Republican ones. Those numbers are a near-mirror image of the same survey’s job rating for President Bush: thirty-five per cent approve of his performance, fifty-seven per cent disapprove of it.

In a normal democracy, given the state of public opinion and the record of the incumbent government, it would be taken for granted that come next Tuesday the ruling party would be turned out. But, for reasons that have less to do with the wizardry of Karl Rove than with the structural biases of America’s electoral machinery, Democrats enter every race carrying a bag of sand. The Senate’s fifty-five Republicans represent fewer Americans than do its forty-five Democrats. On the House side, Democratic candidates have won a higher proportion of the average district vote than Republicans in four of the five biennial elections since 1994, but—thanks to a combination of gerrymandering and demo-graphics—Republicans remain in the majority. To win back the House, Democrats need something close to a landslide. Their opponents, to judge from their behavior, seem to think they might get one.

During the past week, the foul mood of the leaders of the Republican Party and its hard-right outriders touched what one must earnestly hope was bottom. In Tennessee, where a talented, relatively conservative young Democrat, Harold Ford, Jr., is campaigning to become the first African-American senator from a Southern or border state since Reconstruction, a television ad is making a nauseating kind of political history. The ad, which appeals to a poisonous stereotype of black sexuality, is destined for a long life as a reference point in discussions of political perfidy. Its only moment of honesty—an involuntary moment, compelled by the McCain-Feingold law of 2002—is provided by a hurried off-camera voice: “The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.” Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh, the radio broadcaster who is the Republican Party’s most prominent unofficial spokesman, unleashed an unusually ugly attack on the integrity of the actor Michael J. Fox, who has been appearing in spots for Democratic candidates who support embryonic-stem-cell research. (In 2004, he did the same for a Republican, Senator Arlen Specter.) Fox has Parkinson’s, and it shows. Here is what Limbaugh said of one such spot: “In this commercial, he is exaggerating the effects of the disease. He is moving all around and shaking. And it’s purely an act. . . . This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn’t take his medication or he’s acting, one of the two.” (In reality, Fox’s body movements are a side effect of his medication, without which he is unable to speak.) And in one of the most important of next Tuesday’s contests—Virginia’s, which pits the incumbent senator, George Allen, against James Webb—Allen is employing a tactic that combines prurience with philistinism.

Allen, as the now-famous “Macaca” incident and its aftermath showed, is a bigot and a bully. Webb is a Democrat-turned-Republican—he was President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy—whom the Iraq war turned back into a Democrat. He is a novelist by profession. At the end of last week, as a new poll showed Allen slipping behind, he put out a press release consisting of annotated snippets from Webb’s novels, which draw on his experiences and observations as a marine in Vietnam. The snippets record callous behavior, bleak sexuality, and rough talk. (To suggest that their author advocates such things is akin to saying that “Ben-Hur” is a brief for crucifixion.) Like the novels from which they are torn, the snippets are about men at war, so it is perhaps not so surprising that they are short on what Allen’s press release primly calls “positive female role models.”

There is much more along these lines, from many places, almost all of it of Republican provenance. But the most depraved pronouncement of the week came from the Vice-President of the United States, Dick Cheney. In an interview with one of three dozen right-wing radio hosts invited to spend a day broadcasting from the White House, Cheney was asked if he didn’t think it was “silly” even to debate about “dunking a terrorist in water.” “I do agree,” he replied. The interviewer pressed: “Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?” Cheney: “It’s a no-brainer for me.”

The “dunk in water” they were talking about is waterboarding. It has been used by the Gestapo, the North Koreans, and the Khmer Rouge. After the Second World War, a Japanese soldier was sentenced to twenty-five years’ hard labor for using it on American prisoners. It is torture, and torture is not a no-brainer. It is a no-souler. The no-brainer is the choice on Election Day.

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