Note to readers: This week’s post on our ‘Discord and Dissension’ project ended up being too long for a single post, and so it will be presented in two parts. The first part was presented earlier this morning, which you can read here. The following post is the second part.
Bush v. Gore
The 2000 election was extremely close. In the end, it came down to the state of Florida. George W. Bush had a lead of only 500 votes over Al Gore, and a recount ensued. It was during this period where the partisan divide between the two parties was on full display. One of the closest and most contentious elections was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court when they settled in a 5-4 decision to halt the recount—a split decision which also reflected the conservative versus liberal ideological makeup of the court.
The fact that Al Gore ultimately won the overall popular vote by nearly 540,000 votes didn’t matter. For the first time in over 100 years, a presidential candidate won the election by the archaic Electoral College, not the popular vote. The same situation would repeat itself just 16 years later.
Once again, the Supreme Court spoke, and the cracks in our fragile democracy continued to widen.
September 11 and the Iraq War
Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history on September 11, 2001. The horrific actions by 19 hijackers on that day briefly brought the country together in a sea of patriotism. Even both houses of Congress got together in a bipartisan show of nationalistic pride by gathering at the U.S. Capitol to sing “God bless America.”
Unfortunately, the show of unity was short-lived. Soon we were on a march to war, first in Afghanistan, then on to Iraq in 2003. There also was the controversial Patriot Act, passed shortly after the terrorist attacks, which eroded many civil liberties, and expanded the power of the federal government.
While the Afghanistan operation enjoyed the broad support of the American people, Bush’s preemptive war in Iraq was looked at skeptically by many. Protests were frequent on the streets of America in the lead up to the war. And the partisanship widened deeper and deeper in Washington, D.C. Those who were opposed to the war were called unpatriotic citizens who sided with the enemy.
When the war turned ugly in mid-2003, with several Americans dying nearly every day, the mood towards the war began to change, and Bush’s once sky-high approval ratings began to tumble. He was, however, able to win reelection in 2004, beating Senator John Kerry in a close battle that also saw it’s share of patriotism vs. non-patriotism vitriol. Democrats were labeled ‘weak’ on national security; Republicans the exact opposite.
The election of the nation’s first African-American, Barack Obama, to the presidency in 2008, was a proud moment in our country’s history. In many ways, it showed progress in America. Perhaps the long and painful days of racism were slowly coming to an end. Once again, though, that premise was pre-mature.
On the very day of Obama’s inauguration, a group of current and former Republican politicians met at a D.C. restaurant to determine a plan of action for the Obama presidency. They concluded that opposing everything the popular new president proposed was the best way forward. Denying him a positive and lasting legacy was paramount.
Obama’s presidency descended increasingly into partisanship and bickering. While he was able to achieve much during his time in office, it’s clear the very idea of a black president scared the upper hierarchy of white politicians and business leaders. A successful black president and a new coalition of younger voters, many of color, was a threat to the Republican Party.
Soon, an aggressive attempt to win back a majority of statehouses began. The plan worked to perfection, and an equally aggressive plan to gerrymander worked as well. That combination allowed the Republican Party to control both houses of Congress throughout much of the 2010’s decade, despite losing the total number of votes to Democrats.
Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC
The Citizens and McCutcheon decisions by the Supreme Court in 2010 and 2014, respectively, put an exclamation point on an already rigged political system. Citizens helped unleash unprecedented amounts of outside spending in the last several election cycles, as well as a boom in political activity by tax-exempt “dark money” organizations that do not have to disclose their donors. McCutcheon removed aggregate limits for individual donors giving to candidates, political parties, and PACs.
In other words, yes, the floodgates are open, folks. What other decisions lurk on the horizon? It’s hard to say. But with the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it’s going to be very difficult to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.
In sum, we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s not just money in politics, illegal gerrymandering, or an uninformed public. An outdated electoral college also looms large. It’s all of those things plus a social media explosion where sometimes you can’t tell what fact is and what is misinformation.
The current president relied on all of those things to squeak out an electoral victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. This year, you can rest assured that he will do anything and everything to retain his power—and if Russia or some other country help him do it? So be it.
As my friend Jill stated in her introduction to our project last Friday, if we lose the election in 2020, we may well be responsible for ending life on this planet. If that’s not enough to become active and engaged, I don’t know what is.
Next Friday, Jill will suggest some things we can do to change our fragile political system positively. How can we become a more engaged and informed democracy? How can we motivate people to vote? 60% of participation is unacceptable. We can and must do better.
I’ve identified the discord and dissension from a historical perspective. Now, where do we go from here? Stay tuned …
Note: You may also read Jill’s excellent intro to our project from last Friday, here.