Roundtable
Does This Election Matter?
Christopher Caldwell
Round One - November 1, 2000

Jim draws a good distinction in saying that elections hinge on perceptions of well-being. This is not the peace-and-prosperity election we expected ten months ago. The Dow has lost a tenth of its value this year, and NASDAQ a third. Energy costs are climbing. Terrorism's back. Israel risks winding up in a regional war without allies. But votes are lagging indicators: just as the elder Bush was punished for a recession that was over by the time of the 1992 election, Americans will vote on peace and prosperity even as clouds gather.

This election matters less than any in our lifetime. Compare it to 1980, when we had to choose between stimulating the economy at the risk of hyperinflation and cooling it down at the risk of high unemployment, and between escalating the Cold War and folding our hand. This year there are no important issues separating the candidates -- none. (The single substantive difference -- Gore likes humanitarian interventions, while Bush does not -- is minor.) Democrats turned into fiscal Republicans in 1992, and Republicans turned into New Democrats this year. Both candidates favor slightly larger government, even if Bush is less forthright in saying so. Bush has made plain for eighteen months that he will seek no major changes in abortion law, and signaled in Debate #3 that he won't scrap affirmative action.

The one big seeming difference -- on how to use the surplus to rescue Social Security -- is a phony one, because both candidates' plans are prima facie unworkable. Bush wants to give a trillion dollars of the surplus back to taxpayers. Gore wants to blow the same amount on new entitlements. Touching the surplus for either purpose means gargantuan tax hikes once Baby Boomers start retiring en masse a decade-and-a-half from now -- because if we want to continue funding Social Security at current levels, there is no surplus. Neither party admits this -- Republicans because they think we're overtaxed, Democrats because they like presenting our balanced budget as a policy triumph, rather than an artifact of cheap oil and a demographic bulge in the highest-earning age bracket.

Which brings us to Nader. Gore's people are right to see him merely as a Democrat in a hurry. The American road to socialism leads not through redistribution but through regulation -- of which Nader is the country's tribune. The current Democratic strategy is to move toward the same agenda they sought in the 1970s and 1980s -- national health, nationalized education, a heavily unionized workplace, rule by the judiciary -- but by imperceptible, steering-an-aircraft-carrier increments. It'll take decades. Nader can't wait.

Philosophically I'm with Barbara 100 percent. One party masquerading as two is bad for democracy, and only credible threats of defection from the wings can keep the parties from merging. It's because the stakes are so low and differences so minor that Nader's campaign exists in the first place -- and that's the Democrats' fault, not his. Mid-1990s Republicans used to argue for Clinton's "illegitimacy" by saying, "Well, if you add Bush's and Perot's votes together..." Sorry -- if Perot voters had wanted their votes lumped with Bush's they would have voted for Bush. They understood that they risked electing Clinton, but thought the differences between the parties were so minor that the risks were small. (They were right.) Thinking someone owes you his vote just because you pay a wee bit more lip service to his ideals is emblematic of the arrogance that lost Bush the 1992 election. If Democrats dismiss the Nader movement as merely a temporary insanity that has beset a few egotistical members of their own party, they risk a 1992-style comeuppance.

Voting is important, but sitting out an election is no crime. One big problem with mass abstention today is that it favors collectivists over individualists, and thus left over right. Investment bankers who don't want to vote stay home. Housing-project residents, union members, and government employees who don't want to vote get the day off, fifty bucks, and a party invitation to board a bus to the polling station. Pace the (hoary) conventional wisdom, low turnout may be one reason the United States is less like Britain (which generally gets governments to the right of what its people want) than France (which generally gets governments to the left of what its people want). Still, Self-Rule (1995), by the historian Robert H. Wiebe, convinces me that mob voting has been part of the machinery of American democracy for so long that we tinker with it at our peril.

Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- November 6, 2000
Christopher Caldwell | E. J. Dionne Jr. | Barbara Ehrenreich | Harold Meyerson

Round Two -- November 3, 2000
Christopher Caldwell | E. J. Dionne Jr. | Barbara Ehrenreich | Harold Meyerson

Round One -- November 1, 2000
Christopher Caldwell | E. J. Dionne Jr. | Barbara Ehrenreich | Harold Meyerson

Return to Introduction


What do you think? Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Christopher CaldwellChristopher Caldwell is the senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.