Does This Election Matter?

Is Ralph Nader right? Does it matter whether Al Gore or George W. Bush is the next President of the United States? What is at stake as Americans go to the polls on November 7th? Atlantic Unbound has invited four seasoned political writers -- Christopher Caldwell, E. J. Dionne Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Harold Meyerson -- to join us for an interactive discussion on the 2000 presidential election, hosted by The Atlantic's James Fallows.

New! Go to Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- November 6, 2000

James Fallows
Introduction - November 1, 2000

With a week to go until the election, the political-professional class is ecstatic for the very reason candidates Bush and Gore are no doubt frazzled: this close to the end, no one can be sure how the election will turn out. This is exciting for political professionals, because it calls on all their talents and expertise to try to dope out the results. But what does such a close race tell us about the mood and interests of the country as a whole? There are various hypotheses about what the extremely tight race means.

We should first dispose of one explanation, since it goes beyond hypothetical status to undeniable fact. The election is close in part because of the personal limitations of the two major candidates. The candidates have their strengths. But oh, do they have their weaknesses. That an incumbent Vice President should be fighting so hard for survival, after eight years of reduced budget deficits and broad (though not universal) prosperity, says something about Al Gore's handicaps as a political figure. That a Republican challenger should be in such weak shape, when his party controls both houses of Congress and most state capitals and is running against the only impeachee in modern times, says something about George W. Bush. You can debate which personal limitation matters more -- Gore's strange shifts from one public persona to another; Bush's convincing imitation of a person with no conceptual-reasoning ability at all -- but in the end, the election may be close because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can honestly say that these candidates rank with the best the parties have offered.

A more hopeful hypothesis would be that most people are satisfied enough with the way things are going that they feel no tremendous drive to follow the campaign, to learn about the candidates and issues, or even to make a choice. Conditions obviously aren't perfect, but in bread-and-butter terms they're as good as they've ever been in a presidential election year. The Gore camp hopes that this reality will lead to an automatic "re-elect the incumbents" vote, but it could also lead voters to downplay the importance of government and politics in general.

A modestly darker version of the same hypothesis is that voters do not like everything about the current American condition, but they have no faith that either Bush or Gore could fix what they believe is wrong. Therefore, why get excited about the differences between the two? Someone who thinks that legal abortion is the central moral horror of our time will presumably vote for Bush -- but not with much passion, since the pro-life lobby knows that Republicans won't really fight to overturn Roe v. Wade. Someone who thinks the maldistribution of wealth in the world is the central moral horror will presumably vote for Gore, but with the same fatalism about how much difference it will make.

Then there is the antithesis of the "peace and plenty" hypothesis, which is that the two main parties offer so little real choice on any issue that really matters for the country's future that it's not even worth voting for one or the other, despite the certainty that either Bush or Gore will be the next President. Instead, it is morally more satisfying -- and politically more valuable, in the long run -- to point out a different direction for politics by voting for some other candidate.

Ralph Nader is the one who has made this argument most forcefully during the 2000 campaign, with his memorable line that the only difference between Bush and Gore is how fast their knees hit the floor when a big corporate donor walks in the door. Our panelist Barbara Ehrenreich argued on the New York Times Op-Ed page last week (and before that in The Nation) that progressives would do far better to try to steer future politics with a vote for Nader than to settle for half-a-loaf-at-best with Gore. Pat Buchanan, John Hegelin, and Harry Browne -- each with very different political principles than Nader's -- have urged a similar symbolic vote.

We know certain things from history. Third parties clearly have shaped presidential politics, even though no candidate from a "new" party has won the presidency since Abraham Lincoln, of the recently formed Republicans, in 1860. The course of twentieth-century politics would certainly have been different without the campaigns of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party, Robert LaFollette of the Progressives, Strom Thurmond of the States Rights Party, George Wallace of the American Independents, Ross Perot of the Reform Party, and others. We also know that close elections sometimes have enormous historical consequences -- Kennedy versus Nixon in 1960 -- and sometimes they look like blips or anomalies in retrospect, like Jimmy Carter's victory over Gerald Ford in 1976. Therefore I ask you, our political experts, to tell us how to think about this election.

  • How, if at all, is the 2000 election likely to "matter" in our country's history? I invite you to speak here as analysts and historians rather than advocates. What issues will be resolved by the choice between Bush and Gore? Will this be seen as a place-holder election? Or is something truly significant at stake?

  • In a different sense, does it "matter" whether voters support one of the two men with a realistic chance to become President? Should progressives shrug off the argument that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush"? (That is, are you convinced by Barbara Ehrenreich?) How should conservatives who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 feel in retrospect? They were told, "a vote for Perot is a vote for Clinton," which turned out to be true.

  • Does it "matter" whether people vote at all? Is it reasonable for people who are queasy about both major-party candidates just to sit this one out?

    New! 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

    What do you think? Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte.

    James FallowsJames Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996). His article "An Acquired Taste," about Al Gore's evolution as a political debater, was The Atlantic's cover story in July. During the campaign season Fallows has written the Election 2000 Time Capsule for Atlantic Unbound.

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