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The 2000 presidential election is already one for the history books
for a variety of reasons, though at this column’s deadline its
presidential result remains undecided. No matter who squeaks out a
narrow White House victory, this exercise in representative and direct
democracy already yields some important lessons.

No clear majority view exists about what Americans want the federal
government to do. Al Gore and George W. Bush clearly presented two
different pictures, one driven by an aggressive, controlling federal
government and the other emphasizing smaller government and more
individual empowerment. Gore said that since your money is going to be
spent anyway, the federal government knows better than you how to spend
it. Bush said you should make more of those spending decisions because
the federal government will not be so big if it has less money to spend,
you can often make better decisions about how to spend your money, and
it’s your money anyway. On taxes, Social Security, school vouchers, and
a range of other issues, Gore stood for more government control and Bush
stood for more people control.

How could the country be almost exactly split between these two very
different visions? The first popular vote count concluded that 48.5
million people voted for Gore, and 48.3 million people voted for Bush.
Even the electoral college, which is designed to magnify or solidify a
“winner” in our presidential system, will (when the Florida recount
concludes) be almost evenly split as well. This means the popular vote
in many individual states was also very close.

It’s not because the people don’t have opinions about political or
policy issues or are not willing to express those opinions at the
polls. Examining the ballot measures on more than 40 states shows, for
example, that citizens in different states sometimes made very different
decisions on similar issues. While Alaska voters rejected legalizing
marijuana by 61 to 39 percent, Colorado voters legalized marijuana for
so-called “medical purposes” by 52 to 48 percent. Arkansans rejected a
state lottery 65 to 35 percent, while those Colorado folks allowed the
state to join the multi-state lottery by 51 to 49 percent. Alaskans
rejected a cap on rising property tax assessments 71 to 29 percent,
while Alabama voters passed one 66 to 34 percent. Arizonans rejected 63
to 37 percent a pay raise for state officials, Californians voted 64 to
34 percent not to provide retirement benefits to state legislators, and
Connecticut voters abolished county sheriffs altogether by a 64 to 36
percent margin.

This review shows that people were engaged on many issues and made
clear, often lop-sided, choices on controversial topics after sometimes
extended heated debate. Alabamans added an equal-protection clause to
the state constitution by 59 to 41 percent tally and Colorado voters
rejected by 55 to 45 percent a measure to ensure that women seeking
abortions have accurate information.

Voters in some states even took bold steps that might invite the
perennial lawsuits that disgruntled losers from the political arena file
to still get their way. Colorado voters required background checks for
gun purchases at gun shows by 70 to 30 percent, and Arizona voters
passed a measure requiring that all public school instruction be
conducted in English. Federal courts overturned a previous Arizona
ballot measure requiring that other government business be conducted in
English. Voters in California and Michigan avoided certain litigation
by soundly defeating school voucher proposals. Other voucher programs
continue to languish in state and federal courts.

Arizona voters made their state constitution politically correct.
Crazy people still can’t vote, but the charter will refer to them as
“incapacitated” rather than “insane.” Arizona will provide an education
for the handicapped, but will call them “pupils who are hearing and
vision impaired” rather than the “deaf, dumb, and blind.” (Hmm, this
seems to leave those who can see and hear but not speak out of luck –
PC perhaps, but not very progressive.) In defining the military, “all
able-bodied males” become “capable citizens.” An “alms-house” becomes a
“shelter” and an “asylum” is now an “institution.” The word “person”
replaces the more oppressive “he.”

So the spinmeisters already suggesting that people don’t know the
difference between a Social Security reform proposal and an earth-tone
suit, or who easily get distracted from a discussion about education by
a sigh and rolled eye, are wrong. The problem is that people are
genuinely uncomfortable with the idea that the federal government should
be doing all this stuff that involves and impacts so much of their
lives.

Most citizens — at least the ones informed or interested enough to
vote — can recognize local or state government; they may even see a
city councilman in the grocery store. They know how to have a
discussion, even if it is at Dunkin’ Donuts, about porn on the local
library’s computers or whether their property tax assessments are too
high. They can reasonably connect issues or policy ideas that would
affect them, their family, or their community with government that is in
or fairly near their community. But when the feds want to do all these
things, when budget numbers begin with “b” or “tr” rather than “m” or
“th,” when decisions affecting the in-laws’ nursing home stay in
Pensacola are being made by people in, for heaven’s sake, California –
that’s when folks feel disconnected and unable to make real, concrete
choices. And the further away it all is, the bigger the bureaucracies
and wilder the claims, the less people feel it’s all going to turn out
as promised anyway.

The bottom line is that America’s founders were right to limit the
federal government to things that were truly national and to leave the
local, immediate things to local, immediate government. The American
people are willing to govern themselves, but want to do it in a way that
is concrete and reasonable, not vague and amorphous. In this election,
the people were not able to make a choice between Gore and Bush because
the office to which they aspire, and the federal government of which it
is a part, has become far too big, too complicated, and too far removed
for people to believe such a choice really means something for them.

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