When Al Gore gave his victory speech last Tuesday as the voting
wrapped up in the 12 states he won, he proclaimed with a wide, wide
grin, "Now we know why they call it Super Tuesday!"
Super Tuesday, indeed. Before we get all puffed up and over energized
like the Vice President did, we might want to ask what exactly was
"super" about it? The Democratic Party produced its lowest primary
turnout in 40 years -- the one exception being 1996 when Bill Clinton
ran unopposed for his party's nomination. (That was the year he
collected $13 million in taxpayer money to run a primary campaign
against no one.) Last Tuesday, the energized Democrats -- to the extent
there were any -- voted in the crossover Republican primaries for John
McCain. All told, it doesn't sound like a Super Tuesday for your average
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It wasn't much of a Super Tuesday for your average Republican voter,
either. While John McCain's anti-establishment, anti-special interest
crusade produced the highest turnout in a Republican Party primary since
1964, his 5 million-vote insurgency was crushed by the party machine in
13 out of 21 states. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was supplanted
by a ruthless mobilization of core Republican voters, executed largely
by the 29 Republican governors who backed Bush and used the states'
political machinery to get out the vote.
In New York, Governor George Pataki attempted to keep McCain and
other challengers off the ballot altogether. But when public outcry and
an indignant federal court judge threatened to overturn him, Pataki
withdrew. Nonetheless, while McCain carried parts of New York City, Bush
outpolled McCain handily upstate, and 10 percent of Bush voters queried
in exit polls said that the Pataki endorsement made the difference in
their choice. New York was also one of the states where Republican
turnout was down from previous years. No wonder there are whispers about
putting Pataki on the Bush ticket -- he knows how to mobilize loyalists
from a shrinking electorate.
If anything, Super Tuesday was more stupid than super, replete with
stupid victory speeches and stupid commentary by the media.
"It looks like it's going to be Gore vs. Bush in November," excitedly
concluded numerous journalistic commentators as I surfed the news-talk
channels. Now that's a daring conclusion! You had two closely managed
scions of the political elite class running with the total and hugely
funded support of their respective party machines -- one of which
reached all the way to the White House and the other into 29 statehouses
-- and the fact that they locked up their party's nominations before
half the country voted is considered news!
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And what of John McCain? He, in effect, provided a cover for the
media and power moguls to create the illusion that there was a
hard-fought battle for the nomination. He and the pro-reform
independents made it possible to say there was a contest, that the
candidates engaged one another fiercely, that the voters had to choose.
And they did! Whom did they choose? They chose the candidates of the
status quo. Oh well, I guess we're now supposed to think everyone is
happy with the status quo and that, in the final analysis, our democracy
This illusion of consensus is one of the remaining myths of American
democracy. Many pernicious political myths have been exploded in recent
years, like the notion that we feel we can place our trust in
government. Or that politicians stand for something other than getting
reelected. Harvard University's Shorenstein Center conducted a poll just
before "Stupid Tuesday" which showed that 87 percent of respondents
believe, "Most politicians are pretty much willing to say whatever it
takes in order to get themselves elected." Of course, Harvard has to
conduct a poll to figure this out. Most Americans could tell you that is
how most Americans feel without conducting a poll.
Still, the myth that the county has the mechanisms and the commitment
to build popular consensus for leadership and policy persists. It
persists in spite of the fact that well over half the country doesn't
vote in national elections and that the major party nominees are chosen
in a truncated primary process where a fraction of the electorate votes
and money and the power of the incumbent machines, not average
Americans, determine the winners.
When people feel that the status quo has become unassailable, it
makes for large-scale disenchantment and non-participation. That's why,
from the Bush/Gore point of view, last Tuesday was so darn super. But
for the average American, it was just plain stupid.