The Permanent Election

Article excerpt

One of the things that distinguishes advanced democracies from banana republics is that winners and losers accept the results of elections. Losing candidates and parties don't initiate coups. Winners don't kill off the losers and their supporters. The winning party has an opportunity to govern. Both sides go back to their respective corners--winners take office, losers take other jobs--and wait until the next election to do battle again.

In recent years, however, U.S. politics has shifted somewhat away from this model toward more or less continuous battles. The first stage, which began several decades ago, was the "permanent campaign." Here, newly elected officials would almost immediately begin rounds of fund raising and media strategies designed to discourage potential rivals from entering the fray years hence. Potential rivals, for their parts, would begin almost at once to raise money and organize for the next election.

We are now, it seems, witnessing the next stage in our shift toward a banana republic form of government. Permanent campaigns are morphing into permanent elections. In the permanent election, rivals seek to reverse the decision of the majority of voters and unseat the victor as soon as they can. Unlike the permanent campaign, in which incumbents and rivals only act as if the next election were imminent, in the permanent election, the next election is in fact always imminent--or at least an imminent possibility.

Exhibit One: Impeachment. Bill Clinton's Republican opponents sought to reverse the election of 1992 almost as soon as Clinton came to Washington. Their carefully contrived plot, surveyed in Sidney Blumenthal's recent best-selling book, The Clinton Wars, culminated in an impeachment in the House, though not a conviction in the Senate, coupled with enormous pressure on the president to resign from office. To be sure, Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky helped advance the Republicans' cause, but there can be no doubt that they sought his ouster from the start. And although the strategy failed to unseat Clinton, it created a climate that helped defeat Al Gore in 2000.

Exhibit Two: Election re-engineering. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush set out to overturn the will of a majority of American voters by rigging the voting system. It's by now well established that Florida officials purged from voter rolls thousands of people in the state who were guilty of nothing more than being black and likely to vote for Gore. Bush subsequently fought against a manual re count, taking his case all the way to the U. …