FOR A MAJORITY OF AMERICANS--THOSE WHO DID NOT vote for George W. Bush the first time--democracy has failed to deliver on its promise that the candidate with the most votes wins. And those who voted for the president--a minority--did not get what they were promised, either. Their candidate, who ran on a platform of plain-truth government, fiscal conservatism, and a safe foreign policy, turned out to be a reckless, aggressive, big-spending president who delivered the largest federal deficit in history and the most controversial war since Vietnam. Now, four years later, it is already clear that the flawed and fraudulent election of 2000 could well be repeated, and perhaps even etched into our politics, permanently altering the character of history's best experiment in self-government.
The one enduring tenet for which American democracy has been known around the world is the faith we place in fair and free elections. But as with other aspects of our image, fairness has always been somewhat of an illusion. Our history is marked by elections gone awry: Voter fraud in Kansas, certified by slave interests in Congress before the Civil War, inflamed abolitionists and convinced many northerners that the South could not be trusted to uphold American institutions of government. Similar travesties occurred with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in 1960 and Florida Governor Jeb Bush (and then--Secretary of State Katherine Harris) four years ago.
The 2004 election could be stolen, too, as many of the weaknesses in the 2000 balloting process have gone uncorrected and some reforms, such as touch-screen and other computer-based election machines, have been shown to be unreliable and easily manipulated. But the real threat is not that Democrats or Republicans will steal a critical state again, or that another president will be appointed by the Supreme Court; it is the possibility that fear is being replaced in the political process by fear-mongering, employed in the high-tech world of instant communications by the skilled and unscrupulous mind manipulators of today's advertising culture. And the integrity of our political process is evaporating as quickly as the moral principles that once set us apart and made us a model for great nations of the world.
Checks and balances were incorporated into our system by the Founding Fathers to protect the nation from the concentration of power in the hands of a single person, group, or institution (because the Founders had seen the abuse that came from a monarchy). James Madison, perhaps the greatest political theorist among them, envisioned a democracy where critical decisions, such as who occupies the White House and whether to go to war, would be made by educated citizens in a thoughtful debate he called the "public voice." The theory was, ultimately, that a classic, linear reasoning process based on facts--retained from debates and discussions--would yield a consensus. Such a process had produced the great books of world literature, including the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. It also resulted in generally held value definitions and, in America, the political life that gave us the Marshall Plan and the Civil Rights Act, not to mention other policy achievements that elevated our power and status all over the world.
Yet the grim moment when television took over responsibility from schools and parents for creating educated citizens was the day that the economic foundation of democracy--capitalism--became its heart and mind. And, not coincidentally, that may have been the moment when reason and virtue in our political process gave way to dollar signs. Madison and his associates could not have anticipated the public voice ever having to compete with "teaser" headlines--or finding its way to the national agenda only by crawling through sales pitches for impotency cures and low financing rates. Nor, for that matter, could this have been foreseen by Franklin Roosevelt, who as late as World War II could still sit down for a fireside chat and reason with his constituents on the radio. …