I turned on the TV the other evening and was startled to see Al Gore with his face thickly covered by pancake makeup, wearing a jacket and no tie and looking like a character from Cabaret . He was telling his lies and sticking his rusty-edged knife into the Talking Potato, his befuddled opponent from New Jersey.
Mr. Gore has long since left wholesomeness for a political decadence that is better suited to the Berlin of the Weimar Republic than Wired America 2000. Until a few months ago, Mr. Gore had a droning, zombie style of speech, which his coaches evidently told him he had to change. Now, confusing volume for effect, whenever he opens his mouth he shouts. So there he stood on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, bellowing like a bull whose testicles were being squeezed by an unseen dwarf.
He and the Talking Potato were having what was styled as a debate in front of an almost all African-American audience. It was less of a debate than two large, thick-minded men staggering through an auction. One would bid one teacher for every 10 inner-city children and the other would say, I bid one teacher for every five black children, inner city or not, and the audience would clap and howl and carry on, and the first would say that he was upping his bid to one teacher for every five children plus a social worker, two computers in every classroom and mandatory sensitivity classes for non-black children in the suburbs, and the audience would clap and cheer and carry on some more, though I’m not sure if I were a black person I wouldn’t be having a few second thoughts.
It’s good to have the recognition, good to see these white politicians, especially that Tennessee peckerwood bowing and kowtowing, but scenes like the one at the Apollo can begin to look like the crudest vote buying, a corrupt offering to the likes of Charlie Rangel to create thousands of no-show government jobs in no-do programs of spurious uplift. Considering that half the African-American population is now solidly in the middle class, I wonder if ugly scenes such as this one represent a political version of racial profiling. All in all, the cabaret night at the Apollo bore a certain embarrassing similarity to one or two scenes in David Wark Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation .
Divisive and pandering as the Apollo was, it was George W. Bush’s performance in South Carolina which was cause for nausea. Having won his primary election by courting the wool hat and gallus vote, he’s now going from place to place giving his “I’m not a bigot” speech. No, he’s not a bigot, though he uses the bigots when it suits, though he kowtows to the redneck, holy Jesus crowd, though he cautions them not to bring twisted hemp to his rallies because he’s not a bigot. Elsewhere, outside of South Carolina, he’s Honest George W., friend of the black man and the papist, a Big Tent Republican. It’s a message not entirely unwelcome in certain wealthy, liberal sections of Manhattan where anti-Roman Catholic aspersions are permissible.
It may be that the nominating process brings out the worst in everybody, because even those competing in it find it hard to understand and nearly impossible to participate in. The preposterous amounts of money needed aside, nobody can even say with precision how the two major parties select their nominees. Once upon a time the political conventions made the choice, but they wouldn’t exist today were it not for the millions of dollars the government gives the two parties to put them on. The nominating conventions bear the same relationship to selecting the candidates as the Electoral College has in the selection of the President. Both institutions are cultural lags.
We know what the nomination process used to be but isn’t any more; we don’t know what it is now. Call it a work in progress. The rules and procedures of the nominating process are never the same two Presidential elections in a row. Every quadrennium the rules are re-jiggered.
They say that the winner of each party’s primaries is the nominee; however, only 44 states have primaries this year. The other states have caucuses, except for states such as South Carolina and Texas, where one party has a primary and the other party has a caucus. The ballot access rules, the way the elections are conducted, who votes and who can’t, how the votes are counted and what they mean vary from state to state. Some states, like Virginia, let everybody vote and whoever gets the most votes gets all the delegates and is the out-and-out winner-take-all winner. Others have proportional representation; others have yet different ways of declaring the winner.
In recent years this already complicated matter has been made more complex as 26 states have opened up their primaries and caucuses to any registered voter, whether or not he or she is a member of the two major parties. But a vote may or may not count for real. California lets anybody vote, but only votes cast by party members determine national convention delegates. The others are dismissed as “beauty contest” ballots. It is a great hodgepodge.
George W. Bush has been bitching that independent and Democratic voters have stolen his party’s primaries, a complaint which shows how out of step he is with his own times. For the past 50 years, social barriers of every kind have loosened up. Club memberships are down. People are marrying outside of their ethnic backgrounds in numbers that would have astonished an American living in the 1940’s. Sectarianism in religion has swooned. In like manner, the ferocious party loyalties of previous times are entertained only by professional politicians, their fuglemen and social stragglers excepted. This is one reason why moderns find partisan wrestling matches in Congress so irritating when their great-grandparents considered them necessary and praiseworthy.
The culture underlying and supporting our politics has changed. Nowadays people don’t understand why anybody and everybody shouldn’t be entitled to vote in any party’s primary, regardless of party affiliation or the lack of it. It’s democratic, isn’t it? Thus if a McCain, after winning the majority of all the votes but not all the Republican votes, is counted out of the nomination, there will be hell to pay. And it’ll be the regular Republicans like Mr. Bush who will pay it.
Nevertheless, there is the possibility that there is no clear winner of the primaries, or that he who wins the most votes in the primaries won’t win the most delegates to the conventions. This is analogous to a general election in which one candidate garners the most Electoral College votes and the other the most popular votes. It hasn’t happened since Benjamin Harrison was elected 112 years ago. But it could happen, and if it did some people would insist that that archaic institution, the Electoral College, follow the Constitution and annul the popular vote and declare the candidate with the most electoral votes the winner. There will be hell to pay if that happens.
Similarly, some people-this year it would be Republicans-might insist that the ossified, superannuated national convention choose the Presidential nominee. If that happens, it will be an unholy mess. American political conventions are no longer able to function as deliberative bodies. The physical design of where they meet is more like an opera house than a working assembly. The chairs are bolted in place, the aisles are too narrow for circulation, the podiums are 25 feet in the air and the center of the meeting hall, where people would congregate in a working convention, has long since been usurped by gigantic camera platforms. The architecture of the hall reveals what has happened over time-the men and women who were once delegates are now the audience, there to cheer, not to decide.
These conventions couldn’t have a debate if they wanted to. They’re too big. The Republicans have over 2,000 delegates and the Democrats more than 4,000. Meetings of that size are for cheering, not discussing, as you can see from the TV clips of those meetings of the Chinese Communist Party. Several thousand people sitting in theater-type seats looking up at the party bigwigs and clapping, just like our latter-day Democratic and Republican conventions.
So, for better or worse, it’s the primary system for us, with candidates going slightly nuts trying to play a game that has no known rules. The process ought to be regularized because if it isn’t, some time we’re going to blunder into a major crisis.
Heaven only knows the best political minds have come up with schemes for how to do this. All that’s wanting is something which is neat, simple and uniform. “I urge the prompt enactment of legislation which will provide for primary elections throughout the country at which the voters of the several parties may choose their nominees for the Presidency without the intervention of nominating conventions,” quoth Woodrow Wilson, speaking to Congress 87 years ago. Goodness gracious, how time does pass.