Comment: Taxing Democracy

George W. Bush may well win a tax program that most voters rejected
in the 2000 election. His $1.6 trillion in cuts would favor the richest
1 percent. Public opinion polls confirm that most Americans would rather
see the money go for social investments.

Our system is ignoring what most Americans want, because of multiple
political failures. The most immediate one is the Democrats' failure to
function as a cohesive opposition party. A united Democratic caucus
might effectively oppose the Bush program by offering a smaller tax cut
targeted to working families. Better yet, it might contrast the Bush
tax cuts with popular public outlays. Most Democrats support elements of
both approaches--but display just enough disunity to give Bush something
close to his original plan, with only modest concessions.

The more serious systemic failure, of course, is that Bush is in the
White House at all. As news organizations complete their Florida
recounts, we may well find out that Al Gore in fact won Florida
handily--and, with it, the presidency.

What then? If this were a vibrant democracy, there would be
relentless protests against the premise that Bush has a mandate to do
anything more than be a caretaker. Democrats would confirm only
centrists. Presidential budgets would be dead on arrival, just as Bill
Clinton's were in the Gingrich days. There would be no polite courtesy
meetings and no feeble bipartisanship based on what the people
supposedly expect. In truth, half the people didn't even vote. And the
majority who did vote, for Gore or Nader, are far angrier than most
Democratic politicians are.

Bush's seizure of the presidency reflects a huge mechanical failure.
At the most visible level, our election machinery fails to record votes
accurately. In at least 20 states, the margin of error in ballot
counting was greater than the winning candidate's margin of victory.

But mechanical glitches are just the beginning. There is grievous
discrimination of race and class in the way our system encourages or
deters voting, and an even more basic problem with how we allow voters
to register preferences. Together with the dominance of money, these
flaws add up to a grave indictment of America as a functioning
democracy.

This special double issue of The American Prospect, made
possible by the generosity of the Carnegie Corporation of New York,
considers the condition of democracy in America. Burt Neuborne's
overview addresses cures for the multiple defects in our democratic
process. Lani Guinier, Miles Rapoport, and John Judis examine the
challenge of building a pro-democracy movement, with special emphasis on
the role of minorities and coalition politics. And Adam Shatz, in a
profile of Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, shows how the right has
frustrated efforts to expand the franchise, often in the name of
equality.

At numerous moments in the history of democracy, the people have
literally poured into the streets to prevent elites from reversing the
popular will. This occurred most recently in Belgrade, when loyalists
to Vojislav Kostunica mobilized to keep Slobodan Milosevic from
stealing the Serbian election. In Florida a lot of angry voters were
poised to demonstrate, but Gore's campaign headquarters told them to
turn it off. So the only notable demonstrators were Republicans there
to harass vote counters--and they were congressional aides flown in by
Majority Whip Tom DeLay.

In November a bitter joke had it that Yugoslavia was offering to send
election monitors to Florida. More aptly, the Serbs could teach us
something about pro-democracy demonstrations. The partisan opposition in
Congress will begin to rally, I suspect, only when popular opinion
demands it.

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