The Permanent Election

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 recount, taking his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where five of the nine justices, all Republican nominees, effectively ended it.

Exhibit Three: California's recall petition. Last fall's gubernatorial election may be undone on Oct. 7, when California voters return to the polls. The recall petition, signed by the requisite number of Californians, under the state constitution, is being used for the first time in California history to possibly unseat Gray Davis and substitute one of more than a hundred contenders.

In the permanent election, constitutional procedures -- impeachment, Supreme Court intervention and state recall -- designed to be used only in rare and extraordinary circumstances are used instead as political tools to reverse elections. In none of these recent instances did the original winner commit such wrongful acts that a large majority of the electorate clearly demanded the use of such emergency measures. Instead, rivals initiated them for unambiguously partisan purposes.

What's wrong with permanent elections? First, their outcomes are potentially undemocratic. A relatively small minority of California voters may determine the state's next governor. Only a minority of American voters in 2000 wanted George W. to be our president. Most Americans didn't want Bill Clinton thrown out of office for lying about sex.

Permanent elections are also, literally, unsettling. A nation requires periods of government stability and continuity during which citizens can count on certain people being held accountable for a time. But under a system of permanent elections, everything is up for grabs, all the time. Nothing is ever final because an election may be overturned at any time.

Finally, permanent elections may distort elected officials' decision making. Officeholders cannot run the risk of taking even temporarily unpopular positions, in the hope they will be considered wise by election time, because an unpopular position might itself trigger an election.

It's too early to tell whether permanent elections will become a permanent aspect of American politics, but the ease with which rivals have been able to summon impeachment resolutions, Supreme Court interventions and recalls suggests they may. The fact that each of these initiatives was largely successful -- the Clinton impeachment weakened Clinton and hurt Gore, the re-engineering of the 2000 election made W. president, the California recall is likely to end Gray Davis' governorship -- adds significantly to their allure and legitimizes their use for next time.

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