Divided We Stand

Obedient as always, in quest of good grades, Al Gore delivered the excessively gracious concession speech that pundits told him to deliver: Pledging his absolute support for George Bush, he urged us to set aside partisanship and embrace patriotism; echoing Bush, he urged us to stand united, not divided, and most of all encouraged us to "heal."

Who's wounded? Listening to Gore's speech, replete with a reference to Lincoln and Douglas, you'd think that we had just been through an actual civil war, not a metaphoric one limited to activists, journalists, and political elites. Remember the vanishing voter? People who are too alienated or apathetic to vote are not likely to engage in a civil war over who wins. Of course, many people cared and argued about the election and were deeply troubled by the systematic flaws that the contest in Florida revealed. But most Americans did not find their lives disrupted by it; most were involved in it vicariously or passively, if at all; and according to surveys, even a majority of Gore voters are willing to accept a Bush presidency.

The suggestion that the majority of Americans were going about their business while political operatives plotted is, however, not terribly dramatic or useful to pundits, politicians, and network executives. They prefer drama, or melodrama, because it's good television and an invitation to engage in bombast. So for the sake of God and country, Gore urged us to lay down our arms (he managed to invoke God's name six times in a mere 10 minutes), speaking as if the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee were the battlefield at Gettysburg, if not the Gaza Strip. (It wasn't even Chicago during the Democratic convention in 1968.) When Bush followed with more talk of healing and bipartisanship, the two combatants seemed united, at last, by a common delusion: the belief that the bloodless election contest has embroiled Americans in a bitter family feud and that, like a good parent, the new president should make it clear he loves us all equally; with a laying on of hands, he should soothe and quiet us.

I suppose we should expect to hear the rhetoric of popular therapy and religion during the rituals of concession and ascension; I suppose we should be used to being patronized. Still, the talk about healing and uniting is worrisome because it discredits partisanship. It suggests that consensus matters more than conviction. We're a nation of 276 million people, with diverse values, characters, and moral codes. Why shouldn't we be divided? Partisanship--conflict over fundamental ideals--is not unpatriotic; it's essential to a healthy democracy. There is too much viciousness and not enough civility in political life. Yet with both parties staking out the center, we don't suffer from too much partisanship: We suffer from too little. An excess of bipartisanship is what fueled Ralph Nader's campaign and drained many voters of enthusiasm. The differences between Gore and Bush were not inconsequential, but they were not always apparent, either. An excess of bipartisanship produced the cautious centrism that has corrupted the Democratic Party and made "incremental change" its cri de coeur.

I'm not suggesting there's no place for moderation, but must it be ubiquitous? The issues that divide people often aren't trivial or amenable to compromise. Debates about abortion rights, gun ownership, the death penalty, and freedom of speech, religion, or sexual preference all involve profound questions about liberty, equality, order, accountability, and respect for human life. Cautious centrism can't address questions like these; it can only finesse them. It can't resolve the worst problems that confront us, like health care. In the effort to minimize controversy and conflict, cautious centrism tends to minimize crises.

Consider the gross inequities that pervade the criminal justice system but were resoundingly ignored by candidates--and the media--throughout the campaign. Except for a few platitudes about the wrongs of racial profiling (which is largely attributable to the drug war waged by both parties), virtually nothing was said about the racism that runs throughout the justice system, or the idiocies and abuses of mandatory-minimum sentencing (especially in cases involving nonviolent drug offenders), or the long-term effects of incarcerating two million people. Centrist policies created this monstrous system; radical reforms, beginning with an end to the war on drugs, are needed to dismantle it.

If George Bush wants to heal the nation, let him begin by addressing its injustices. He wants to help children, leaving none of them behind? Let him consider the plight of children whose mothers are serving long prison sentences for minor drug offenses. He wants to show compassion? Let him extend to drug users and juvenile offenders the same treatment he enjoyed when he was a substance abuser, so "young and irresponsible." He wants reconciliation? Let him repent for executing scores of people in Texas, without affording them fair trials or seriously considering substantial claims of innocence or mitigation.

In the meantime, between now and the day of Bush's conversion, I don't want to see the nation united behind him. I want the divides to deepen. Let Democrats appear to cooperate with the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress when they must--while they function as good partisans, in opposition. Stay mad. Get even. ยค