December 4, 2000 -- Revised April 9, 2001
By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // firstname.lastname@example.org
The early advocates of universal literacy and a free
press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or
it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above
all in our Western capitalist democracies -- the development of a vast
mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the
true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally
irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost
infinite appetite for distractions....
Non-stop distractions ... are now threatening to drown in a sea of
irrelevance the [information and rational argument] essential to the
maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic
Brave New World Revisited.
Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want
and deserve to get it good and hard.
H. L. Mencken
You can fool some of the people all of the time,
And you can fool all of the people some of the time.
And that is all that is required to win a Presidential Election.
The Gadfly (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln).
Al Gore's loss of the Presidential election is the result several factors
that turned against him. Had any one of them been favorable, he would now be
our President. We will focus on the following: (a) the strategy and
management of the Gore campaign; (b) the strategy and management of the Bush
campaign; (c) the Nader candidacy; and (d) the media coverage and
"interpretation" of the campaign and the candidates. To all this, add the
post-election "decision by indecision" by Bush's legal team, and his
political allies in Florida, which successfully stalled and eventually
cancelled a count of all the ballots.
Common to all these factors is "Post-Modernism:" i.e., the conviction
that (a) all "truths" are subjective and relative (i.e., that there are no
objective facts), and thus that (b) given the requisite public relations
skill and resources, that the public is capable of being sold anything;
accordingly (c) that relevant public issues and the candidates'
qualifications can be effectively banished from a political campaign. If the
success in this election of the "post-modernist" approach to politics
encourages more of the same in the future (and why should we now believe
otherwise?), then there are dark days ahead. The once-magnificent American
political experiment in popular government may be past its peak, and on its
downward slide toward oblivion. As philosophers of history, from Plato
through Hegel, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee, have all pointed out: Every
civilization that achieves a golden age, engenders its own decadence and
Is this to be our fate? Perhaps. But we do not intend to give up without
a fight. And the first step toward renewal must be a reflective diagnosis of
the health of our body politic.
Case in point: The 2000 Presidential election.
The Decision by Indecision: First of all, let's state the plain truth at
the outset: Al Gore won this election -- not only with the national popular
vote, but also with the Electoral vote, including Florida. "Won" in the
sense that he received, in all probability, a plurality of votes cast in the
Florida in the November 6th election, and therefore a majority of Electoral
College votes. Moreover, a significant majority of Florida voters who went
to the polls on election day clearly intended to vote for Gore, albeit
several thousand were fooled by the Palm Beach "butterfly ballot," and even
more Gore supporters in the Black and Hispanic precincts were turned away at
the polls due to putative "registration irregularities." (See the Washington
Post, 12/3/00, "Florida Ballot Spoilage Likelier for Blacks"). And in two
Florida counties, GOP officials "arranged" (sans request or invitation) to
have Republic absentee votes added to the tally, while they denied access to
Democratic voters. But apart from all these irregularities, sufficient
documentation of Gore's Florida victory probably sits under armed guard in
vaults in a Tallahassee court house. Because Bush's lawyers, in cahoots with
brother Jeb, good friend Secretary of State Harris, and finally the Supreme
Court of the United States, succeeded in preventing a timely counting of
those ballots, Dubya will be our next President.
Richard Gephardt warns that after the election, the Florida "sunshine
law" will permit academic investigators to get at those uncounted ballots,
whereupon the truth will out. In reply, Christopher Hitchens, John Fund,
Peggy Noonan and other such cable chatterers claim that there is no "truth"
there to "out." Only "interpretation." "Judicial Watch," or other such
conservative busy-bodies, we are told, will look at the same ballots and
vindicate Bush. "Post Modernism" plain and simple: To which we reply: if
there are no electoral "truths," and only "interpretations," then why have
elections at all? Down that road lies the end of all we hold politically
The Gore Campaign inexcusably neglected the "prime directive"
of any contest (military, sporting or political): "know the mind of your
opponent." In addition, they disregarded Santayana's warning: "those who
fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it." And repeat it they
did, despite the fact that the campaign of Bush II was a virtual re-run of
Bush I, circa 1988.
Poppy Bush's campaign managers, you may recall, burst out of the starting
gate with an all-out effort to define their opponent, Michael Dukakis as
"your typical bleeding-heart Massachusetts liberal." (As most students of
public opinion will tell you, American voters tend to endorse the specifics
of the "liberal agenda," while they steadfastly shun the label of "liberal."
See our "Newspeak Lives!").
Then there were those trips to the flag factories, and the empty
focus-group-tested phrases. Remember? "Stay the course!" "A thousand points
of light." Repetition, ad nauseum of those TV spots: "Willy Horton" and
"Boston Harbor." Up with images and slogans, and down with issues. Worst of
all, as Dukakis manager Susan Estrich later admitted, Bush's smears were
unanswered, and the Democrats learned too late that a charge unanswered is a
Then, in the 2000 campaign, the Democrats forgot all that: "Fool me once,
shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!" "The Shrub's" handlers simply
dusted off Poppy's play book as if the Gore Team had learned nothing from
their past mistakes. And it turns out that the GOP was correct in this
assumption. As Gore proved in his convention acceptance speech, and numerous
polls confirmed, the public clearly preferred the Democratic position on the
public issues. So public attention had to be drawn away from the issues.
Throughout the campaign, Gore was seen as more qualified to serve as
President, but of inferior character and trustworthiness as his opponent.
Gore, we were told repeatedly, "will do or say anything in order to win."
Post-election events have vividly displayed just which of these
candidates will, in fact. "do or say anything in order to win."
By all reliable accounts, Albert Gore is an honorable and trustworthy,
even admirable, individual. The "trustworthiness issue" is thus a complete,
and sadly a totally successful, concoction by his political opponents,
promulgated without correction by the media.
Thus Gore and his team made two essential errors that they might have
avoided had they bothered to study the Dukakis Debacle: they allowed the
opposition to define their candidate, and they permitted a devastating
slander to go unanswered.
The slander, of course, was that Gore was a pathological liar, who would
"do anything to get elected." As we have pointed out earlier at this site,
every specification of that charge was itself a lie -- namely, that Gore
claimed to have invented the internet, to have discovered the Love Canal
toxic site, falsely claimed to be the model of "Love Story," and so on. This
smear was amplified without correction by a willing media, and without
rebuttal by Gore or his handlers. Eventually, the pollsters tell us, this
totally concocted "character flaw" was cited by the public as Gore's primary
disqualification for office. And by thus "poisoning the well" early in the
campaign, every subsequent pronouncement by Gore was automatically
discounted by the media and thence the public. It was a masterful feat of
manipulation by the Bush managers. (For elaboration and documentation, see
our pre-election reflections, "The Hijacked
In the meantime, Bush's numerous falsehoods and displays of ignorance in
the debates and the campaign flowed harmlessly past the public
consciousness, scarcely without comment or criticism in the media.
The Bush Campaign, in contrast to Gore's, was both masterful
and ruthless. With a candidate of manifestly modest talent and devoid of
intellectual curiosity, and with an agenda at odds with a majority of the
voters, the GOP strategists took on three primary tasks: (a) draw the
attention of the electorate away from the issues, (b) focus on the personal
"charm" of their candidate, and (c) demonize the opposition.
About the issues: According to numerous polls, a majority of American
demand campaign finance reform
support a woman's right to choose.
support handgun control laws
prefer a retirement of the national debt (2/3 incurred under
Reagan-Bush) to tax relief to the wealthy
insist upon HMO reform (a "patient's bill of rights").
support vigorous protection of the environment, and urgent attention
to global warming.
express suspicion with attempts to tinker with the Social Security system.
On all these issues and more, the public was in clear and overwhelming
agreement with Al Gore. Moreover, Bush's hostility to these public positions
was vividly displayed in his record as Governor of Texas. In addition, most
voters agreed that Gore had the greater experience and competence.
With no chance whatever of winning on the issues or on the competence
factor, the GOP and its wholly-owned subsidiary, the media conglomerates,
pronounced them irrelevant. And the public largely accepted this dismissal,
as the media focused attention on Gore's stage presence, tone of voice, and
alleged "untrustworthiness" (as we have noted above and elsewhere, this was
a concoction and a smear), while it gave Bush a license to spew out
misinformation without correction, and to mangle the mother tongue without
comment. Stage magicians call this device, "misdirection."
In his book, The Bush Dislexicon, Mark Crispin Miller quoted a sample
of this "misdirection:"
On CNN... after the third encounter on October 17, Bob Novak got the
ball rolling by suggesting that "there might have been a defeat for Gore
on the likeability factor' ... From there, Jeff Greenfield took the ball
and ran a long with with it, wondering whether 'Gore's clear decision to
be aggressive, to try to define very sharp differences' might make him see
'assertive and tough minded' or 'rude and smug' -- although 'we're going
to have to wait forty-eight hours or so to find out.' '' The 'analysts' at
CNN said not one word about the substance of the candidates' exchange."
Facts, evidence, competence, enlightened self-interest -- all trumped by
"bad vibes." Substantive ideas and coherent arguments set aside in favor of
empty, focus-group-tested slogans ("compassionate conservatism,": "reformer
with results," "a uniter, not a divider"). And finally, Bush was presented
to us as a "more agreeable" person. The President of the United States as
Welcome to the Post-Modern era! -- where gut supplants brain,
imagery trumps thought, and appeals to logic and evidence are dismissed as
"elitist" or still worse, borr-ing.
The misdirection strategy was most brilliantly employed in the
Presidential debates. Therein, Gore was clearly the master of the substance,
the argument structure, and the language. He addressed (albeit in too much
detail and elaboration) issues of acute and relevant concern to the public.
Bush, in contrast, sputtered and strung together incoherent fragments of his
stump speech, struggled to fill out his allotted two minutes, all the while
reminding us that in fifty-four years he had somehow failed to take full
control of the English Language. Immediate, "unspun," public reaction
confirmed this impression. Then the pundit and spin-doctor circus was
brought in as we were all told what we "really" saw in the debates, and what
we should "really" think of them. Gore's totally accurate account of a
crowded schoolroom and his innocent error about a visit to a Texas flood was
amplified into "proof" of his hopeless prevarication. "Focus groups" of
allegedly "ordinary citizens" hand-picked by such "moderators," as GOP
operative Frank Luntz, harped on Gore's sighs and posture, and on Bush's "likability,"
as all substantial issues were effectively shut out of serious reflection
No doubt, if Napoleon had Bush's spin team on hand at Waterloo, they
would have convinced Wellington that he had lost the battle.
And so, persuaded that Bush was more "likable," more "honest," and shared
their (unspecified) values, a minority of US voters, with the help of Bush's
kid brother and an accommodating Florida GOP establishment bolstered by a
small army of lawyers topped off by an ad hoc decision by five accommodating
Supreme Court justices, all handed the Presidency of the United States to
George W. Bush, with the unlikely hope that he might succeed in that office,
after failing as a businessman and governor.
There has not been a more egregious case of political over-achievement
since Caligula appointed his horse the Proconsul of Rome.
Ralph Nader was correct in almost all his specifications
against the corporate oligopoly that governs this once-magnificent republic.
He was profoundly wrong in his insistence that there was no significant
difference between Gore and Bush. (To note just one significant contrast:
Bush does not acknowledge a "global warming" problem. Gore wrote a book
about it). Nader's Leninist suggestion that a Bush victory would, by making
things worse, hasten radical reform was, quite frankly, contemptible. Be
that as it may, Nader gave us that Bush victory by drawing off, in his
seventy thousand Florida votes, a comfortable margin of victory for Gore.
Nader is an idealist, with ideals that we largely share. But he has proven
himself to be bereft of an operative awareness of the political landscape
which his "movement" inhabits, or of a concern for the practical and
political consequences of his quixotic ambitions. We intend to look
elsewhere for a leader in the coming struggle.
The Media -- Trivial Pursuits and the Triumph of Info-tainment.
According to the media, the great issues of this campaign were kisses
(planted on Tipper Gore and Oprah), rodents (the "subliminable" word "Rats"
in the GOP TV ad), dog medicine, lullabies, and sighs -- most of these, by
now, mercifully forgotten. There were other issues in the contest, less
conspicuous in the media:
should we allow the courts and the Congress to continue to cede the
rights and security of the citizens to the corporations?
should we consent to the "privatization" of public lands, the public
schools, and even the Social Security system?
will we absent ourselves from international attempts to save the
common oceans and to prevent catastrophic alterations of the common global
shall we allow the government to claim control over a woman’s body?
Or else, to the contrary:
shall we, the citizens, take back our government from those who have
purchased it through campaign "contributions"?
will the budget surplus be used to improve public education and
health, and to reduce the national debt (6 trillion dollars, 2/3 of which
was accrued during the administrations of Reagan and George The First), or
will half of it be turned over to the wealthiest 1% of the population?
shall we, at last, put an end to "reverse Robin-Hoodism," whereby
wealth moves from the poor and the middle classes (who produce the wealth)
over to the rich (who own and control the wealth)? Incidentally, the
attempt to reverse this trend is called, by "conservatives," "class
warfare." Conservatives do not approve of such "warfare," preferring
instead, unconditional surrender.
These issues were eclipsed because discussion and contemplation thereof
require serious reflection, and critical linear thought has become less and
less "fashionable" of late. In the evening network TV news shows, word-laden
"content" has been replaced with "images." In cable TV, ideas and events
give way to "personalities." Public Television has fallen ever more under
the control of its corporate "contributors." Even the so-called "educational
channels" (e.g., the Discovery and History Channels) have become the video
equivalents of "The National Enquirer," whereby every sort of far-out
kookery might be displayed, while informed scientific inquiry recedes into
the background. The public demands "entertainment," and images have been
found to be more entertaining than ideas, astrology more entertaining than
astronomy, and "show-biz celebs" more entertaining than scholars, writers
and scientists, who are dismissed as mere "talking heads." The "free-market
of ideas," envisioned by Jefferson and J. S. Mill has succumbed to a kind of
"Gresham’s Law," whereby quality ideas and argument are driven out by junk
and drivel. And so, a new regime prevails in the media: If information is
not also entertaining, then fagedabowdit! Hence "Infotainment."
Thus, in the present campaign, rats, moles, kisses, lullabies and sighs
prevail over health care, education, national defense, global warming, etc.
And in the "Great Debates," we have seen the media behave more like drama
critics than journalists, as they meticulously examined demeanor, tone,
charisma, "comfort level," and "connection," while they ignored substantial
issues and policies.
The media, with the acquiescence of the candidates, have adopted "the
mushroom theory of politics: "Keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em bullshit."
Quite frankly, as a citizen of the US of A, I am acutely embarrassed, and
I fear for the future of my country as I contemplate Jefferson’s
observation: "That nation that wishes to be ignorant and free, wishes what
never was and never will be."
The Pundits: In their post-election post-mortems, the
pundits chronicled the brilliance of the Bush campaign strategy, and the
blunders of the Gore campaign. Fair enough. But we also heard of the
"resonance" of Bush's message with public concerns. This is certifiably pure
hogwash. In fact, the American voter was hoodwinked by a lie and by an
ingenious use of misdirection. As the economic "miracle" comes to a
screeching halt, the environment is trashed, the national debt resumes its
growth, and the transfer of personal wealth from the middle and lower
classes to the "top" accelerates, the pundits will look about for culprits.
The last place that they will look is within -- to the media that they
And yet, the stubborn fact remains: the presidency of this super-annuated
frat-boy is the gift of the media conglomerates to the US public. Even with
all the blunders of the Gore campaign team, a fair, balanced and open public
discussion of the issues and the candidates would have yielded a different
outcome. The most damaging myths to survive this election, is the continuing
belief that we have a "free press" in the US, and that the media were
innocent and transparent purveyors of news and balanced opinion.
What is to be done?
The silver lining in the cloud that covers our political landscape, is
that the post-election shenanigans have deprived our President-Elect of
political legitimacy. Those sequestered Florida ballots will eventually be
counted, and we may all learn what we now suspect: that this Administration
is the result of a hijacked state election. Add to that, an evenly divided
Senate, and House of Representatives on the verge of tipping toward the
Democrats -- if, at long last, the DNC finally acquires the historical
memory and political and public relations savvy that was so conspicuously
absent in the recent election campaign.
(We say all this with no great admiration for the Democratic Party. It
has paid the homage to wealth and power that is requisite to being a major
political force in the contemporary United States. No national political
party can effectively compete without campaign funds, and under current
conditions, this means corporate funds. Clinton's "New Democrats" are now
what we used to call "moderate Republicans. But the Democratic Party, as the
lesser of the evils, must be nudged incrementally to the left. As a
political champion, the Democratic National Committee isn't much, but it is
the best we have).
Clearly, the first objective must be control of the Congress by the
Democrats in the 2002 election. If Bush makes even modest progress
implementing the program that most of the public (which elected him)
opposes, and as his intellectual and leadership limitations become more
apparent, the prospect of a mid-term turnover becomes more likely. Even so,
a Congress in the hands of the opposing party can only practice damage
control. Nothing much can be accomplished until the next Presidential
In addition, the Democratic party must learn from its mistakes. Veterans
of the Dukakis campaign have often said that their greatest mistake was
their failure to appreciate that an accusation unanswered is an accusation
affirmed. Yet the Gore campaign repeated that error, with fatal results. The
managers of the next Democratic presidential campaign must devote careful
study to Bush 2000 -- how the Bush managers finagled the media, defined the
opposition, "poisoned the well" with an unscrupulous and groundless attack
upon Gore's character and credibility, and directed attention away from
issues and toward personality traits and a litany of vacuous slogans
("compassionate conservatism") and cliches ("the mess in Washington").
Next, the 2000 election debacle should vividly remind us that the voting
rights struggle did not end at Selma and with Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights
Act. That struggle continues today, with every election. Civil rights
organizations devoted enormous effort in registering minority voters and
getting them to the polls, only to encounter voter harassment,
irregularities and ultimately the disenfranchisement of thousands. Obsolete
and error-prone punch-card ballot devices predominated in the poor
precincts, while in the Bush precincts, newer devices facilitated a more
complete and accurate count. A Miami Herald study (December 2, 2000)
estimates that "if the vote were flawless" in Florida, Gore would have won
the state by 23,000 votes. Obviously, brother Jeb's Florida government had
no interest in assuring a "flawless" vote. This is not consistent with those
words stone-hewn on the Supreme Court in Washington: "Equal Justice Under
Law." Hopefully, the NAACP and allied organizations have, through this
misadventure, learned how to sharpen their pre-emptive strategies, and that
they will be well-prepared for subsequent elections.
Campaign finance reform is essential -- and unlikely in the short term.
And there is a dismal long-term prospect that Bush's Supreme Court
appointees may validate Antonin Scalia's association of political bribery
with First Amendment rights to "Free Speech." That mid-term turnover is an
essential first-step to campaign reform.
Finally, if we are to reclaim our government, we must restore a free,
open and diverse press. Make no mistake, this will be a prolonged struggle.
That struggle includes a restoration of "the fairness doctrine" (abolished
during the Reagan administration). Without it, "talk radio" and cable TV
have become a coast-to-coast and 24/7 flood of unopposed right-wing blather.
When millions of our fellow citizens are immersed, hours on end, in
wall-to-wall Limbaugh and Imus, more than a few of them become certified
"ditto-heads" -- quite enough, it seems, to turn a Presidential election.
Let the broadcasters be reminded that the broadcast spectrum is public
property, and that they are licensed "in the public interest." While the
government has no business dictating broadcast content, it can require that
a fair representation of public opinion be heard.
Media conglomerates must be broken up, and independent media outlets
established. Local "stakeholders" must be appointed to governing boards of
newspapers and radio and TV stations. Access to these media by public
interest groups and competent professional citizens must be regarded as a
right, and not as a privilege. The public must appreciate and the government
must enforce the principle that the press and the media are, first and
foremost, essential components of a democratic society, and only secondarily
profit-making enterprises. Accordingly, the monotone message of
mega-corporate promotion must be replaced by a polyphony of competing ideas
and contending opinions.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," wrote Thomas Jefferson,
"it expects what never was and never will be... The people cannot be safe
without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read,
all is safe." However, with all due reverent respect to Jefferson, this is
an oversimplification. For "all to be safe," "every man" (and woman) must be
both able and willing to read, and to do so critically. And so, if we the
people are to regain our freedom and control of our body politic, our
teachers, scholars, scientists and writers must celebrate, exhibit and above
all teach critical thinking -- that excellence of human capacity, so
conspicuously absent in this election.
To our great embarrassment and concern, a critical and inquisitive intellect
appears to be absent from the cognitive inventory of our President-Elect: a
man capable, in this new century, of entertaining serious doubts about the
theory of evolution or the reality of global warming. And critical
reflection has, in this this election, been likewise found to be absent from
a public that has proven itself to be indifferent to facts and evidence
(even as they directly affected each citizen's personal welfare), and
susceptible to unscrupulous lies, crude fallacies and overt manipulation.
"Post-modernism" reduces all knowledge to subjective "belief" -- thus
equating information confirmed by science and logic with far-out kookery:
equating evolution with "creationism," astronomy with astrology,
thermodynamics with alchemy (cf. "Perilous Optimism," this site). As (appropriately) Rush
Limbaugh put it in his defense of the tobacco industry, "we'll put our
scientists up against their scientists." Post-modernism is the "method" of
the hired-gun publicist: "that is our position, now go out and find us some
'facts' to base it on." And it is the "method" that was employed by the
winning side in the first Presidential Election of this millennium. (See
"No Mo Po Mo," this site).
"Post modernism" entails a detachment from the natural world and a
disinclination to learn from nature through the disciplined and cumulative
method of investigation and demonstration which we call "science." "Post
Modernism" is a point of view that George W. Bush has found to be
attractive, and which his handlers have proven to be the key to Bush's
success. For if his political base, the Religious Right, requires Bush to
doubt the theory of evolution, the foundation of all life science, then he
will accommodate them. If two-thousand leading atmospheric scientists sign
and publish a warning of global warming which puts the investments of his
political sponsors in peril, then he will tell the world that he is
unconvinced. And if the engineering faculty of MIT advises him that missile
defense is technologically unattainable, "well then," he might tell us,
"what do they know?"
As should be clear to any rational individual, such an attitude leads
straight ahead to disaster. And if it is the attitude of our new President,
then we are all riding together toward that precipice. Richard Feynman gave
us fair warning: "... reality must take precedence over public relations,
for nature cannot be fooled."
We are entering perilous times, made all the more so by our collective
willingness to tear out the eyes of our reason.
Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge
NOTE: Just before the election, the Wall Street Version published
these poll results: "Which candidate has the knowledge and ability to be
President?" Bush: Extremely/Very -- 41%; Somewhat/Not Very -- 58%. "Which
candidate has the character and trustworthiness to be President? Gore:
Extremely/Very -- 40%; Somewhat/Not Very -- 59%. (From MSNBC. Sorry, they
listed only half the poll. No data on Gore/"Ability" or