»  National Review Online

November 16th, 2000

   Election Reflections

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I first went to mainland China in the early 1980s, when the country was just emerging from the horrors of the Maoist era, whose dominant theme had been "class struggle." At Lunar New Year, a Chinese friend took me to a restaurant in Peking. He had brought with him a bottle of Chinese liquor so that we could drink a toast. He hid the bottle under his coat to avoid a corkage charge; but the maîtresse d', a woman with one of those sour, pinched faces that are rather common in the People's Republic, spotted it and made a great fuss. After some loud exchanges, it emerged that our choice was to pay corkage or get the hell out. Well, we were hungry, and it is not easy to get a restaurant table in Peking at Lunar New Year, so we backed down.

As the woman strode off to savor her victory, my friend muttered at her departing rear end the words: Jieji douzheng lian!  This translates as "class struggle face." I had never heard it before. My friend explained. During the Maoist years, superior persons — those with a "correct" class background (worker, peasant, soldier) — had developed a number of facial expressions they used to intimidate "black elements" (intellectuals, people from landlord or capitalist families, "rightists"). There was an accusatory squinch of the eyebrows, for example — my friend, who was rather a good mimic, demonstrated for me. Also a sort of permanent purse of the lips and a fixed, exophthalmic stare. An example of a "class struggle face" would be Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's last wife, and leader of the so-called Gang of Four. "This phrase comes from the common people," my friend added.

And now, every time I see Hillary Clinton, that phrase comes irresistibly to mind. Class struggle face."  There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face." Oh, no?

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Who got the more votes in Florida, Gore or Bush? People with some training in statistics or quantum mechanics know the answer: there is no answer. It cannot be determined. Any large-scale human enterprise like the Florida vote brings with it a margin of uncertainty, within which nothing definite can be said.

Suppose that a major effort were launched to gather up all the ballots cast in Florida, have each one scrutinized by a panel of impeccably impartial umpires, and the results counted. Now suppose that entire process were to be repeated 99 times. In all likelihood we should find that Bush won roughly 50 times, Gore roughly 50. Suppose Bush won 55 and Gore 45: is Bush the winner? How about Gore 70, Bush 30? Is the losing party going to accept either of these results?

Mathematicians know that in such a case the only fair process is to pick a winner randomly — by the toss of a coin, for example. If we had a mathematically sophisticated electorate, which of course we do not, they would know this, too, and be clamoring for a coin toss.

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The world is so neat and orderly nowadays. Perhaps we have become too refined for the rough and tumble of democracy. There will never be precision in voting or fairness in reporting. Fox News has a daily topic on which viewers can call in their votes, Yes or No. The next day, they announce the results. There is always a small — but by no means minuscule — proportion of "not sure" votes. Remember, these are people sufficiently motivated to heave themselves up out of the BarcaLounger, cross the room, pick up a phone, dial the Fox number, and deliver themselves of the opinion that … they are not at all sure. Presumably there is similar dithering in polling booths. There must be large numbers of voters — millions, probably — who, if they had gone to vote before lunch instead of after, would have voted differently. But this sort of untidiness outrages us nowadays.

We used to be less persnickity. Read the account of the Eatanswill election in chapter 13 of The Pickwick Papers. Dickens is writing about a parliamentary election in a small English town around 1835, and he is probably not exaggerating much. Here are all the familiar features of election time. Here are the candidate's minders:

"Is everything ready?" said the honorable Samuel Slumkey [candidate of the Blues, who are contesting the election with the Buffs] to Mr. Perker.

"Everything, my dear sir," was the little man's reply.

"Nothing has been omitted, I hope?" said the honorable Samuel Slumkey.

"Nothing has been left undone, my dear sir — nothing whatever. There are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you're to pat on the head, and inquire the age of …"

Here are the media shills, though they seem to be better balanced in Eatanswill than in modern America, with its 89 per cent Democrat journalist class: "the Eatanswill Gazette, and the Eatanswill Independent; the former advocating Blue principles, and the latter conducted on grounds decidedly Buff." Here are the Undecideds: "A small body of electors remained unpolled on the very last day. They were calculating and reflecting persons …" (They were in fact waiting to see who would pay the higher price for their votes.) Here are the dirty tricks: Sam Weller tells a tale of unpolled electors being stupefied with laudanum, waking only after the election was over.

Further back, politics was even nastier. In January 1712 Sir Robert Walpole, Secretary of War, was impeached for corruption by political enemies, found guilty, expelled from the House of Commons, and sent to the Tower of London. Two years later, with the accession of King George the First, Walpole's fortunes changed, and he arranged for his former persecutors to be impeached and sent to the Tower in their turn. Oh, politics used to be much more fun.

None of this will do in what Florence King calls the Republic of Nice. Now the schoolmarms and the Class Struggle Faces have taken over. Only mathematical precision — which is in fact (see above) unattainable — will do for us. Anything else must be litigated. It's not who has the most votes; it's who has the better lawyers. And remind me, please: which of our major parties has the Trial Lawyers Association as one of its principal donors?

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There is now a consensus among the talking heads that it will be all over on Saturday. The Florida absentee ballots will have been counted, and the Secretary of State will have pronounced on the validity of the claims for manual recounts. Anyone who litigates past that point, the wisdom goes, will see his credibility with the larger public start to drain away very quickly. If Governor Bush can hold on till then, and the absentee ballots go his way, he's got it.

This sounds good at the time of writing (Wednesday afternoon), but I think it underestimates both the ingenuity of Gore's lawyers and the cynicism of the public. The former will reveal itself in due course; of the latter, I note only that it is surprisingly difficult to get anyone to talk about the Florida business. People laugh easily, say: "Oh, what a mess! Why don't they get together and sort it out?" and change the subject. A lot of smart journalists (no offense to any of my NRO colleagues) have been comparing this business, at least in the matter of Gore's tactics, with the impeachment of two years ago. Seems to me there is one huge difference. With the impeachment, everyone talked about it non-stop for weeks, with much feeling. My rather strong impression with the Florida deadlock is that outside the political classes, nobody gives a flying fandangle.

No doubt this, in some way yet to be revealed, will work for the Democrats. Everything always does work for the Democrats.

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The fuss over people "mistakenly" voting for Buchanan in Palm Beach County invites some comment. The general theme of the complaints seems to be: "This is a Jewish county! Buchanan's an antisemite! There's no way this county would give him three thousand votes."

Pitchfork Pat didn't exactly sweep the county. His 3,407 votes were less than one per cent of the county total — in psephological terms, a way-out fringe. I'm not going to get into the business of whether or not Pat is an antisemite; for these purposes, it is sufficient to note that a lot of Jews believe he is, and probably a lot of antisemites do, too. But how Jewish is Palm Beach County? I could not find a figure on a quick trawl through the Internet; but South Palm Beach boasts of being 43 per cent Jewish, in a tone that suggests the rest of the county is somewhat less so. All right; suppose the figure is 40 per cent.

What about the other 60 per cent? It is not a very nice thing to say, but it is surely true, that antisemitism flourishes where there are a lot of Jews. I doubt there is much antisemitism in Tibet. On the other hand, the most antisemitic nations in old Europe — Russia, Poland, France, Austria-Hungary — were the ones with the most Jews. Is it really so unreasonable to suppose that with so many Jews in Palm Beach County, the gentile population might harbor more than the usual number of antisemites?