January 25, 2022


Through Education Matters

Lessons from history: The 2000 elections and the new “irrepressible conflict”

The following lecture, “Lessons from history: The 2000 elections and the new ‘irrepressible conflict,’” was given by David North, chairman of the World Socialist Web Site International Editorial Board and national chairman of the Socialist Equality Party (US), at a public meeting of the Socialist Equality Party of Australia on December 3, 2000 in Sydney.

It was delivered one month after the November 2000 election and just nine days before the US Supreme Court’s infamous ruling, in a five-four split decision, halting the recount of the presidential vote in the state of Florida, questioning the right of the American people to elect the president, and handing the White House to Republican candidate George W. Bush, who had lost the popular vote.

As North warned in his lecture: “What the decision of this court will reveal is how far the American ruling class is prepared to go in breaking with traditional bourgeois-democratic and constitutional norms. Is it prepared to sanction ballot fraud and the suppression of votes and install in the White House a candidate who has attained that office through blatantly illegal and anti-democratic methods?”

The answer, as we now know, was yes. The high court’s decision marked a turning point in US history, constituting a fundamental and irrevocable break with democracy and the traditional forms of bourgeois legality.

The lecture explains the “irrepressible conflict” that led to the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery at the cost of some 600,000 lives. It draws out the parallels to a new “irrepressible conflict” between capital and labor. It is this conflict that underlay the repudiation of bourgeois democratic forms of rule in the US election 20 years ago, and today, at a much sharper stage of its development, the present attempts by President Donald Trump to turn the 2020 election into a coup d’état.

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As you know, the original plan of this meeting was to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination. The decision to change the subject was not made lightly. I had intended to utilise this occasion to not only insist on the enduring significance of Trotsky’s theoretical and political legacy, but to argue that history will ultimately judge Trotsky as the greatest revolutionary leader and thinker of the twentieth century.

The change of topic is not intended, in any way, to suggest a lessening of the emphasis placed by the International Committee of the Fourth International on the centrality of the historical foundations of our movement—above all, on the essential significance of its ongoing and unrelenting struggle to clarify the great strategic lessons of the century that is now completing its final month.

But what I had intended to say about Trotsky’s life and legacy can be deferred. The events now occurring in the United States are of such immense international political significance that it would be, in our opinion, a serious error to miss the opportunity provided by this meeting to discuss the crisis that has arisen out of the election of November 7, 2000. I think that Trotsky himself would have approved. An essential characteristic of his work was to identify and concentrate the attention of Marxists and politically advanced sections of the working class on those events in which the contradictions of world capitalism found their most advanced expression.

In November 1931, Trotsky defined events in Germany—where the struggle between the working class and the advancing forces of fascism was entering its climactic stage—as “The key to the international situation.” He wrote: “On the direction in which the solution of the German crisis will develop, will depend the fate not only of Germany herself but the fate of Europe, the fate of the entire world for many years to come.”

Without in any way suggesting a simple analogy between the conditions that existed in the Germany of 1931 and those that exist currently in the United States, it is necessary to introduce into the political consciousness of the international working class the vast significance of the American crisis. After all, there is no other country in the world where there exist greater illusions in the stability and might of capitalism.

The illusions that exist within the United States about the permanence of the system are mirrored throughout the world. No country is seen as a greater exemplar of the power of the market and the power of capital. It is still, in the minds of millions of people, the land of democracy, the land of unlimited opportunity. And even among those who consider themselves critics of American imperialism, how many of them truly believe that there could ever arise in this bastion of world capitalism a crisis that would seriously call into question the stability of the entire system?

No disrespect is intended, but if I would have suggested to you several months ago that the United States would be hurled into a political crisis so immense, so fundamental, that it would call into question the whole governmental structure, how many of you, even those who are most generous in their appraisal of the work of the ICFI, would have been prepared to subscribe to that viewpoint?

And yet here we are, one month after an election unlike any that has taken place in the US in the twentieth century, and it is no longer unthinkable that the political system in the United States could undergo a dramatic and entirely unexpected transformation.

The beginning of a revolutionary crisis in the very bastion of world capitalism—and that is the essential significance of the present developments—has introduced into the world situation a factor of extraordinary and almost incalculable magnitude. Overnight, the political strategists and economic theorists of the ruling classes of every country, including Australia, are suddenly confronted with a fact that they would have considered unimaginable only four weeks ago: the political destabilisation and possible collapse of the governmental structures of the United States—known throughout the world as “The World’s Last Superpower.”

Perhaps one of the most distinguishing features of a genuine crisis is that its arrival is generally unexpected and assumes a form that could hardly have been predicted. This does not mean that a crisis was altogether unforeseen. There was at least one organ of political analysis that had been insisting that the political structure in the United States was approaching a state of profound dysfunction—that was the World Socialist Web Site.

As far back as December 1998, as the Clinton impeachment struggle approached its climax, the WSWS warned that the savage struggle between the Congress and the White House was a portent of approaching civil war. But at that time the WSWS was a voice in the wilderness and received complaining letters from even a number of our supporters protesting against our tendency, they thought, towards hyperbole or exaggeration.

The election crisis

On November 7, 2000 approximately 100 million Americans—about half the potential electorate—went to the polls at the conclusion of what was, even by American standards, a more or less uneventful campaign. It had been anticipated during the final weeks that the outcome would be close, but no one was prepared for what actually took place.

Most commentators had predicted that Bush would win, but in the first hours after the polls closed it became clear that Gore and the Democrats were doing far better than expected in virtually all the major industrial states. States that had been defined as “battleground states” that would indicate a decisive shift in one direction or the other were going largely to the Democrats. Pennsylvania and Michigan, which had been projected to be extremely close, went to the Democrats by substantial margins.

But the biggest surprise of all came when the networks fairly early in the evening announced that Al Gore had carried the state of Florida. By 9 p.m. it appeared that the vice president was going to win the presidency.

Then began a very strange series of events. There are certain traditions that exist in American politics. One is that on election night the presidential candidates are not heard from, except to either declare victory or concede defeat. And yet, after the networks had announced—based on exit polls that tend to be extremely accurate—that the state of Florida was being given to Gore, an impromptu press conference was called in the mansion of Texas Governor Bush. He quite calmly and confidently declared that, notwithstanding predictions by the networks, ultimately he was going to win the state of Florida.

Bush’s appearance and comments produced a very strange impression. As I said, the press conference was a break with the traditional protocol of election night. Moreover, not only was Bush making a premature and impromptu appearance to contest the networks’ appraisal of the Florida exit polls, it was also reported that senior Bush campaign operatives were subjecting the networks to intense pressure, demanding that they change their call and take Florida out of the Gore column.

Why this was important would be revealed later. The political advantage that Bush would have in the days that followed was based almost entirely on the fact that ultimately the networks called the state of Florida for Bush and created a public conception that he had won the election, regardless of the contest that was to follow.

At any rate, an announcement was made shortly after Bush’s press conference that Florida was being taken out of Gore’s column. Several hours later it was announced that Florida was being placed in Bush’s column, and at about 2:00 or 2:30 a.m., Gore, having received the network projections, decided to concede the election.

Gore called Bush on the telephone, wished him well and said he would make his way to a public auditorium to deliver a concession speech. Extraordinary things then happened. Even as Gore was making his way to the auditorium, the differences in the vote margins between Bush and Gore in Florida, which had been narrowing, began to drop rapidly. Desperate aides to the vice president contacted Gore’s motorcade via cell phone to inform him of this fact and to urge him to withdraw his concession. Apparently arguments followed between the motorcade and the campaign headquarters. Gore was finally prevailed upon and he instructed his driver to turn around and go back to his hotel room. He then called Bush and informed him that he was withdrawing his concession. Such things had never happened. By the dawn of November 8, the only thing that was clear was that no one really knew who had won the election.

That evening marked the beginning of a chain of events that is without precedent in the history of the United States. While Bush clung to a lead of several hundred votes, out of a total of six million cast in Florida and out of 100 million cast in the US—overall Gore enjoyed a majority in the popular vote—more and more reports began to emerge about irregularities in the Florida election. Somehow, it turned out, thousands of Jews in Palm Beach had voted for the notorious anti-Semite Pat Buchanan. One political wag said that this was probably because they had been thrilled by Buchanan’s recent book praising Hitler. Reports emerged of African-American voters being harassed by state police on their way to the polling places and thousands of ballots in predominantly Democratic precincts failing to register a vote for the office of president.

This set the stage for an ongoing and lengthy struggle over the counting of ballots. This struggle has been consumed by an increasingly bitter political struggle—much of which has unfolded within courtrooms, culminating in Friday’s hearing before the US Supreme Court.

But while the courts have been the major venue of the struggle, the conflict has also involved the use of mobs to intimidate election officials—mobs hired by the Republican Party—and open appeals by the Republicans for the support of the military. It has even been reported that one military official had to inform officers that they were bound by the military code to remain aloof from politics.

It has become increasingly obvious, and I do not think anyone would seriously contest this, that a full and accurate count of all the ballots cast in Florida would have given the state, and therefore the national election, to Vice President Gore. The efforts of the Republican Party—supported by most of the media—have been centered on preventing such a count from taking place.

As we meet, all eyes are focussed on the US Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on Bush’s appeal of a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that rejected the initial certification of Bush’s dubious victory by the Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris. She is a Republican official and was a campaign co-chairman for Bush in Florida.

Even as it became clear that there were still thousands of votes to be counted and many issues remained unsettled, Harris insisted on certifying Bush’s election victory. This has been taken to the Florida Supreme Court, which at the last minute enjoined Harris against ratifying the victory of Bush.

The legal issue was as follows. There are two statutes on the books in Florida. One of them says that the vote must be ratified by a certain day. Another statute says that there is a right of recount. Neither statute is written all that well, as often happens in legislative procedures, and one of the tasks of the court is to determine how it can reconcile conflicting legislative instructions.

The Secretary of State is mandated by law to utilise discretion in observing the deadline—to consider all factors before blindly adhering to a date set in the statute. This issue was taken to the Florida Supreme Court, which overruled the Secretary of State, declaring that the technical issue of a deadline was overridden by fundamental questions of democratic rights raised by the election.

The Florida Supreme Court invoked the Florida Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, which proclaims that the people have rights which cannot be infringed upon by the state. The Supreme Court Justices of Florida asserted that “The right of suffrage is the pre-eminent right contained in the Declaration of Rights, for without this basic freedom all others would be diminished.” The refusal of Harris to delay certification to permit a proper count of disputed ballots represented, according to the court, an arbitrary misuse of her discretion as a state official and, therefore, a violation of the Florida Constitution.

This is the ruling that is being currently reviewed by the US Supreme Court. While a ruling for Gore, upholding the Florida Supreme Court, will not necessarily result in his election, a ruling against him would almost certainly bring the process to a conclusion and guarantee the ascension of Bush.

What the decision of this court will reveal is how far the American ruling class is prepared to go in breaking with traditional bourgeois-democratic and constitutional norms. Is it prepared to sanction ballot fraud and the suppression of votes and install in the White House a candidate who has attained that office through blatantly illegal and anti-democratic methods?

A substantial section of the bourgeoisie, and perhaps even a majority of the US Supreme Court, is prepared to do just that. There has been a dramatic erosion of support within the ruling elites for the traditional forms of bourgeois democracy in the United States.

One columnist summed up all the cynicism toward democracy that prevails in the ruling circles: “Yes,” he wrote, “Gore probably got more votes, but who cares? Gore was mugged in Florida, but the local cops don’t care.”

What is the nature of the crisis?

Notwithstanding the unprecedented nature of the events of the last three weeks, both political leaders and the media continue to insist—in direct contradiction to their actions and words—that the United States is not in the midst of a major constitutional crisis. In other words, the situation in America, the public is led to believe, is perhaps desperate, but not serious. The sowing of political complacency serves the interests of the ruling elite, which seeks to implement its political agenda as much as possible behind the backs of the people.

This complacency is echoed not only in what remains of the politically flaccid liberal press, but also among the varied representatives of middle class radicalism. For example, Ralph Nader has had virtually nothing to say about the post-election crisis, commenting in the most unserious manner that the dispute between Bush and Gore should be decided by the flip of a coin. Alexander Cockburn, the well-known left cynic, has announced himself pleased with the election result. Nothing more serious, he says, than several years of political gridlock in Washington. “First a word about gridlock,” he wrote last week. “We like it.”

Then there is the comment in the pages of Spartacist. I’ve just been privileged to receive a copy of one of their newspapers. Their position is summed up in the following line: “The Gore-Bush feud at this point is more like a tempest in a tea pot than a political crisis of the bourgeoisie.”

And then one has the wisdom of a political tendency in the United States called the Workers World Party, which writes: “There is no social or economic crisis underlying the present election debacle.”

If this is the case, the events in America are completely inexplicable.