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Friday, November 8, 2002

Three Little Words

Semantic smoke screens and Political Power Plays

By Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

Last Thursday President Bush spoke briefly with the press, in a low-keyed victory ritual where he presented his views on the election and his plans for the months to come. He prefaced the Q & A session with some prepared remarks, a succinct little statement emphasizing the importance of passing his homeland security bill in order to better protect "the American people."

Interesting phrase, "the American people."

These three little words appear five times in the less-than-750 words that make up Bush's speech. They also managed to find their way into the post-election musings of White House spokesman Ari Fleischer: "There's no question that last night's results increased the likelihood of getting things done for the American people."

They reek of focus groups and instant-reaction meter scrutiny.

What's up?

It's an odd phrase, "the American people." In ordinary conversation, we're more likely to talk about ourselves as "Americans." In political conversations, we may refer to the will of "the people." But rarely, "the American people."

It's a wartime term. Later in the press conference, the president spoke of his desire for "freedom for the Iraqi people"; he sent a "loud and clear" message to "the Iraqi people" that the U.S. means to do them no harm but only to deal with the "threat" of "the Iraqi dictator."

How many times have you heard similar phrases? Usually in the form of an announcement that the U.S. holds no animosity toward "the Iraqi [Afghan, Serbian, Cuban, etc.] people" but only toward their oppressive government.

It's a term that erects a wall between a nation's inhabitants and its government. And in fact, during an unscripted moment in the press conference, the president did exactly that: "This country never has any intention to conquer anybody. That's not the intention of the American people or our government."

"The American people or our government." This, in a wrap-up of a nationwide election where the people presumably chose the members of their government! In other parts of his prepared remarks, Bush makes a similar distinction, ŕ la Ari Fleischer: "[The election will] will strengthen our ability to make progress for all the American people…. I urge the members of both political parties to come together to get things done for the American people…. I still want to work with [Senator Tom Daschle] to get things done for the American people."

Yup. That's the election that was.

Let's step back a little from the media hype - "historic vote"; "resounding Republican victories" - and consider what happened on Tuesday. In a country of approximately 281 million people, approximately 76 million voted, if estimates of a 37 percent voter turnout are accurate. Despite landslide victories in a number of races, the composition of the Congress tilted ever-so-slightly more toward the Republican side, making passage of Bush's programs easier - but not inevitable.

The election provided a victory for one party over another. That's what it was all about: a race between two parties, both eagerly using every technique and dollar at their disposal to acquire votes. It wasn't about issues. (Try naming one!) It wasn't about representation. (Steven Hill and Rob Richie, of the Center for Voting and Democracy, remind us that women and minorities will remain woefully sparse in the new Congress.) It was essentially an intramural contest between the Republicans and the Democrats.

It was an intramural contest which the media and the parties themselves were happy to characterize as a national confrontation, offering up a few "key" races to provide down-to-the-wire drama. One CNBC commentator gave the show away when he said that a certain state was engaged in a "hotly contested" campaign for governor and added, almost as an aside, that the voter turnout in that state was unusually low.

It was a contest that made its own rules, recruited its own players. And positioned itself as the only game in town. Just as no one questions the absence of Asian or Latin American teams in the MLB world series, most Americans didn't even notice that their political world series ignored the rest of the alphabet when it asked them to choose between Team A and Team B. It didn't even occur to them that other methods of selection might be possible. (In California, on one of those rare occasions when a different method was suggested, in the form of election-day registration, Secretary of State Bill Jones, the guy who oversees elections in the state, condescendingly patted it on the head and told it to go away: "I think it was well intentioned and I never questioned the motives of the people that proposed it, but it was a flawed measure." No matter that the six other states have already increased their voter turnout by using a similar method.)

As long as the players - the beneficiaries of the present system - make the rules, it's unlikely to change. We can expect to see low voter turnouts, poor representation, and the enactment of policies that don't reflect public opinion. We can also expect to see Americans who feel increasingly alienated from "their" government, who must have things done for them in order to retain their loyalty. The Romans called it bread and circuses.

Perhaps because we are justifiably proud of planting the seeds for the Age of Democracy, we like to pretend that the species we see is the only one. Yet even in the United States it has changed. And elsewhere, a hundred democratic flowers are blooming. In the field of voting systems alone, Steven Hill notes in Fixing Elections, there's "Winner Take All [that's the one we've got], First Past The Post, single-seat districts, multiseat districts, proportional representation, plurality at-large, choice voting, single transferable vote, cumulative voting, limited voting." Sometimes inbreeding weakens the crop. Perhaps it's time for a little hybridization. Do it "for the American people."

"For the American people." Can't you see the participants of electronic focus groups when they hear this phrase? Almost en masse, they must move the dial on their perception analyzers all the way up to 100. Total, wholehearted approval.

Why? Are Americans so fond of having things done for them?

Not at all. The phrase resonates with another, dearly beloved one - "of the people, by the people, and for the people" - a phrase that sums up the dream we have for the country we live in. The word "for," all by itself, doesn't do it. We need those three little words.