Schadenfreude: a feeling of glee at someone else’s misfortune. That sums up a considerable portion of international sentiment as the world watches the tortured proceedings of the U.S. election. Nearly two weeks after the vote to select the president of the United States — the most powerful man in the world — the result is still unknown. And the entire wrenching procedure, complete with recriminations and recounts, is being played out in full view of the public. Some laugh, others grimace. We applaud.
The pundits and pros said this election would be close, but they never dreamed it would come down to a handful of ballots scattered across the country. The margin of victory in New Mexico seems to be several hundred votes; in Iowa, it was several thousand; in Florida, the world watches as the count continues and the legal skirmishes intensify. The two campaigns are increasingly focused on the courtroom, but the real fight is in the court of public opinion. Winning is important, but so is legitimacy. Neither man can afford to be seen as taking office after a tainted victory.
The near-perfect division of the U.S. electorate has aroused considerable concern. Governing is going to be difficult, even if the Republicans win the presidency along with control of both houses of Congress. But the U.S. has survived division in the past. It is hard to imagine deeper divisions than those that resulted in the government shutdown in 1995, when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, squared off against the Republican Congress. Indeed, it seems that the American people prefer a divided government as a way to limit its power. That is one reason why it has been rare for the same party to control both the executive and legislative branches.
Some would say that the developments put U.S. hypocrisy in sharp relief. They claim that the “shining beacon on the hill,” as former President Ronald Reagan liked to describe his country, is in no position to lecture others on the ways of democracy and how to conduct an election. They assert that the controversy will inspire less principled leaders in other countries to challenge the results of elections they lose, using their control over the judiciary and the media to legitimate a tainted process. By this logic, every legal challenge undermines the moral authority of the U.S. For some, that concern is real; for others, it is pure schadenfreude.
The most important point, however, concerns the way this dispute is being conducted. It is totally transparent. It is being played out in the courts, in full view of the public. There are no doubts about what is going on behind the scenes. The world now knows the conversation the two candidates had when Mr. Gore retracted his concession on election night; we even know of the relationship between one major U.S. news outlet and the Bush campaign — a relationship that has caused considerable embarrassment to the network. Every ballot is being scrutinized by observers from both parties and the media is watching them as intently.
There is no way this vote will be stolen. The results are certain to be challenged, but there is no doubt that when the final appeal is heard and the verdict delivered, the election will be over and the loser will accept the decision with grace. And equally important, the country will accept it as well. That is the civics lesson that is being offered to the world.
Despite the deep divisions in the U.S., the country’s commitment to change through the ballot, not the bullet, is not at risk. Even a result that thwarts the will of the voting majority — which is likely if the electoral-vote tally puts Mr. Bush in the White House — will be accepted. There is sure to be anger on the part of some, perhaps even a renewed push for a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Electoral College. But the emotions will be vented in the Congress and in the next election, not on the streets.
In fact, this vote is likely to strengthen the U.S. commitment to democratic principles. The greatest threat to democracy — in the U.S. and elsewhere, even Japan — is not passion, but apathy. The growing number of disaffected citizens, the nearly 50 percent of eligible U.S. voters who have chosen not to participate, are the real danger. The razor-thin margin of this election should put to rest forever the thought that “my vote does not matter.” That, and the willingness to subject its elections to the most minute and embarrassing scrutiny, is the real lesson from this ballot. In this, the U.S. can be a genuine example for the world.
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