Laws, ballots, and getting drunk on anger

Written 25 November 2000. Copyright 2000 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

We can be manipulated by our anger. Too many of us are letting it happen. This is a serious crisis. The craziness online and in public life are getting worse. I'm seeing more and more people I can only describe as drunk on anger. The discourse is being swamped by a wave of irrational arguments and coarse language.

When did Americans get so stupid? Manipulating anger is a chump's game. I can't believe we're falling for it like this.

Anger is a cheap high. It's easily whipped up, and after that it's as easy to make an angry man angrier as it is to get a drunk to take another drink. If he gets mad enough, he may even take a swing at anyone who tries to tell him he's out of control. Useful, eh?

Chumps, chumps, chumps.

I'll tell you a secret. It's a basic rule of politics. It doesn't get taught much in school, and if you think about it a minute you'll probably see why. Goes like this:

The fact that you're on their side
doesn't mean that they're on your side.

(Or, as Sir Thomas Wentworth said, "Put not your faith in princes." If the courts and Parliament hadn't been about to chop off his head right then he'd probably have added, "Neither put your trust in courts nor parliaments;" but under the circumstances it was hardly necessary.)

Public officials lie, parties change their platforms, politicians cut deals, and journalists are just plain irresponsible. You're asking for grief if you stake more than you can stand to lose on any of them. Just look at the Reform Party.

Life is insecure. None of us are so powerful that that the game can't turn against us, and most of us could be traded like penny dotcom stocks if we didn't have a secure stake in something bigger than ourselves. That thing is (1.) the rule of law; and (2.) the principle of government by consent of the governed as expressed at the ballot box. We may not know what deals have been cut in secret, and we sure can't see the future. But we can know the law, and we can tot up the votes. That means we can keep our government answerable to us.

Nobody likes to lose an election. You honestly think your candidate is the best for the job. You agree with the campaign speeches. You take time out on Election Day to go vote. And then ... the other guy wins. It's a disappointment, no way around it. But the guy who's been elected is still your public official, answerable to you. He's still bound by all the same laws as the rest of us. You, me, both candidates, and a whole bunch of other people -- we're all still part of the same system. Heaven help us, we're all in it together.

Why would someone want to circumvent this system? I'll give you a hint: It's probably not because they're plotting to do us good. You can take this as a rule: No matter what else they're saying, anyone who says we can dispense with counting the ballots and observing the law is not your friend. Neither is anyone who tries to take power without having the laws and ballots on his side. Neither is anyone who withholds vital information on that score, or condones others' disrespect for it.

This is why I'm so disturbed by accounts of the riot in Dade County. At the time the elections were held, almost three weeks ago, the Dade County Republicans would not have made a mass assault on polling places or campaign offices.

Now it appears that they organized one. Now reports say that among the members of this mob, which explicitly came to stop a normal, legitimate, legal, conducted-under-intense-bipartisan-scrutiny electoral process, were Republicans who'd participated in the vote verification process.

People who are working on the vote-verification process have more opportunity and more power to call attention to vote-counting skulduggery than anyone else. It's their duty to do so. They must be heard. And if they've truly spotted something questionable, the law will back them up. They have recourse, and if they'd had legitimate complaints they had every opportunity to make them. Instead, these people joined a mob.

Organizing a mob to terrorize a vote-counting center into stopping the count is not heroic. It isn't brave. It isn't a blow struck in defense of truth and justice. It's a crude attempt to circumvent the system, and it shows a profound disrespect for law and democracy. It's even more disturbing that they did this so openly, and that their own party hasn't disavowed their actions and done what it could to rein them in.

You'd think that George W. Bush would know better. This is a democracy. He can never legitimately become President of the United States until the outcome of the voting is known, and no amount of shrieking and bullying on the part of his supporters can change that. If he shoves his way into the office without having the votes to back him up, he still won't be the President of the Uited States. He'll just be a figurehead whose handlers have managed to pull off a putsch -- and the rest of us will be infinitely poorer for it.

And if that sounds like a good idea to you, you are one prize sucker. Remember what I said about how being on their side doesn't guarantee that they're on your side? Outside the system of laws and ballots, all that counts is power, and you haven't got enough of it. You're never even going to play in GWB's league, much less belong to his club. He might flip you a bright shiny quarter as he walks by, but that's it. Chump.