A fluke? A crisis? No, the future

The close presidential contest illustrates the triumph of the test-marketed candidacy.

By Lawrence Weschler

Published November 12, 2000 10:28PM (EST)

Amid the flood tide of punditry spewing forth in the wake of last Tuesday's bizarre electoral result, two rhetorical gambits, in particular, seem to keep recurring.

First, that this "crisis" is unprecedented, unique, impossible to have predicted or to ever again replicate, a macro-historical fluke. (Indeed, it's all so uncanny that it's almost as if we should feel privileged to be taking part in it.) Second, that it represents the triumph of deliciously, deliriously messy reality over any social-scientific ambitions to model or channel it (as evinced by the marvelous scandal of the networks' miscalling Florida with absolute statistical certainty, absolutely inaccurately, not once but twice in a single evening).

It seems to me, however, that both of these claims run counter to an even more remarkable reality.

To start with, the second. If anything, the breathtakingly even result of Tuesday's outcome -- for all intents and purposes a tie -- represents the absolute triumph of social science, or rather political science, or more precisely political consultancy, over any lingering human aspiration toward independent self-expression and self-determination. Doubtless, today's political consultant would prefer to achieve a landslide for his or her candidate (say, on the order of 60 percent), but this desire is trumped by an even more urgent one, the imperative to avoid a close loss (say, something on the order of 48 percent). Given a choice, such consultants will invariably settle for and even come to aspire toward a simple 50.00001 percent victory. And the twin sciences of shameless pandering and ceaseless offense-avoidance have reached such sublime heights - they've been formalized (or perhaps, rather, formulized) to such an extent -- that this desired outcome can now be achieved with virtual Pavlovian precision. What with the spectacularly intricate hydrology of focus groups, tracking polls, sound bites, empty photo ops, targeted political advertising spots and wider, more general media manipulation, with both sides marshaling the identical data and with everything arranged in a near-perfect feedback loop, is it any wonder that by the end of the exercise, we indeed end up at the center of a mathematically precise equilibrium, the dead center, of a near-perfect tie?

Such a result is no accident: It was the point (or, at any rate, the near-inevitable outcome) of the whole exercise -- at least, the way the game is now being played, with caution trumping courage, and calibration trouncing vision, in the endless Zenovian dicing up of the remaining undecided, and then the remaining remaining undecided, to the exclusion of virtually any other principled consideration. Indeed, such a process becomes a virtual Rube Goldberg machine for locating that precise dead center.

And as such, returning to the first of those two fashionable shibboleths, far from representing some unrepeatable historical fluke, the campaign we've just endured may well more likely represent the permanent shape of things to come. All campaigns will now be fought like this, and end up like this, in a virtual dead heat. The issues may change (who knows precisely what will be obsessing, or being made to obsess, the electorate in the year 2004?), but one thing's for certain: The electoral process we have now perfected will once again be able to negotiate its way to a perfect (perfectly dead) equilibrium, and will hardly be capable of doing anything else.

Such a development may in fact help clear up why, for all their morbid fascination, ongoing developments in this story hardly have the feel of a "crisis," no matter how hard we tried to goose ourselves with the fantasy of impending calamity. It's precisely the point that people are not rising to the cobblestoned barricades (as they would be in France) or taking to massacring each other (as they have been lately, say, in the Ivory Coast). What's there to get all hot and bothered about in this photo finish of middling mediocrities? By this point in the process, nothing is finally, seriously at stake. It's not as though anybody or anything is going to die.

Except maybe any lingering, authentic or substantive sense of political hope or free agency.

Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler, director emeritus of the New York Institute for the Humanities, is the author among others of "Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative" and, forthcoming next spring, "Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez." 

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2000 Elections