Making Sense of a Bad Election 

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, 11/21/02

I remember the 1980 presidential election that swept Ronald Reagan into power.  The unthinkable suddenly was reality.  California’s somewhat senile former governor, a ‘B’ grade movie actor who played second fiddle to a chimp, and was most famous for his “let the bloodbath begin” quote which preceded the Kent and Jackson State killings, was suddenly our president elect.  After the results were final, I went out drinking.  The next morning America woke up with a hangover.  Certainly, I thought, we’d rectify this with the next election. I never dreamed that the same band of criminals would be occupying the White House into the 21st Century.

The Big Paragraph

It’s now 2002 and America is a different country.  Last week the CIA summarily executed an American citizen in Yemen, skipping the formality of an arrest or a trial.  There was nary a peep of protest.  The so-called war on terror has transformed all Americans into perpetual suspects, whose every doctor visit, bank transaction, credit card purchase and Internet visit will be cataloged and scrutinized.  Millions of other Americans now struggle to survive without health care or housing.  Our food supply is controlled by a handful of greedy corporations whose filthy slaughterhouses are tainted with e-coli and salmonella. We now regularly eat anti-biotic tainted meat and genetically modified organisms that are banned in other developed countries.  Our ancient forests are all but leveled and our cities are strangled by highways.  Public education is starved for funds and under regular assault.  The poor are vilified daily and denied social services, as more and more children are raised in households mired in poverty.  College expenses saddle working class students with a lifetime of debt. The media is monopolized by a handful of corporations who shun all reporting on issues relating to labor, the environment and social justice.  The gap between the rich and poor has been growing ever wider for over two decades.  We live in a perpetual state of war with troops committed to war zones across the globe.  Our foreign policy is in shambles with the rest of the world regarding us as an arrogant rouge state (a recent poll found that British citizens are 50% more likely to see the American president, rather than Saddam Hussein, as the greatest threat to world peace).  Our economy is in shambles, with the United States now having the largest foreign debt in the world.

The Gipper might be a vegetable, but his vision in now our reality.

As bad as the 1979 election was, this year’s election proved worse.  The problem is not Republicans per se – it’s reactionaries, who have taken over the Republican Party and hence, the Congress and the Senate.  Bill Moyers, writing for Alternet, argues that this is the first time in the memory of anyone alive today, that “the entire federal government – the Congress, the Executive, the Judiciary – is united behind a right wing agenda.”  He expects the Bush administration will use their newfound power to eliminate abortion rights, “transfer wealth from working people to the rich,” and give corporations “a free hand to eviscerate the environment and control the regulatory agencies meant to hold them accountable.” 

The M.I.T.F.P.S.

The Bush people, who came to power in a sloppily rigged election that many liken to a coup, are now claiming electoral legitimacy and a mandate to remake America into a militaristic imperialist theocratic feudal police state.   This in a nutshell, is the Bush agenda. 

But is this what Americans voted for?  The answer is simple.  No.  Americans didn’t vote for this or any other agenda.  The election 2002 story is quite clear:  Given the choice between Republicans and Republicans, two thirds of the electorate chose to stay home.  The election didn’t indicate a success on the part the Republicans.  For the most part, they were mum about the more draconian elements of their reactionary agenda.  The election was more about the Democrats, and their failure to provide an alternative to the Republicans’ mean spirited pro-corporate agenda.  It’s damning evidence that the morally bankrupt era of the Democratic Leadership Committee and their Clinton conservatism has torn the heart and soul out of the Democratic Party.  The voters simply refused to keep its comatose body on life support any longer.

The Real Winner

The election also proved money to be the ultimate arbiter in American politics.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 95% of the congressional races this year, the candidate who spent the most money won.  High rollers also won in 75% of the senatorial races.

This trend proved true in local races.  Republican Sherwood Boehlert easily won reelection after outspending his Democratic opponent 14:1.  Jack Quinn outspent his Democratic opponent 103:1 in his successful bid reelection bid.  And Tom Reynolds, one of the region’s sleaziest politicians, was reelected after outspending his Democratic opponent by a ratio of 191:1.  Democratic representative Louise Slaughter was no slouch either, gliding to victory after outspending her Republican rival 4:1.

Money not only buys media advertising time.  It also buys news coverage.  The third party campaigns of the Independence Party’s Tom Golisano and the Green Party’s Stanley Aronowitz in New York make this point painfully clear.  Golisano, a billionaire, spent over $55million (exact figures for this race are not yet available) on his gubernatorial run.  Aronowitz, by comparison, spent chump change.

A Database analysis of The New York Times, The New York Daily News, and The Buffalo News shows that the high rolling Golisano got plenty of media coverage while the highly qualified Aronowitz was all but ignored.  During the six-month period leading up to Election Day, The Times featured Golisano in 29 headlines.  The Daily News and The Buffalo News each featured him in 33 headlines.  Not one of these papers gave Aronowitz any headline mentions. 

Going through the text of the papers, The Buffalo News mentioned Golisano 112 times, while mentioning Aronowitz only four times; once in a letter decrying the lack of news coverage, once as part of a list of candidates, once summing up his debate performance in two sentences, and once in an announcement a forthcoming visit to Buffalo, which The News, in the end, did not cover.

“Fair” Coverage for Preferred Parties

The Daily News mentioned Golisano 121 times while mentioning Aronowitz four times.  In an interview with Columbia School of Journalism student, Valerie Reiss, The Daily News’ Senior Political Reporter, Joel Siegel, arrogantly responded to Green Party charges of favoritism by saying, “We owe it to the readers to give fair coverage of the news, we don't owe it to parties to give fair attention.” He went on to argue, “They say they're grassroots. Then come from the grassroots up.” 

The New York Times’ Metro Desk Political Editor, Mary Ann Giordano, sympathized with the Green Party’s complaints, explaining that she wished the paper “had the time, the staff and the space to cover issues of minor parties.”  Her paper gave Aronowitz, the hometown candidate, a scant 11 mentions, while finding room for 163 mentions of minor party candidate Golisano. For these three papers, being a billionaire trumps being a minor party candidate.

Most frustrating for the Greens is the fact that Golisano, whose campaign was stuck in the mud six weeks before the election, gained momentum by borrowing key points of Aronowitz’s platform.  By mid-October, the rightist Golisano was calling for abolishing the Rockefeller drug laws, legalizing medicinal marijuana and creating free tuition programs for students in public colleges and universities.  At the same time he was borrowing from Aronowitz’s platform, he was loudly claiming, via a few million dollars worth of TV ads, to be the only candidate championing many of these points.  The Greens cried foul, but the cry was never heard.  By election time, Golisano was mentioned in news articles 21 times as much as Aronowitz, with most of those mentions being far more comprehensive that those of Aronowitz. He simultaneously saturating the state’s airwaves with commercials.  In the end, Golisano got less than 15 times the number of votes as the invisible Aronowitz, with most voters failing to be motivated to vote for any of the gubernatorial candidates.  Again, money and the moneyed candidates triumphed.

Good Guys Win Big

Of course there were plenty of positive Election Day stories as well.  Most notable, and most invisible in the corporate media, is the story of Barbara Lee.  Remember her?  She was the lone dissenting congressional vote standing up against invading Afghanistan.  At the time, the pundocracy predicted nothing but doom for Lee’s political career, croaking on about how she’d lose her reelection bid.  They were very wrong.  Lee won by a landslide, earning 81% of the vote, as compared to her Republican rival, who earned a scant 15%.  Lee’s margin of victory was one of the largest in the nation.  Likewise, Bernie Sanders, who caved in on the Afghanistan vote, but rose to be one of the two strongest anti-Bush voices in Washington, was reelected with 65% of the vote, despite being outspent by his Republican rival – this during the same election cycle that saw quirky Vermonters buck a national trend and put a Republican into the statehouse.

The 2002 electoral message was clear.  Republicans will vote for Republicans.  But, while many Democrats will hold their noses and vote for Democrats dressed as Republicans, most won’t.  Negative campaigning and near identical candidates disgusted most voters, proving this year’s low voter turnout to be nothing short of a boycott.  There was simply no reason to walk to the corner to vote for a Republicrat.  Democrats need to get with the program.  The Clinton conservatives have run their party into the ground.  They now need to either move left to the real center of American politics – which is grounded in support of workers rights, education, health care, anti-poverty programs and the environment – or they need to move the hell out of the way.

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s ArtVoice and Alternet columns are archived at

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Copyright 2002 Michael I. Niman