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The forces of reason and unreason

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

In my last column before the election I want to try to convey something of the fever in which America is gripped - not by summoning up statistics about vast voter registration successes and get–out–the–vote mobilisations, let alone last–minute polls and prognostications, but with a few anecdotes about American states of mind, and what is at stake.


Five weeks ago, I hailed a taxi in Washington, DC, and told the driver to take me to National Airport. Right, he said, with a little hitch of understanding in his voice. What do you call it, I asked him, Reagan or National? Reagan is the official name, you understand. On board, they tend to hedge bets and call it “Reagan National.”

The driver grinned and said, I call it National.

Bet we have the same reason, I said. He was a heavyset black African man. He allowed as how it was especially offensive to have named National Airport for Reagan, who had, after all, launched his first term by firing the air-traffic controllers.

So now we could ratchet up another notch. I asked him how he saw the campaign going. I’m afraid they’re going to steal it again, he said. Otherwise, I think we’ll win.

Fresh in my mind was that, just the day before, a friend who’d worked in that campaign had told me she would never forget the moment her group was told to call off demonstrations in behalf of counting the Florida votes because Al Gore had told them to call them off. I told the driver how frustrated I’d been, in 2000, that we, collectively, had laid down and let the Bush juggernaut roll over us.

I had myself helped organize a demonstration on the Monday after election day at the Federal Building in New York — Count every vote! was the slogan of the day, evergreen, at that — and we had scraped together maybe 300 protestors, no more. In the weeks of the tortured Florida count, culminating in the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision to keep George W Bush from suffering “irreparable harm”, I realised that I no longer marvelled that people went on with business as usual as the tanks of one or another junta rolled in over their republics. Ah, this is what it’s like to watch your country hijacked. It feels just like this.

As I left the cab at the airport. I said to the driver, See you on the streets! He seemed a bit taken aback. Oh, he said, I hope it won’t come to that. Would you go out in the streets if they try to steal it again? I asked him.

Sure would.


I write on Sunday night. The early reports in states like Florida and Nevada, where polling places have already started collecting votes — and presumably registering them — say that turnout is unprecedented and stirring. Partly, of course, this is because millions of voters grasp as fully as they have ever grasped anything citizenly that they are voting as if the republic’s life depends on it. Which it does.

Like the Washington cabbie, much of the aroused public knows in every atom of their being that there are forces at work in America — in the ruling party, no less — that care so much about their programme of plutocracy, messianism, and disordered thought that they would sooner dampen the vote, peel off the riff–raff, shoo away the little people, than run the risk that an unencumbered, unintimidated majority might express itself against the fanatics in power.

They know this not because the mass media have been warning them non–stop against any further triumph of unreason, but because they have not forgotten 2000; and because they have been paying attention to this fact about Iraq and that fact about Halliburton and the other fact about rampaging deficits and lies, and done what the press did not do for them, namely, connected the dots; and also recognised that the mendacity of the Bush crowd is something central to this administration’s being; and that in the citizens’ own hands and only in their hands, in this emergency, is the opportunity to recover from this disgrace.

They have noticed some of the sort of thing that the first–rate, level–headed columnist EJ Dionne, Jr. wrote this week: “We have the spectacle of a Republican secretary of state in Ohio telling local officials to enforce a state law requiring registration applications to be made on 80–pound paper stock (he later relented). We have had allegations and lawsuits over the validity of tens of thousands of new registrations in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and other battleground states. We have GOP challenges to the eligibility of students registered where they attend college, battles over the fate of provisional ballots, arguments over the purging of voter rolls.

“And that’s before election day.

“Democrats see a specific strategy in the Republican focus on fraud in urban areas. Dan Trevas, the communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party, said the idea is ‘to slow up the system so people are back in line, looking at their watches and saying, ‘Do I have time?’”

I can’t keep up with the stories of voter intimidation and trickery. For more on Republican dirty tricks to knock back the vote in Ohio, see this report in the Akron Beacon Journal.


But the story does not end with the dirty tricks. Here are reports rolling around the internet this weekend.

First, of course, from Florida, by volunteer ES [via]

At today’s early vote in the College Hill district of East Tampa – a heavily democratic, 90% African American community – we had 879 voters wait an average of five hours to cast their vote. People were there until four hours after they closed (as long as they’re in line by 5, they can vote).
Here’s what was so moving:
We hardly lost anyone. People stood outside for an hour, in the blazing sun, then inside for another four hours as the line snaked around the library, slowly inching forward. It made Disneyland look like speed–walking. Some waited 6 hours. To cast one vote. And EVERYBODY felt that it was crucial, that their vote was important, and that they were important.
And there were tons of first time voters. Tons.
Aside from some hassles from the republican election commissioner (he didn’t want us to give people water or food, even if we did it in a non–partisan manner; in fact, I actually overheard him on a cell phone saying “we need to find a way to leak out that there are 4 hour lines here in College Hill, that might thin it out a little –– but we gotta be careful cause we can get ‘bad spin’ from it; we gotta find a way to do it without getting bad spin”)... these people know that the system that’s in place doesn’t want them voting. Yet they’re determined to do it.
The best of all was an 80 year old African American man who said to me: “When I first started I wasn’t even allowed to vote. Then, when I did, they was trying to intimidate me. But now I see all these folks here to make sure that my vote counts. This is the first time in my life that I feel like when I cast my vote it’s actually gonna be heard.”

To see people coming out – elderly, disabled, blind, poor; people who have to hitch rides, take buses, etc – and then staying in line for hours and hours and hours... Well, it’s humbling. And it’s awesome. And it’s kind of beautiful.
Sometimes you forget what America is.
This is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s been an incredible experience.
I think there’s hope.


And from Las Vegas, by L. Soderman:

Last night was the last opportunity to vote early in NV. Polls were scheduled to stay open until 9:00. My wife had voted earlier in the week, and I needed to go right by the polling place to run some errands. So I went.

First surprise – The parking lot was full. Really full. Drive around it a couple times to find a spot full. May not seem like much, but this polling place is located in a trailer on the parking lot of a large shopping center. And I’m certain it wasn’t a rush for a sale at Office Depot next door. I have been by this place many times, usually three or four times a week. I’ve never seen a car in this particular lot. As we’ve all discussed here, large turnout favors the Kerry camp. Even in NV.

Second surprise – about 150–200 people in line. Again, large turnout, but keep in mind that the line was outside, and the temps were dropping into the low 50’s last night. Yet, folks were in line. And staying there. I arrived at 6:30. Folks were still arriving.

Third surprise – A significant number of minority voters, particularly African Americans. This is not a neighbourhood that is dominated by any particular minority group. The area around the polling place is mainly newer homes, and definitely middle to upper–middle class. Again, as we have mentioned before, minorities may be a key to winning. I would guess 25–30% minorities in the line.

Fourth surprise – A whole lot of young voters. In fact, this polling place made it a point to cheer whenever a first time voter was given their electronic voting card. Here, I estimate about 5% of the voters coming in were new. 1 in 20. Doesn’t sound like much, but 5% in this race could be enormous. And the younger voter tends to guessed it – towards Kerry.

Fifth surprise – And definitely a pleasant one. A polling place official came out and let everyone in the line know that although the polling station officially closed at 9:00, if you were in line you would get to vote, no matter how long it took. Everyone would get their chance to vote. These folks were committed to letting people exercise their rights to choose.

Last surprise – It took about an hour to get through the line, cast my ballot, and exit. When I walked out, the temp had dropped to right around 50 degrees, and the line was longer than when I arrived. I had asked a worker in the polling station about the lines. She said the lines had been like that all day long. She’s never seen anything like it.

As I got in my car, I felt good. Really good. The signs I saw were of new voters, of voters that lean towards Kerry, and of interest in general of my fellow Nevadans in making their voice heard. There were entire families there – Mom, Dad, and kids in tow. I saw multi–generational groups showing up. To me, these all point to something that the polls don’t seem to be catching.


In the end, and it is very nearly the end, it is impossible to say who wants this election more - the forces of unreason or the forces of reason. It is equally impossible to say who will do the better job at the logistics of getting out the vote and getting it counted, converting the fluid stuff of sentiments into the most potent actions it befalls a democracy, even a half–baked one, to take. But it is crucial to understand that reason and unreason are the contending parties.

The conclusion has been growing in me for months that, as I argued two weeks ago, Bush’s disordered thought is not an impediment to his appeal but the core of it. The frightening thing is that some 45% of the American electorate - chiefly Biblical zealots and anti–government fantasists - find the man’s flights from logic and evidence the most appealing thing about him. They like to see a faith–based fella running away with American destiny. If he says the war in Iraq is a great success, they like the cut of his jib. If he says the war on terror is going fine, they like the sound of his clarion. If he says that unprecedented deficits don’t matter, they call that resolve.

Against him and them, Americans who think have the chance to demonstrate that the cause of thought is not lost. It’s at this moment a leap of faith to think that there are enough of us. Very soon we’ll know whether faith is rewarded by works. And if we prevail, we can see what else the collective reason can do to dig ourselves out of some deep traps. And if we do not—well, you might say, God help us.

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