Our national food fight

I don't know how Jerry Springer's ratings have been in the past few weeks, or if the World Wrestling Federation is playing to emptier houses, but I wouldn't be surprised if fans of "trash TV" are discovering a whole new kick - the news.

The battle for Florida's electoral votes has at times resembled a food fight, road rage, or the rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets in "West Side Story."

It's payback time, no one's giving an inch, and emotions are running nuclear-hot. What drama! What ratings! But what's the effect on democracy?

Like the Internet and talk radio, this election limbo seems to bring out the worst in people. Give citizens a platform to trash their fellow citizens, and they'll take it, run with it, and put it on cable TV. In Florida, an electorate used to a diet of C-SPAN and "Inside Politics" suddenly has more to say about the election than a raft of pundits - and much more effect on its outcome.

Meanwhile, political operatives, campaign lawyers, party hacks, and patronage workers swarm toward the ballot recount, eager for a piece of the action.

"This is the easiest money we've ever raised," one campaign official crowed.

If early money is like yeast in politics, overtime money, like the funds being raised now, is icing on the cake.

How sweet it is for the insiders jockeying for position to do an important favor for the next president.

Our political system, already buffeted by scandals and corruption, stands accused of not even being capable of electing a president. That giant ripping sound you hear is the fabric of democracy. Or is it?

If the enduring memory people retain from Florida's "chad row" is the report of a ballot worker eating those tiny bits of cardboard, then, yes, we're in trouble.

But I'm going to remember something else.

I'll never forget the sight of all those TV cameras and crews pressed up to the glass of the counting rooms as tables of anonymous citizens dutifully studied ballots and facilitated the transfer of presidential power.

The spinners and partisan warriors were literally up against a wall, with nothing to do but watch as real news was laboriously and tediously made.

Outside, in Florida, across the nation and around the world, a great debate was sparked that should rage for some time to come. How does democracy work? Are elections fair?

For the first time in memory, Americans are asking the kind of questions stakeholders in democracy should be asking. Maybe what we're hearing isn't a rift but a rendering of the country's faith in our founders' dream of democracy.

For a country that recently was obsessed with O.J. Simpson and Elian Gonzalez, I'd call this progress.

William S. Klein is a political consultant.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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