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No Do-Overs

Friday, November 05, 2004
Over the next week or so, I am going to lay out why this election was so important, why the defeat was so disastrous. I will take a look at each issue area in which we are going to see catastrophic policies with enduring consequences. Today's post will serve as something of a preface.

Most of the time, elections are transient affairs. The voters speak, and there is a small and usually temporary shift in the balance of power between the two political parties. If you lose one election, you re-group and re-calibrate in preparation for the next one. There are no permanent losers or permanent winners. This is what makes democracies fun. It is also what makes it so similar in appearance to sports- the Red Sox were not executed after a defeat. There was always next year, and finally next year came.

But sometimes, there is no next year. Occasionally there are elections which are absolutely pivotal. There is a real choice to make, and a wrong decision can have calamitous and irrevocable results. America, like most democracies, has had its share of close calls. What if the Federalists had failed to ratify the Constitution in 1789? What if Aaron Burr had successfully stolen the election of 1800? What if Sherman hadn't taken Atlanta so that Lincoln was defeated in the 1864 election? What if Hoover had been re-elected or Huey Long had lived? Any of these eventualities were eminently possible, even likely under the circumstances. And each would have led to catastrophe.

Through some combination of luck and wisdom, America averted each of these potential disasters. But a different decision by the voters or our leaders could have taken things in a very different direction, towards an America none of us would want to live in. I think the election of 2004 was one of these decisive moments. For the first time, America chose wrongly. It may be impossible to correct the damage likely to be done over the next four years. The probable financial, social, and foreign policy crises are unlikely to be averted, and they will at best be very difficult to clean them up.

Why did we choose so poorly? I think perhaps that Americans have been spoiled by their good fortune. At every critical juncture we had great leaders to guide us- Washington, Hamilton, Lincoln, Roosevelt. We got used to men in white horses riding over the hill to save us. So when another great crisis arose, we just assumed that our current leader was one of the great ones, rather than one of the worst. We projected what we wanted to believe onto a man unsuited to his role. And many of us have refused to accept that the President is not what we would like him to be.

Relying on great leaders is a bad habit. Democracies are about self-governance. We are supposed to act collectively to solve our own problems, not wait for a champion to lead us to victory. Democracy is about the aggregations of small heroisms, not the drama of the Great Man. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to cure ourselves of this mischievous belief.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:37 AM
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