Message in a Bottle

dated December 2001

As I write, the members of the Supreme Court are reaching a decision that may put an end to the uncertainty that we awoke to after Election Day. I can't help thinking that it would better to put off writing altogether until the uncertainty has been resolved, because nothing stales faster than short-term doubt. Pity the pundits and the columnists for the waste of all their now unreadable election-year observations! The suggestion that John McCain's bid for the Republican nomination might succeed is pathetic in a way that the bid itself neither was nor ever will be. 

The resolution of this uncertainty - the identification of Bill Clinton's successor in the White House - has itself become so uncertain that it's difficult to think with certainty about anything remotely connected to public life - such as, for example, conversations with neighbors. Kathleen, my wife, has imposed a ban on political discussions with friends; whenever she announces it, I feel like a dangerous caged animal. 

Why does this uncertainty feel so dangerous? That's easily answered. The Republicans have made it clear, over and over again, that they will not accept defeat. There is a recklessness about this determination to win: it is the recklessness of moral certainty. The Republicans' moral certainty, in turn, engenders a moral certainty in me that, regardless of their political philosophy, Republicans are unfit to run the country. Nothing renders the health of civil life more uncertain than the tug of opposed moral certainties, and I have tried to stifle this monstrosity of mine every day since James Baker began appearing in the newspaper, but the repeated effort has worn me down. Of all the virtues, patience is the most strenuous, and I no longer have the energy for it. I'm not strong enough to refrain from taking action, however pointless. That's what's dangerous. That for me this action will take the relatively harmless form of writing is beside the point - and the harmlessness is only relative.   

The reasonable course is to examine the forces that produced an uncertain outcome with a view to correcting them, but if the perennial blight of campaign-finance reform tells us anything, it's that we oughtn't to be optimistic about streamlining the nation's myriad voting processes. Campaign-finance reform and voting reform face much the same hurdle. However appealing systematic reform might appear, our constitutions - not just the federal founding document but the traditions and prejudices that, as Americans, we pass on, with only slight changes, from generation to generation - rally against them, and champion individual, idiosyncratic liberty.  The country's rural culture seems unshakably rooted in a self-reliance that regards government as little better than an unnecessary and ignorant interference. How fine it would be if metropolitan areas could shake free of this frontier outlook! The multiplicity of states and state laws ought in principle to afford room for considerable diversity in the handling of local political issues, but in practice our state governments are inordinately influenced by exurban thinking that varies remarkably little from statehouse to statehouse. As New Yorker of the twenty-first century, I am no less in thrall to Albany (a town far more distant, so far as mentality goes, than Washington or San Francisco) than were New Yorkers of the eighteenth to London.  

The determination of a victor will assuredly introduce us to a new period of uncertainty. Whether or not this new uncertainty feels as perilous as the one that blinds us now, Election Day's snapshot of an evenly divided electorate will go on to vex the new administration. How intractable are the structural problems exposed by the late election? If the country is polarized along regional lines, what will save us from the catastrophe of 1861? 

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