A friend tells me that if the Party of the Shysters the Party of Daleyite Dimackrisy succeeds in stealing the presidential election, he'll never, ever recognize Al Gore as his rightful, legitimate ruler. There must be several million anti-Democrats out there who think the same way, as well as several million anti-Republicans who would never recognize George W. Bush as their rightful, legitimate ruler should the System drag him out of the current morass by his collar and declare him the Boss of America. What a heart-warming victory for civic-minded bipartisanship it would be if we could somehow get both camps on the same page so that neither accorded either plumped-up turkey of a pol any right to power!
There's no doubt that the Gore famiglia has emerged as the more larcenous of the two. As Moe Greene might put it, it made its bones when the Bush Gang was still going out with cheerleaders. At least since Franklin Roosevelt's rise, Democrats have exhibited the stronger zest for power and for the light-fingeredness necessary to acquire power. But that doesn't affect my policy or that of the TLD Ministry of Foreign and Colonial Affairs. Our policy remains one of hard-core, unbending non-Wilsonianism. We will immediately extend full recognition to whichever power-mad dolt the System eventually decides to elevate. If he sets up business in the Oval Office, and the Secret Service shoots anyone who tries to throw him out on his ear, that will be enough for us.
Under Wilsonianism, you recognize only those regimes that you like for one reason or another. It helps if the regime in question has enough of the right surface texture so that it can hold the rhetorical syrup of Peace, Progress, and Democracy you'll be pouring over it, but that's not always strictly necessary, given most Americans' congenital indifference to foreign affairs.
By contrast, under a non-Wilsonian policy, you recognize the de facto seizing and exercising of power, because you understand that de facto is as good as you're going to get. Imagine a scholar of organized crime refusing to recognize the succession of John Gotti as Boss of the Gambino Family because Paul Castellano's sudden retirement out in front of Sparks Steakhouse was most irregular unconstitutional, even! Such an approach would not promote the best kind of scholarship.
Under my sort of non-Wilsonianism, no question of legitimacy or of a right to power arises no more than it would if a new gang of slavering cannibals in Boogaboogaland took over power there by the simple expedient of having the old gang over for dinner. How can I start complaining that my new ruler will be illegitimate when from the very beginning I've been complaining that the whole regime is illegitimate? Climbing onto a moral high horse over the Gore gang's stealing the election would be like reserving special condemnation for a gang who hijacked a truck from a previous gang of hijackers. It would be an insult to the rightful owners of the truck and its contents.
I've been trying to figure out who would be shaken and who would shrug should the eventual winner arrive in office by way of a very smelly swamp of debatable technicalities, as seems highly likely. Several million ordinary spear-carriers in the unsuccessful partisan camp would be shaken as well as enraged, naturally. Freedom-loving constitutionalists would also be shaken; most would probably be enraged, as well, should the winner be Gore, who doesn't even attempt to disguise his hatred of freedom.
And the political class would be shaken, along with the media class and the other interconnected classes that serve the political class. On the basis of the theory that no man considers himself a villain, I assume that some members of those classes still need to see a simulacrum of legitimacy if they're going to be comfortable with a certain regime or ruler. Self-recognized villains or not, they need such a simulacrum to be visible in the sight of one another, so that they can look at each other looking at it. When they talk to us yokels, members of the political and political-servant classes are also talking to each other and posturing for the benefit of each another and for the real owners of the System, the ruling class. The politicos and their servants live by certain rules indeed, they live pretty darn well and it's got to upset them when the rules show signs of breaking down. One thing they have to fear is that the ruling class might decide to change those rules.
As for the ruling class itself, it would be shaken only if the simulacrum of legitimacy on which the morale of the political and media classes depends should sink into Florida's smelly swamp of technicalities. As I've suggested in a previous column, the higher circles certainly will not permit things to go so far unless they have indeed decided to change the rules, imposing, in effect, a revolution from above.
What of the majority of America's ordinary folk who are neither spear-carriers for a partisan camp nor sentimental constitutionalists? They, I believe, would not be unduly shaken either by a collapse of the simulacrum of legitimacy or by a change in the rules.
Let's try an extreme thought experiment: let us imagine that the Florida mess went unresolved, that the ruling class lost either its grip or its mind, and that a military coup finally cut through the tangle with a swift and decisive stroke of the sword. (Possible me no possibles with respect to my premise: this is just an experiment.) Now, some disorder would ensue among us yokels much of it probably incited by the braver or more foolhardy members of the political and media classes who didn't immediately find themselves behind the barbed wire. But what would most Americans do, especially the salarymen occupying the lower levels of their respective hierarchy, whether that hierarchy was situated within or without the Central Government bureaucracy?
For old times' sake, I'm willing to concede that most would be inwardly shaken, as people always are when comforting rituals and forms are stripped away without warning. But almost all of them would soldier on, surely, so long as those government checks and subsidies and privileges kept coming for as long, that is, as they calculated that the power of leviathan benefited rather than injured the special interest of which they were a member. "What! Do you actually expect me to resign and run riot?" they would ask. "Resign and lose my salary and my pension and my health benefits? I've got to stay only for the children, you understand, for the children!"
If I'm right, considerations of legitimacy understood as a kind of political politesse and respectability have become the province not of the ruled but of the rulers. Ironic, in a way. But then we do live in a world turned upside down.
November 22, 2000
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