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The Case of the Disappearing Vice President

by Ira Chernus on Jan 3, 2001

Ira Chernus

Remember Al Gore? Sooner than you think, you too may be calling him “What’s-his-name. Clinton’s vice president.”

The case of the disappearing Veep is no great mystery.  When Gore conceded, the cover of Newsweek was displaying the word “CHAOS” ripping open the Constitution. The media’s rush to “healing” following his concession revealed the underlying fear of an unhealable wound. The public may not fear political instability, but the nation’s most influential opinion-makers apparently do. They seem to think that if Gore remains in the news his very name might keep alive “destabilizing” questions.

This anxiety about political instability is an old story among the U.S. political elite. In 1787, the Federalist Papers (No. 63) warned that “the people” were dangerously unstable and easily duped. They were likely to make bad choices when “stimulated by some irregular passion.” The best remedy would be “the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens,” the disinterested few who were wise and wealthy enough to put public good ahead of private gain.

The Constitutional Convention pitted stability against “the people.” Stability won. The House could be elected by popular vote. But the Senate would be elected, and the federal judiciary approved, by the “temperate and respectable” elite. The Electoral College, chosen by the elite of each state, would ensure that the president would always be drawn from the “temperate and respectable,” the guardians of stability. Fear of political chaos gave us a system that can keep the popular-vote victor out of the White House.

In the 2000 election, fear of chaos was at work more directly. When the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Florida recount, Justice Antonin Scalia explained that a recount would do “irreparable harm” to the country. How? Because counting all the votes “is not a recipe for producing election results that have the public acceptance democratic stability requires.”

Chief Justice Charles Wells of the Florida Supreme Court went further: carefully counting all the votes would “ultimately lead to chaos.” The media have heeded the advice Wells put into his dissent: “The election is a tie, so let’s get on with it.” In other words, counting all the votes is dangerous. So let’s forget it was even an option.

When the people’s choice loses, fear of instability is usually involved. In 1824, Andrew Jackson got the most votes for president. But he looked like a backwoods ruffian compared with the venerable John Quincy Adams. So elite leaders made an Electoral College bargain to keep Jackson out of the White House. Four years later, when Jackson became president, the nation began to talk less about stability and more about movement, growth and progress. There was greater concern to have a president chosen by the will of the people — at least the white people.

The Hayes-Tilden election of 1876 also pitted democracy against stability. The Republican Hayes, clearly the loser, became the winner when he promised Southern Democrats he would to jettison the gains blacks had made during Reconstruction. No doubt both the Republicans and the Democrats who cut that deal genuinely feared that black suffrage and black equality would bring instability.

Still, white Americans continued to speak of the United States and its growing power in the Jacksonian language of movement and progress until the Cold War years. Once the nation had reached the peak of its power, “peace and stability” became our national mantra, as if the two words were synonymous. Justice Scalia and his four colleagues lived through a half-century of the Cold War. No doubt they genuinely fear instability. So do the journalists and pundits who demanded Gore’s abject concession, praised his “gracious” exit speech, and then swept him off the stage of history.

The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman is typical. He lauds Gore for “taking a bullet for the country,” because he accepted the U.S. system as legitimate: “Only in that way can the system endure. Preserving this system is critical. The stability of the world today rests on the ability of our system and economy to endure.” If the recount went on too long, he implies, “rogue” states might be tempted to act up, and nervous investors might take their big money elsewhere.

In fact, there is no good reason to think that open debate and government by majority vote will necessarily breed instability. On the contrary, these fundamentals of democracy may keep our society more stable. But today, just as in the past, no one asks “the people” whether they prefer stability to democracy. No one even asks “the people” whether they think electoral democracy threatens stability.

The “temperate and respectable” elite still assume they know the answers. They assume they are preserving stability by making sure that no one asks disturbing questions.  Anyone who might provoke “destabilizing” discussion must disappear, even if he is the vice president.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.