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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of November 13 - 19, 2002

Opinion Columns

The darkening mood 
of a nation

Commentary by Adam Tanous

Divining grand truths from the recent election is tricky business. Knowing who voted which way tells us a few things, but it does nothing to get at the why and how of it. Exit polls and interviews are an attempt to get at the all-important question of why people voted the way they did, and the system for gathering that data, a consortia called VNS, failed rather famously in Florida in 2000 and nationwide this election.

The fact is that while the consequences and effects of the election may be profound, the election itself marked a very subtle change in the electorate. The differences in the key elections that shifted the balance of power were measured in thousands of votes, fractions of percentage points.

But a shift there was.

For a number of years now, both parties have been moving to the political center. It’s where the votes are, and what’s more it’s safer. Politicians have become more and more risk averse in time. A commentator on National Public Radio the other day pointed out that in many races voter turnout is often around 30 percent. So a candidate really only has to garner 16 percent of the registered voters to win. Why be a bold visionary when winning might just be a matter of holding on to sure bets and motivating one’s political base?

And so Republicans are inching towards bigger government—witness the Homeland Security Act—while Democrats are moving right in fiscal matters. The Republicans are starting to give more attention, and money, to education, while Democrats made a stab at welfare reform.

The great differences, it seems, will play out mostly in the courts and in foreign policy. The former is where social issues and values are hashed out and I think where the true effects of the election will be felt.

When the Democrats controlled the Senate, they used their majority and Senate rules to keep those they considered from the far right off the district court and appeals court benches. Two recent examples are Priscilla Owen and Charles Pickering. With the power shift in the Senate, President Bush will no doubt get more aggressive in his nominations. They will certainly be more conservative than in the past. And in the courts is where social policy will be set.

It seems in the last 20 years, perhaps longer, politicians have figured out that stacking the judiciary in one’s favor is a much more effective way to instigate social change than through a strictly political process. In a sense, they can get judges to do their controversial, read dirty, work. At the same time, political opponents have no recourse except in appealing to the Supreme Court. Judges at that level can’t be voted out of office.

While the electorate focuses in on every word politicians say, it pays little attention to the 13 very influential circuit courts. People do pay attention to the Supreme Court, but the number of cases it deals with is minuscule compared to the circuit courts. The latter take up thousands of cases each year—30,000 to be more precise. These are cases involving abortion, environmental law, civil liberties, free speech and occupational safety and health. All are issues people care about passionately, but once in the judiciary branch are not really subject to debate by the general public.

The other reason the circuit court appointments are so critical is these judges, in general, comprise the recruits for the Supreme Court. While the current court is generally considered to be split 5-to-4, conservative to liberal, several seats will likely come up soon. Chief Justice Rehnquist, who has expressed the desire to retire, is 78; John Paul Stevens is 82; and Sandra Day O’Connor is 72. And should a major shift in the makeup develop—a 6-to-3 court or even 7-to-2 court in either direction—many previously decided but controversial cases may be revisited. New incarnations Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, and several church-state separation cases would be fair game.

Another arena for dramatic change as a result of this election is in foreign affairs. President Bush is staking out new territory in his approach to foreign affairs. With stated objectives of maintaining our world dominance and to use military force against anyone who challenges that dominance, Bush is departing quite dramatically from decades of U.S. foreign policy. And further his bifurcation of the world’s nation states, as being either "with us or against us," is a dramatic departure from a more nuanced vision of the world.

What does seem to be reflected in the midterm elections is the public’s sympathy for this realist approach, an inclination toward power politics. Such a trend seems perfectly understandable given the events of the last few years. With the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the anthrax killings, sniper killings, threats from Saddam Hussein and North Korea, the possibility of biological agents being unleashed by just about anyone with a grudge, suddenly the world seems a much more sinister place.

What is really at the base of Bush’s policies and the apparent tide of public support for him, especially in the areas of foreign affairs, is a growing pessimism about the world and its people. One way of looking at the swing of power to the political right is as a reflection of an old tug of war, that between nature and nurture. Whereas Republicans have always been somewhat inclined towards the nature argument—that human nature is to a larger degree than not determined by genetics and therefore less malleable than we assume; Democrats have always put more faith in nurture—the power of environment and context to effect change. One can trace these philosophies through Republican and Democrat approaches to not only world politics but to crime and punishment, welfare policy, education and a host of other social issues.

Who’s to know who’s right? Scientists have been arguing about human behavior in this context since Darwin and Mendel were on the scene and still there’s no definitive answer. What does seem clear is the darkening mood of the electorate. With our votes we have weighed in on an old question, moved ever so slightly towards a realist approach to looming threats.



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