August 11, 2006

Commentary:

Lieberman’s Folly — What If You Hold an Election and No One Accepts Defeat?

By Sandip Roy
New America Media

There is not a hanging chad to be seen. But Joe Lieberman is probably having horrible flashbacks to the 2000 presidential election, when all the liberal bloggerati and MoveOn-ers lambasted Al Gore for conceding too early. Still, perhaps it’s not just Florida 2000 post-traumatic stress disorder that keeps the Connecticut senator from gracefully accepting defeat. This could be a sign of the times, when losing is simply not an option.

Lieberman is in good company. Over in Mexico, Lopez Obrador is virtually holding Mexico City hostage until every last vote is recounted according to the way he wants it. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi refused to concede to Romano Prodi after a close presidential election, complaining of “endless vote-rigging” even though his own party controlled the government. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was birthed when Victor Yushchenko and his orange arm-banded supporters refused to accept the results of the 2004 presidential elections. In the just-concluded elections in Congo, the nation’s first in 45 years, the fear is that if there is no run-off, the assumption will be that the vote was rigged and the supporters of the losers will riot. Currently, President Joseph Kabila and his former warlord rival Jean-Pierre Bemba both claim to be in the lead.

Some of these claims were legitimate. Some were not. What they all had in common was that someone just refused to lose. This might be a good time to retell the story of Robert Bruce and the spider. Thirteenth century Scottish king Robert Bruce had lost his seventh battle with the British and was held up, exhausted and dispirited, in a cave. There he saw a spider trying to spin a web. Seven times it tried and failed. On the eighth attempt it succeeded. Robert Bruce, inspired by the dogged spider, went back to fight another day and left us with the moral, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”

At first glance, Lieberman seems to model the same spirit. But Bruce and the spider first had to fully embrace defeat before succeeding. Lieberman, in announcing his run for the Senate as an independent, seems to think he never really lost.

Perhaps the tone of the times has been set unwittingly by George W. Bush himself. With his dogged “stick-to-the-plan” approach to Iraq, no matter what news the new day brings, the president has tried to redefine the very notion of strength. It doesn’t matter if even his own military brass is raising the specter of a civil war in Iraq. Strength is about never wavering from the mantra, “failure is not an option.” Anything else is flip-flopping, and flip-floppers don’t win elections.

Once upon a time it seemed there could be victory in losing. This is different from losers wresting a victory despite losing, as when the military junta in Myanmar put electoral winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. No, the Gandhis and the Mandelas harvested a moral strength out of physical losses. They went to jail to build the political capital for a future victory. Now, even a non-violent struggle seeks not long marches but an instant vending machine victory. In an age where millions can vote for the American Idol and savor instant democracy on prime time, there is no such thing as victory in the long run. It’s winner-take-all (and take it now), and as Karl Rove realizes, they take it for a long, long time. Juliet Eilperin pointed out in Slate, thanks to the way districts have been tweaked, House incumbents seeking re-election now have 98 percent chance of winning, up from the lower 90s a decade ago. No wonder today’s loser is looking at Robert Bruce and his spider and feeling desperation, not inspiration.

The end result of this is bleak. Sure, there is something Hollywoodishly appealing in the loser taking on the powers that be and winning through sheer, doggone obstinacy. The faith in people power that was weakened when the mammoth rallies around the world failed to even make a dent in the White House’s determination to invade Iraq might have needed a shot in the arm from the success of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. But ultimately, as electoral margins grow ever slimmer, what happens if no one concedes and we end up in a Godzilla-meets-King Kong stalemate?

How long will Lopez Obrador block the streets of Mexico? And if Obrador gets his recount, will it be Felipe Calderon’s turn to do the same?

The other side of putting winning over party loyalty, principles and just sheer fairness is fear. “It’s not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it,” Aung San Suu Kyi famously said. Joe Lieberman might do well to reflect on that.

Sandip Roy, host of “UpFront,” a NAM weekly radio program on KALW-FM 91.7 in San Francisco.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage