It has become an increasingly common topic of conversation: Are we watching the end of the American Century? Is this what the collapse of empire feels like? Several recent books address this notion directly or indirectly -- Alan Ryan reviewed five of them in the October 23 issue of the New York Review of Books (good essay). A colleague of mine who specializes in Roman history nods his head sagely and says: Yes, this is Rome in the late days, complete with the beer and circus that has characterized so much of our politics over the last generation.
These conversations tend to focus on The Big Picture: American geo-military position after the Iraq debacle; the rise of emerging economies; the consequences of borrowing so much money from China; the failure of the United States to respond to the climate crisis.
As the election enters its final (thank god) week, however, I'm struck by a smaller but no less dispiriting symptom of American decline. More and more of us, to judge by what I'm reading, hearing on the streets, and watching on the internet, simply assume that our elections are corrupt and dishonest. When early voting in Florida began, one late-night comedian quipped: "Early voting has begun in Florida. You know what that means? Florida has probably already screwed up the election and we won't know it until November 4." Scroll down here and you'll see that Tom posted a funny Simpson's clip. When Homer tries to vote for Obama and he registers six votes for McCain instead. Funny stuff.
And as Homer said once, in another cartoon context: It's funny because its true. Or true enough. There is no question that the 2000 election was stolen; there is compelling evidence that the 2004 election in Ohio - at least - was also swiped. And by god if there aren't reports of voting problems already in Florida.
This all went under-reported in the press, and Americans largely shrugged their collective shoulders and took it for granted. It is a sorry commentary on the state of The Greatest Democracy on Earth that we are largely resigned to stolen elections.
We should be clear. American elections have always been two parts democratic process and one part three-card monte game. The wonderful painting by George Caleb Bingham of the "County Election" from the 1850s is enough to dispel the idea that our elections were once pure. (The painting features drunkenness, debauchery and voter intimidation.) For several generations black Americans had their votes taken from them for the crime of being black; women couldn't vote at all until 1920. American elections have never been models of democratic probity.
Still, rather than cracking jokes, we should be demanding better. The first responsibility of any real democracy - before invading other countries, or bailing out its investment banks - is to make sure the democratic process works. That citizens are permitted to vote, and that each and every vote is counted honestly. It is a fundamental failure of our democracy, therefore, that we can't provide enough ballots or machines that work, that we can't keep polling places open so that working people can vote, that people wait in lines so long that they look like the third world simply to exercise their most basic right in our society.
It has become the stuff of jokes of the sort we used to make about banana republics. Now, however, we are laughing at ourselves.