One Year Later | Book Review | Chicago Reader

One Year Later 

The 2004 election is more controversial than ever.

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SPANKING THE MONKEY: DISPATCHES FROM THE DUMB SEASON | Matt Taibbi (New Press)

Comparisons between New York Press columnist Matt Taibbi and Hunter S. Thompson have never been a stretch--as cofounder of the infamous expat tabloid the Exile, Taibbi covered roaring-90s Russia just the way the old man might have, with opportunistic delight and an enthusiastically jaundiced eye. But his new book, a Fear and Loathing for our times, should make the connection stick. Spanking the Donkey is a postmortem on the Democratic campaign-trail failures that led to the retention of George W. Bush in '04, and read simply as history it's painfully educational. But as a guide to what the whole dysfunctional electoral process may really be designed to accomplish, it could be invaluable.

"The presidential election, as presented by the media, is a great tour de force of lies," says Taibbi, "a kind of ritualistic piece of theater held exclusively for the consumption of upper-middle-class white people, for use in legitimizing a political process the rest of the country knows instinctively is a bunch of crap." The son of longtime network correspondent Mike Taibbi, Matt Taibbi was a member of the press pool following Dean, and then Kerry, writing for both the NYP and Rolling Stone, and his credentials as a renegade insider ring true. His dissection of the '04 campaign season is savage and meticulous.

Starting with the gross media undercounts of the massive antiwar demonstrations of January 2003--the largest since Vietnam--Taibbi suggests the press corps hasn't just been asleep at the wheel but actively complicit in the dumb show that's got us in the fix we're in today. Speechwriter, reporter, political operative, and op-ed hack all speak the same empty language, within a rarefied bubble of plane, hotel, and campaign HQ. Dark horses like Dean are set up to fall; darker ones like Kucinich are so dangerous they must be ridiculed from the get-go. While all the "drama" of the campaign trail may not be scripted, its goal most certainly is: eventually the prize must--and will--go to another stuffed shirt.

For all his chemically enhanced shenanigans--shrooming at a debate in New Hampshire, tripping in full Viking regalia amid the Kerry press pool--Taibbi's deconstruction of the mechanics of the campaign trail is masterful and lucid, and his scorn for the sad attempts of the Democrats to counter Republican vituperation with their "cheap imitation of viciousness" is palpable. But analytical chops aside, Taibbi's great strength remains his role-playing routines--feverish fusions of outrage, cynicism, and pitch-black wisecrack that take him past Uncle Gonzo and into the company of high satirists like Swift and Burroughs. Whether fantasizing about ruling a backwater in the future American empire or pitching a reality TV show called "Extreme Fascist Makeover," he portrays the right-wing other with all the diabolical glee of Dr. Benway adding two inches to a four-inch incision. Unlike many a handwringer, Taibbi's willing to engage the opposition on a level deeper than condescension, bafflement, or pity. And on a couple occasions, when he joins his analytic and satiric powers together--as when tranny-baiting Bush volunteers while undercover in Florida--the results are dumbfounding. --Brian Nemtusak

FOOLED AGAIN: HOW THE RIGHT STOLE THE 2004 ELECTION AND WHY THEY'LL STEAL THE NEXT ONE TOO (UNLESS WE STOP THEM) | Mark Crispin Miller (Basic Books)

Mark Crispin Miller's Fooled Again is a jeremiad aimed at the heart of the national Republican machine. But it's also a work of original reporting that in the end amounts to a solid case for Republican theft of the 2004 presidential election. As he's done in other work, from the Bush-whacking Bush Dyslexicon to Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order, Miller casts the Republican machine as the apotheosis of the antidemocratic forces at work in the national political culture. From a lucid analysis of the psychology driving the machine to a frightening yet hilarious retelling of last January's Senate proceedings during the Ohio electoral challenge--a farce of parliamentary procedure more bizarre than the footage of Al Gore's incessant gavel slamming in Fahrenheit 9/11--Miller practices a kind of shock-and-awe rhetoric, overloading his reader with instances of Republican chicanery to the point where it's hard to argue with him.

Some of the evidence is circumstantial: the uncharacteristically large but seemingly systematic margin between the Kerry victory exit polls predicted and the final vote tally in Republican-controlled precincts, the intimidation felt by countless voters confronted by Republican challengers, the afore-mentioned psychological analysis. But for every conjecture there are a multitude of small, well-documented frauds, from illegal edicts issued by Ohio secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell in the run-up to the election to the vanishing of Democratic voter registrations to the manipulation of absentee ballots to break-ins at various Democratic offices in Ohio that are eerily reminiscent of one infamous night in 1972.

Miller argues that these tactics exemplify a new Republican strategy, a push for an electoral process with no paper trail plus nickel-and-dime disenfranchisement tactics that add up to fraud. "So how will America vote in 2008?" Miller asks in his conclusion. It's a loaded question, sure, and like certain of our elder statesmen (Jimmy Carter, say) Miller suggests nationwide standardization of both voting machinery and electoral procedure as goals worth pursuing. But in the near term, he argues, overtures toward reform are insufficient. Without a politically engaged citizenry issuing a forceful cry for change, and a press that does more than parrot White House PR, Fooled Again may well describe the endgame that leads to single-party dominance through the next generation. --Todd Dills

STEAL THIS VOTE: DIRTY ELECTIONS AND THE ROTTEN HISTORY OF DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA | Andrew Gumbel (Nation Books)

In "How to Steal an Election," the first chapter of Andrew Gumbel's Steal This Vote, the U.S. correspondent for London's Independent sets out to illustrate the egregiousness of the American electoral machine, quoting Jimmy Carter's "stunningly blunt" assessment that "the American political system wouldn't measure up to any sort of international standards." In Venezuela, Gumbel points out, new electronic voting machines are equipped for recounts; in most states where these things are in use in the U.S., they're not.

Gumbel's grand argument is that electoral fraud is ingrained in the American political system. He takes readers chronologically from the Constitutional Convention and the first great theft of power in the federal arena--in which southern slaveholding states secured a nonrepresentative Senate based on the three-fifths compromise--through the rise of machine politics under Boss Tweed in New York in the 1800s, and in Chicago in the 20th century, to the national Republican machine's activities last year.

The confirmed theft of 1876 plays large: then, the Republican Party manipulated totals in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina (where federal troops were still on the ground and Republican "carpetbagging" state governments in power) to eke out a win for Rutherford B. Hayes. (Gumbel is always quick to point out that theft happens on both sides: during that campaign, South Carolina Democrats were also out in force, intimidating and even murdering blacks and generally making a nasty historical legacy for themselves.) Afterward, confidence in the system's fairness, already at low ebb, was obliterated. And almost a century later Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said, "If you do everything, you'll win."

Details from separate chapters on the 2000 debacle in Florida and last year's Ohio follies confirm the idea. Gumbel argues for nationwide standardization in a final set of conclusions, but paired with such a bleak historical message, his calls for reform ring a little hollow. But all is not utterly dreary: Gumbel notes that grassroots activism in the area of electoral reform is growing, which bodes well for long-term reform, however unlikely success in the short term may be. --Todd Dills

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