On election day, George W. Bush was whisked by an aircraft at public expense to Crawford, Texas, where he voted, spending no more than five minutes inside the local firehouse that served as his polling place. Would that we were all so lucky.
He faced no long lines, no partisan poll challengers, no misleading phone calls or memos telling him to cast his vote Nov. 3 along with other minorities. Presumably, he found that he was registered, not purged from the voter rolls. He didn't have to wait five hours in line or endure the surveillance of "observers" trying to intimidate him into leaving before he voted. And we assume he wasn't told to cast a "provisional" ballot that may, or may not, be counted.
Like that old sports cliché, voting in America has become a game of inches. Instead of centralized corruption, we have decentralized dysfunction, leaving us asking: Is Ohio the new Florida? Are provisional ballots the hanging chads of 2004? Is this election being stolen again?
So many signs seemed to indicate that things could be different—despite The Onion's hilariously prescient pre-election headline, "Countdown to the Recount." For one thing, voter turnout was predicted to hit record levels, and reforms—such as making provisional ballots available in every state—would help see us through, rectifying some of the nightmares of 2000. No such luck.
What we seem to have discovered is that we are a nation frozen in place. For the most part, red states remain red, blue states remain blue. The higher turnout, which the conventional wisdom predicted would help the Democrats, instead seemed to help both parties equally: minority voters, meet the Evangelicals. The result has helped to cement the foundations of a nation split. Our margins of error are well within the litigation zone.
Whatever the final electoral count, whoever sits in the White House when we're all through, we can be amazed that, despite the record billions that were spent on this election, despite the amazing get-out-the-vote efforts on both sides, despite the questionable influence of tracking polls, security moms, the Bush cousins, the Swiftboat vets, and the Howard Stern factor, despite all that, it took everything we had to stay in the same place. Zell Miller did not move Democrats with his endorsement of Bush. Lyndon LaRouche did not stampede voters with his endorsement of John Kerry. The only winner so far is non-factor Ralph Nader, now off the hook as America's spoiler.
America is a house divided. A haunted house. The No. 1 box office movie in America is The Grudge, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Sarah Michelle Gellar. It's a creepy horror film about the ghosts of a Japanese family—victims of a murder-suicide—whose spirits infest a home. They are doomed to visit horrors upon anyone who happens to wander into their scary place. The film is a portrait of trauma: Spooks and victims are locked in an endless cycle of pain and suffering.
America was traumatized by the stolen election of 2000. Four years, a terrorist attack, and a couple of wars later, we're right back where we started. We're dug-in, no one daring to move, all of us stuck and afraid. For half of us, the prospect of change seems essential; for the other half, it is anathema.
In The Grudge, the only way out of the curse is to burn down the house. America, one would hope, could be fixed with less drastic measures. Does healing our house divided really require the blood sacrifice of civil war? Let's hope not, but it will take more than empty calls for unity to fix things. One of the central lies of the Bush presidency has been Dubya's insistence that he is "a uniter, not a divider," when, in fact, the opposite is true. The 50 percent of this country that does not buy his lies is going to have to do some serious soul-searching to find a way out of the trauma trap. If the Bushies can counter every vote or political move with one of their own, we're going to have to find a way to change the game. Stubborness, defiance, and resistance will not be enough. A Manichean struggle between good and evil plays too much to the Bush mindset to defeat it.
We're going to have to find a way—or someone—to inspire and lead this country back to a whole and better self, someone who can transcend this standoff. An alchemist who can turn this shit into gold.
On this dark, gloomy November night, I cannot clearly see how it is possible, but I do know that it has to be done.