Friday, April 26, 2002

Shame: A Post

I like Salman Rushdie, but in his op-ed today on the apathy of the French Left, he runs into trouble. His premise is that the sensible (leftist) part of the French public has become so uninterested in politics that they've allowed the right-wing forces of Jean-Marie Le Pen to gain an unsettling amount of influence. But the only reason Le Pen came in second (defeating socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin) in the first round of presidential elections was that the left-leaning parties fielded a dozen different candidates while right-leaning parties ran only a few. How can a larger number of candidates seeking power be a reflection of apathy? It seems the real problem is over-confidence, not disinterest.

Worse is Rushdie's application of the same logic to the Thatcher revolution in Britain and the results of the 2000 U.S. presidential election: "Every so often, an electorate will shrug its shoulders and decide there isn't much difference between the main contenders for office. The day after the election, reality bites, but by then it's too late. When it last happened in Britain, the consequence was Margaret Thatcher's long, damaging reign. Voter apathy was also a crucial factor, perhaps the crucial factor, in the Bush-Gore presidential election; as a result, the fiasco in Florida turned into the decisive event it should never have become."

So the only reason Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister of Great Britain for eleven years was that voters thought there wasn't much difference between her and her main opponents for power? That might come as a surprise to a lot of people who opposed the policies of her government. And Bush and Gore indistinguishable? The fact that they had opposing opinions on abortion alone is enough to make up the minds of a large segment of the U.S. electorate. Gore supported extending government health coverage, Bush supported a large tax cut. Gore likes environmental restrictions on energy production, Bush favors greater domestic oil exploration. Where is the mass of voters Rushdie refers to that couldn't tell the candidates apart?

One final fact: neither Thatcher nor Bush are even remotely comparable to Le Pen. Neither are xenophobes or racists, the sins Le Pen is most frequently castigated for. That Rushdie would attempt to implicitly put them all in the same category is insulting.

No comments: