Op-Ed Analysis of 1998 Election Results
by Adam J. Smith
In the hours and days after the election, the mainstream media were, predictably, teeming with analysis and debate, provided by the usual voices, on what it all meant. Democrats, to be sure, bucked both Clinton's lack of self control and the historical trends by gaining, rather than losing seats in the House in the sixth year of their president's administration. And Republicans had accomplished what they had not done in seventy years, keeping control of both houses for three straight election cycles.
Was the election a referendum on impeachment? On the religious right? Was it the Democrats' ability to get out the African American vote? Was it Social Security? Health care? The Budget?
Over and over, on op-ed pages, radio talk shows, and on a dozen or more 24-hour news and political TV stations, the debate roared: What were the voters saying? What was the trend? What did it all mean?
Pundits and prognosticators, bought and paid for by the corporate media, are very comfortable discussing politics around the edges. They are good at debating the often meager differences between the major parties, offering their opinions on the well-rehearsed theatrics that pass for political dialogue, and making predictions based on polls made up of questions devoid of nuance or context asked of the small percentage of voters who will still take the time to speak to a pollster.
But present the "experts" with the unfamiliar, with a scenario that does not fit into their experience -- confront the editors, the anchors, the talking heads with a sign of change so dramatic that it portends a seismic shift in the political reality -- and you've lost them. Unable to make it fit, they will chalk it up as an anomaly and move on to more comfortable material.
On Election Day 1998, every single ballot measure that would reform an element of our nation's drug policy passed, and passed comfortably. In each case, the usual band of drug warriors, including, most significantly, the federal government itself -- and a majority of both political parties -- were vehemently opposed. Yet in each case the voters ignored them. Whether it was medical marijuana, decriminalization of personal, recreational marijuana use, or an end to jail time for non-violent possession of any drug, the voters supported reform.
In assessing the media's silence on this trend, one should note that is not as if the drug war is an unimportant or inexpensive issue. Tens of billions of tax dollars are spent year after year, while hundreds of thousands of Americans are forced into a broken justice system. Civil liberties are eroded, institutions and entire governments are corrupted, global criminal enterprises are enriched and empowered and the nation's children are confronted with a black market that is more than eager to have them as customers.
Neither was it the case that a single initiative, stealthily ushered onto a ballot, passed under the noses of an unsuspecting public. Initiatives passed in places as diverse as Arizona, Oregon and the District of Columbia, often after fierce debate and much media coverage. In addition, California's voters rejected Dan Lungren, widely known as the state's staunchest opponent of patients' access to medical marijuana, in his race for governor. And in Minnesota, the voters shocked the experts by selecting Jesse Ventura as their governor, a Reform Party candidate who has publicly stated that the drug war doesn't work.
And yet, in the nation's mainstream media, a puzzled silence. Not a word about the implications for the drug war, certainly our most disastrous and destructive domestic policy. A policy, it bears repeating, that both major parties have fallen over themselves to support. Not a word about what the results tell us about voters' confidence in their leaders on this issue, after their leaders ridiculed the reforms and warned of dire consequences in the event of their passage. Not a word about what all of this means for the future earnings of pharmaceutical companies and the prison industry and all the other big political contributors who reap enormous profits from the prosecution of various elements of the war. Not a word about the singular clear trend to come out of the election of 1998.
Those Americans who were watching with their own, rather than the pundits' eyes, however, could scarcely have missed it. Election '98 was a sweep. It showed clearly that the people no longer trust their government, not either party, on the vital issue of the Drug War. It was a stunning refutation of the status quo.
The experts in the mainstream media, for all their air time and all their knowledge and experience, missed the boat on the only clear message that was sent from the voters to the politicos in Election '98. Perhaps they will get it next time, in 2000, when the victories keep coming and it is the drug warriors themselves, and not just their policies, that suffer ignominious defeat. But they will likely be left only to analyze in the aftermath, as they have already shown that they are too blind to predict the demise of that ignoble war.
The results, collectively, indicate in no uncertain terms that the movement has begun in earnest. That movement represents, perhaps, far too substantive a change to be acknowledged or even comprehended by a media elite beholden to the status quo. Voters in 1998 sent a message of freedom and of personal dignity, of their rejection of absurd and alarmist rhetoric and of their confidence in the judgment of individuals over the judgment of the state. And as clear as that message was, it was predictably unfamiliar to the sorry group of Washington apologists assigned to explain our political reality to us. But ignoring the signs does not change their meaning. Nor can it alter the course of events that they portend.
Adam J. Smith, JD, is Associate Director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network. Their web site is at www.drcnet.org.
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