Valley Forge 2004, 2018

As we hurtle towards another critical election cycle, we can learn a lot from our forefathers, and from a small Eastern European country with no more experience with democracy than we had in 1776…

We will take America without firing a shot….we do not have to invade the United States, we will destroy you from within…”

Nikita Khrushchev

A snowflake fell, and then another, and another.  But they were not liberals, and it was not 2016. It was November 2004 in Kyiv, Ukraine.  We were living in the Ukrainian Village in Chicago at the time in the aftermath of what was, at the time, a particularly dispiriting election.  Democrat John Kerry had rushed to concede with all the alacrity and vigor of a Swift Boat captain reporting for duty, even as evidence of massive election fraud began seeping under his hotel room door, particularly in the deciding state of Ohio.  This after Florida in 2000–and Georgia in 2002, where Saxby Chambliss mysteriously made up a double-digit deficit in the election eve polls on Election Day to give the Republicans control of the Senate, with a file called “hack_georgia” later found on a Diebold voting machine there, the beginnings of a good thing for Georgia Republicans.  

This would be the same Diebold whose CEO promised to “deliver Ohio for Bush” in 2004, as did, apparently the ruling Secretary of State, who, among many other things, had to be blocked by the courts from rejecting Democratic voter registrations based on the weight of the paper they were printed on, and who went on to a seat of honor on Trump’s ignominious “voter fraud” commission.  Hundreds of voters reported voting for Kerry only to see their votes cast for Bush, and those were just those who were paying attention.

Then there were the huge discrepancies between the exit poll and “actual” results, and a lot of hand-waving by so-called experts to explain this away, just-so stories about the “shy Bush voter” (sound familiar?) or the “Republicans who won’t talk to exit pollsters because they don’t like or trust the media.”  As a survey veteran whose work has been called the “gold standard” of new media research, I was not impressed.  You can read the post-mortem analysis of the 2004 election by the exit pollsters here–see if you can find anything harder than “possible” or “likely” with regard to these conjectures, followed by no “corroboration,” as post-Kavanaugh Republicans like to say. 

In fact, as you’ll see from the report, this level of “overstatement of Democratic support” in the exits was highly unusual–it did not occur in either the election before or the election after.  Where were all those “shy Republicans” then?  Didn’t they vote? Occam’s razor would have a field day slicing this up; instead it was used as tautological proof that there was “nothing to see here.”  If you ask John Kerry privately today if he should have conceded so quickly, you might be surprised by the answer, but in the end it was only a small number of Congressmen and Congresswomen (thirty-two in all), all but four African-American, Hispanic, and/or female, who, based on centuries of unlimited exposure to the elements, not to mention the damning Conyers report, found the olfactory presence of rodents in the machinery too strong to ignore, and refused to confirm the official results.

Into this late November damp arachnoid miasma, news from a small eastern European country came like a bracing blast of fresh, cold air.  For its first decade of independence, Ukraine had been ruled by Soviet apparatchiks, but the attendant burgeoning corruption had forced its leader to step aside, and his handpicked successor, one Viktor Yanukovych (yes, that Yanukovych) was facing serious, determined opposition.  Ukraine was as important to Vladimir Putin then as it is now, and so he launched a pilot of what has now become a highly sophisticated program of interference in other countries’ elections.  Like an emergent virus trying to develop a successful parasitic relationship with its host, this first sally was clumsy at best. The campaign created a frisson of interest in the US (and much more than that in the Village) when his foot soldiers deployed traditional Russian statecraft and poisoned the opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko.  However, not only did Yushchenko survive, but the attack left his face permanently and grotesquely scarred, a highly effective 24/7/365 product placement for the fray.  As in the US, on Election Day, the Ukrainians deployed exit pollers. As in our country, those pollers found a serious discrepancy between the exits and the official results.  And there the parallels end, and the stories diverge.

The Ukrainians refused to accept the results. Instead hundreds of thousands descended on the capital and declared, in the face of bitter sub-zero temperatures, that they would not leave until the election was rerun (even now, I tear up at the memory).  Women from all over the country, including the “rebellious” east, daily cooked vats of food and brought them, along with coats, blankets, and toiletries, to the city, often trudging through deep snow drifts to do so.  Here in the United States, in Chicago where I lived, there were dozens of meetings and rallies. Yushchenko himself came to the city, accompanied by Vitali Klitschko (bigger), to seek advice and support from the world’s oldest democracy that had inspired him.

It was an unusually mild winter in Chicago that year, a portent of things to come. I remember one march and rally in particular I attended that took place along the Magnificent Mile.  I was the only American-American in the group, and so was asked to share some words of wisdom. It was hard to know what to say, as I surveyed my fellow countrymen and woman trundling indifferently past us, to and fro, shopping as always (which, to be fair, was what we were told to do to keep the terrorists from winning), and as I imagined our National Mall in similarly mild conditions, empty, and thought of those hundreds of thousands standing in the bitter cold, by now with snipers trained on them, just waiting for the word,  I have to say I was ashamed, looking out at those faces, many of them newly arrived in our country, whose homeland had never tasted the rewards of democracy, whose fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, were now risking their lives for it, while we… All I could do was tell them that as a citizen of the country that had first championed the ideals they were fighting for, I was proud of them, and I hoped their example would inspire us in return.

Has it? The Ukrainians got their rerun election, and with international observers monitoring every move (including some from the Ukrainian Village), Yushchenko was declared the clear winner.  But when I think of that experience, what always comes to mind is those thousands and thousands of Ukrainians, standing quietly or chanting, under cold, clear starry winter nights, night after night after night.  And I think of a winter like that in our country, when George Washington gathered his dispirited troops at Valley Forge to regroup after defeat after defeat after defeat.

Clausewitz famously observed that “politics is war by other means.”  If so, what is the political equivalent of a military victory or defeat? In the times we live in, who we are, how we behave, I’d say defeat is retreat, letting things happen that shouldn’t.  We let dirty tricks happen starting in 1968, when candidate Nixon sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks and was rewarded with the White House. We let lizard-brain manipulations gain their first national foothold in 1980 in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where Ronald Reagan made his first stop after claiming the Republican nomination, then flourish, in the absence of resistance, as the bear galloped through the woodsWillie Horton rampaged, and white hands were thrown up in rage.  We let Florida happen in 2000. We let Georgia happen in 2002. We let Ohio, and perhaps the entire election, happen in 2004.  We let Karl Rove and ALEC set up a shadow government at the state level, a new confederacy throttling the laboratories of democracy that were the ramparts of federalism, replacing them with cookie-cutter governments backed by dark money unconstitutionally denying our fellow citizens their most fundamental right as Americans, the right to vote, and have that vote count no more or less than any other.  So far we’ve let the darkest and most undemocratic election of all, steered by the dictatorial kleptocratic country that has been our–and Ukraine’s–most implacable enemy for decades, happen.

All told, one could make the case that we’ve waited much longer than Washington did to stare into that dark winter abyss. You could make the case that our string of defeats extends right through the equivalent of Gettysburg, if Hancock and his men had left the field to binge-watch cable shows on Facebook.  The bottom line: we cannot afford–ever again–to commit the sin of complacency, and in a battle whose stakes are this high, voting alone is highly unlikely to be enough.  What should we do in addition or instead?  We have some thoughts, a lot of them actually, which we’ll share in Part II of this piece (ed. note–part II was originally posted on 10/22/18; we’ve since taken it down to update it for the 2020 election)

Part of our 21st Century Citizenship series.


Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk.  All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing the Federalist Papers today.  We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!

L’viv has been called the most beautiful city in Europe, and it is the beating heart of Ukraine’s fight for Western democracy and against Russian tyranny. To see more of its landmarks, buildings, and streets, click the image…

Facebook Comment