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Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

The genius of an imperfect process

Some years ago in a political science class the professor argued that before long the instruments of prediction would become so sophisticated that virtually all suspense would be removed from our electoral politics.

That was a long time ago, and since then a part of me is glad every time the tools of prediction are shown to be fallible.

Events like Watergate and the rise of the religious right, Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004 have a way of foiling predictions and injecting messy human reality into the process.

As the election returns rolled in the night of Nov. 2 with pre-computer-age speed, and with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer looking for things to display on his miles of liquid screen, I wondered if that professor ever got a job exit polling for one of the networks.

~ ~ ~

I am a sucker for all the patriotic warbling about the genius of the American electoral process that pours forth each Election Day. I love Election Days, an emotion perhaps fueled by fond memories of covering them in Pennsylvania in the pre-computer era when knowing the local ward heelers and precinct leaders (and in which bars they hung out) was as important as knowing the best pollsters.

The real genius of the process, when it is at its best, is that it gives us a tiny hold on destiny, as much a hold as compromise can give anyone. And about as much satisfaction, which is very little, that either compromise or a tiny hold can deliver. I don’t expect moral high mindedness or even consistent results. Politics is always an uneven tug of war between passion and civility, ideals and the need to compromise.

Perhaps much of democracy is illusion (if not delusion), or, as essayist E.B. White put it, nothing greater than “the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.”

Anyone, however, who has had the opportunity to speak to someone from a country where rule by violence, intimidation and fear is the order of most days knows that the exercise, however imperfect, is better than whatever else is out there.

~ ~ ~

So, the people have spoken and we head into a new chapter with President Bush once again at the helm. Sen. John Kerry, conceding, spoke of seeking common cause, an ambition that seems rather a dream at the moment. The question will be whether the temptation for Mr. Bush is to pull his administration toward the center or to see how far to the extreme it can move in the second term.

~ ~ ~

Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd in the past six months has been immersed in studying polls, reading political literature and speaking to political operatives, activists and analysts. We’ve all been the beneficiary of his research and reporting (and he does it without a staff or liquid screens) during the campaign season. He made a final push that began Election Day and continued with interviewing and writing nearly nonstop through the early hours of Nov. 4 (see story).

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

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