In, but illegitimate The court is in contempt of the electorate

Special report: the US elections 
guardian unlimited

The fix is in, Al Gore is out and it is a bad day for American democracy.

In the end, the supreme court was decisive. The majority's ruling was transparently political. Questions of timeframe and standards in Florida's recounts could have been resolved with goodwill and impartiality. Both were lacking. By its action, the antithesis of jurisprudence, the court is in contempt of the electorate. It may not, in this generation's lifetime, recover its reputation. And American political discourse may never be the same again.

The fix was long in preparation. It included the pre-poll manipulation of Florida's electoral rolls by Governor Jeb Bush, George W Bush's brother; and the intimidation and exclusion of Democrat-inclined minority voters on election day. That was followed by extraordinary incompetence and possible fraud during the count. Then came the Bush lawyers, using every trick and ruse in the law books to waste time and block accurate tallies. Mr Gore won Florida and thus the national election. Jesse Jackson's vow to recount all the state's votes independently will confirm that outcome, although much too late. But Florida was a set-up from start to finish and in that disgraceful charade, the supreme court has foolishly yet definitively connived.

All this leaves a very bad taste. And looking ahead, this narrowest, meanest of results leaves Mr Bush without a clear mandate, without momentum, and with very little authority. There will be no honeymoon for him. It is hard to imagine a less auspicious start to a presidency. To say that he will be forever tainted by the manner of his success, forever denied the legitimacy essential to any head of state, would be to ignore the swift, forgetful pace of modern politics. America clearly wants to move on. The question, amid such divisions, is how? For what canyons of distrust and enmity must be bridged. Mr Bush faces a new congress as acrimoniously split as the electorate and the courts. His ambitious tax cuts are already history; so, too, may be much else in his legislative agenda. Already the Democrats eye the 2002 mid-term elections with a view to revenge. In the meantime, calls for national unity notwithstanding, they can be expected to fight him very step of the way. Lightweight Mr Bush, gabbling nervously amid the wrangling, has looked ever more like a puny frontman for the vested interests of the GOP machine, big business, big defence and big oil. He will need quality help to meet challenges that would sorely tax a more talented politician. While Dick Cheney, his number two, brings much experience, his health is suspect. The vacillating Colin Powell, on the other hand, Mr Bush's likely nominee as secretary of state, has no diplomatic or political track record. Mr Bush may yet come to find the Oval Office a very lonely place.

Mr Gore's defeat is a bitter one. It is deeply personal, and it is hard to see where the vice-president goes from here. Truth be told, he should have won this election easily. Will Democrats really risk him again in 2004? But the defeat is also national. It leaves a country scarred and angry; a country even more alienated and cynical than before about a political process that 50% of the population boycotted last month. It leaves a pressing need for reform, particularly of the electoral college system (which distorted the result as much as did the supreme court); and for a justice department inquiry into the Florida fix. And it leaves in its wake shockingly unfamiliar but very real doubts about the fundamental fairness and honesty of American democracy. In that broad sense, this election was truly a shattering event.