In November 2000, I fell asleep to Al Gore being declared the next president, woke up to George W. Bush having won, and by lunchtime no one had any idea who had won or what was going on. What I remember the most is finding the whole thing very funny. And it was funny.
I know now that being able to find such chaos amusing was a privilege, and an ugly one, of being an aimless but mostly comfortable white kid in his early 20s. One can argue about the specific differences of how the world would have turned out had Al Gore become president instead of George W. Bush, but there’s no question there were definite differences. But if you followed the race in 2000, this was not what everybody thought. I covered protests at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that year — the same one Barack Obama couldn’t even get into — and the one thing every protestor believed, along with most young Gen Xers like myself, was that it didn’t matter whether the next president was Bush or Gore: They were two variations of the same flavor. That the race ended up so close sure didn’t feel like an accident. If you ask 300 million people whether they’d prefer two nickels or a dime, you shouldn’t be surprised when the results are 50–50. The madness that followed the close vote felt not like a moment of democratic peril. It felt like the logical conclusion to an incredibly stupid process. You just had to laugh.
While watching 537 Votes, a new documentary about the 2000 Florida recount (and specifically the Miami-Dade county non-recount) that airs on HBO on October 21, I was reminded that it wasn’t just snarky former grunge kids who thought all this was ridiculous. The documentary itself is mediocre, more interested in cheap nostalgia and sight gags than the psychology of the era (director Billy Corben of Cocaine Cowboys has a persistent habit of dressing up his films with gimmicks rather than trusting his story to tell itself), but its ability to mine cultural artifacts of that time is remarkable. There’s a ton of clips from The Daily Show, and they each make a strong argument that the smugness that ultimately drove us all away from Jon Stewart was there from the get-go. There’s a reminder that Craig Kilborn used to host a late-night talk show. And there is a Wanda Sykes riff on Florida that is even rawer and more cutting 20 years later. But what’s most amazing is the news footage of election night, with all the anchors and analysts sitting in their studios, watching the increasingly confusing returns come in and … laughing their asses off. Seriously, they found all of this hilarious. The most famous voice that night was Dan Rather and all his goofy homespun sayings—“If a frog had side pockets, he’d carry a hand gun”—but everyone was yucking it up. Second place was Tim Russert, the evening’s breakout star, with his whiteboards and his red states and blue states, with a big giddy grin on his face throughout, even at 3:17 a.m., like this was the most fun he’s ever had in his life. Isn’t this a blast? You hear the crew cackling off stage. What a night!
It sure seems less funny now.
There are many, many ways that 2020 is worse than 2000. (Sheesh, in 2000, Joe Rogan was just that guy from “NewsRadio.”) As Clare Malone pointed out in a fantastic piece for FiveThirtyEight, we’re a lot more polarized and a lot less likely to just give up and accept it if our preferred candidate loses in a tightly contested election. But one thing is for sure: The election night telecasts will be a lot more serious than they were in 2000. Already cable and network news broadcasts are preparing for a close election, readying their audiences for an Election Week (or Month) rather than an Election Night, cautioning that with all the late arriving mail-in ballots, every word they say must be measured and cautious. There is a clear understanding that the entire nation is on edge and will be watching the whole night shaking and terrified. There is an awareness that if we are not careful about this democratic process, the whole thing could collapse.
There was none of that in 2000. It was all just a wacky story—this election is crazy close!—that was covered as if the stakes were a lot lower than they were. (Within three years, the NASDAQ collapsed, 9/11 happened and we were in multiple wars. The stakes turned out to be pretty freaking high.) What has changed, of course, is that we now know what a difference it can make when one candidate wins and one loses, that the entire nation is a fire just waiting for kindling, and that there are bad actors eager to pounce at the first sign of uncertainty. History will be made, and our anchors and analysts, by all accounts, understand how precise and meticulous they will need to be. And they understand, mostly, just how ungodly serious this is. And that’s where we’ve changed the most. In 2000, it felt like America would be around, and strong, forever, no matter who won, that the democratic process would do its job and we’d all be fine. Twenty years later, we’ve had 9/11 and endless wars and economic collapses and pandemics and Donald Trump. There are no illusions that America will just automatically land on its feet anymore. I don’t know how the networks, or the public, will react to what happens on November 3. But I damn sure know it won’t be funny.
Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.