I've learned this the hard way, by becoming part of the battle myself. This past week, a posse of internet screamers who clearly don't like the idea of an uppity Brit questioning the legitimacy of George W Bush's first election took it upon themselves to denounce me as a "conspiracy journalist", a "left-wing hack" and a bare-faced liar.
The occasion for their fury was a book I've written chronicling, and attempting to explain, the inability of the world's most powerful democracy to conduct fair and transparent elections by any recognisable international standard. It came as no surprise that some people would find the premise of the book troubling, even offensive. My conclusions are hardly tender towards voting machine manufacturers, local and state election officials, or indeed the entire two-party system that underpins US politics.
What I was not expecting, however, was that the object of the internet screamers' fury would be the raw arithmetical data from the 2000 presidential race, something I had naively believed had moved on from the stuff of partisan brick-throwing into the realm of historical research and analysis.
The storm broke out when the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman generously cited my book and argued that many Americans are unaware of some deeply troubling facts about their country's electoral system. He, like me, pointed out what extensive analysis of the Florida ballots after the election had indicated as far back as 2001: that a full statewide recount - an option rejected by both Democrats and Republicans in the heat of the battle even though it was the only democratically responsible thing to do - would have narrowly tipped the balance of the race in Al Gore's favour.
In the book, I use this point as much to attack the Gore campaign's deficient commitment to counting all the votes as I do to argue that he deserved to win. (The case I make on Gore's behalf rests much more strongly on other factors, especially the wholesale disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning African-American voters.)
But the internet screamers didn't appreciate this line of argument, largely because they didn't bother to follow it for themselves. As one blogger revealingly wrote: "I haven't read Gumbel's book, and don't intend to." Rather, they threw themselves right back into the rancour and partisan hostility of four and a half years ago, making the rigid argument that Bush won, Bush deserved to win and any other analysis was no more than sour grapes by a bunch of losers.
Soon, I was subject to wholesale character assassination, by people who didn't know a whole lot about me, and seemed in no hurry to find out. "It's doubtful he's ever written a true story about anything pertaining to the US, as he caters to a certain British sensibility that wants to see us as an errant colony run by a gang of bloodthirsty thugs," wrote my most vehement detractor, a certain Richard Bennett. Mr Bennett went on to argue I was a crackpot who thought al-Qa'ida had blown up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 - an incendiary strike against me except for the inconvenient fact that it is not true.
It's become fashionable to say that 11 September 2001 was the day that changed everything in American politics. But I'm not sure the bigger watershed didn't come nine months earlier when the Supreme Court pulled the plug on the Florida battle and installed George W Bush in the White House.
Given the trauma and upheaval of everything that has happened since - the Iraq war, of course, but also spiralling deficits, huge tax cuts for the rich, a stark widening of the income gap between rich and poor, and on and on - it is perhaps natural for Bush supporters to dig in their heels and claim full democratic legitimacy for what the administration has wrought.
Likewise, it is natural for Bush opponents to wonder how much of it might have been avoided - how many military deaths, how much anti-American anger and resentment around the world, how many detentions, deportations and torture scandals - if the 2000 election had concluded differently.
No wonder the passions continue to rage. It is, or should be, beyond dispute that the Florida election was fought dirtily and that there is at least a case to be made that the wrong man ended up in the Oval Office. Contrary to received wisdom, the problem was not ultimately with deficient voting machines or even the respective merits and demerits of the Republican and Democratic causes. What Florida suggested - and continues to suggest - is that the very foundation of the American democratic system is corrupted and rotten. And that's a reality many Americans may not yet be ready to confront.
The writer is Los Angeles correspondent for the 'The Independent. 'Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America' is out in the US from Nation Books and available at amazon.co.uk
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