As a whole, those people have already whispered an answer, at least in the popular tally: Al Gore by perhaps 150,000 votes, out of some 100 million. But the ghosts of their founding fathers refuse to ratify that choice just yet. They've retired to Florida, to huddle over a recount worth all the electoral votes in the world while the kingmakers, watchdogs and litigators of American politics line up outside the door, needing only an answer to start their shrieking.
It's a wait that jars our sensibilities in this instant-information nation. But when Americans finally find out whom they elected president, they will face a number of questions. If the recount holds up for George W. Bush, the founding fathers and the people will disagree for the first time in more than a century. What then? A crisis of methodology can a ballot really be so unreadable as to induce a wealthy Jewish senior to vote for Pat Buchanan? Could a rash news media's conjured-up Florida roller coaster actually have affected the outcome of an election that in the western states was ongoing?
And will there be a crisis of legitimacy for whoever emerges from this unaccustomed bramble? (The stock market gave its answer, no; it prefers gridlock.)
And what of the two-party system itself? Has this Election Day circus of mathematical freaks birthed a day of reckoning for our two-headed system? (The founders, by the way, hated the idea of political parties.) The 2004 race is now primed to open its arms to a credible third party, and Democrats and Republicans will now find the capture of unclaimed centrists not just a strategy but something closer to a life-or-death struggle.
But one struggle at a time. George W. Bush has sat for the cameras, rather gracefully predicting the same victory he apparently won so narrowly in Tuesday's wake. After making himself ominous for a while, Al Gore emerged in the early evening, stood in front of American flags and delivered a rather presidential statement claiming the popular-vote tally and assuring the world that America was handling this according to the rule of law.
President Bill Clinton has congratulated both combatants and spoken the civic obvious, as a president should: "After this, no American will ever be able to say again, 'My vote doesn't count.'"
And to watch Clinton in front of the helicopter that Nixon made famous, talking serenely about democracy in a warm Beltway breeze, was to remember that the true greatness of an edge-of-one's-armchair election night was that it wasn't a crisis at all. The Wednesday morning sun did not rise on a Gore victory, as the vice president had envisioned aloud; nor did it rise on a Bush one. But rise it did, on quiet streets and expectant water coolers and "breaking news" touts that wouldn't go away.
This is a distinctly American luxury.