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Third Out

Why the Reform Party’s best days are behind it.

AMERICAN POLITICS isn't physics, but it has rules nonetheless. And one of the clearest has to do with third parties. Since the nation's founding, no third party has knocked off one of the reigning two, and none has taken power. (The Republican Party of the 1850s, sometimes cited as an exception, actually emerged as a major party after the Whig Party expired.) That's not to say third parties always fail; they just succeed in a different way. When third parties succeed, it's because they change the terms of debate. They take a cry from the margins of American life—an issue, or an interest, or a prejudice—and force it onto the agenda of the political elite. When the cry is powerful enough—for instance, Prohibition in the 1910s—the two parties adapt, and the political landscape alters.But then the messenger is no longer needed. And so ideological success presages political failure. As the great historian Richard Hofstadter put it in The Age of Reform, "Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die."

Has anyone mentioned this to America's pundits? To hear the chattering on the nation's cable stations, you'd think the Reform Party is taking off. Sure, everyone makes fun of Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump and Jesse Ventura, but they're getting almost as much press as George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Bill Bradley. And, behind the mockery, the underlying theme is clear: in 1992, Ross Perot's presidential candidacy was just one man's ego writ large; in 1996, it was just one man's ego writ smaller; but, in the 2000 election, America has a real third party. It has enticed a serious Republican presidential contender and elected a governor. It has wads of cash at its disposal. It has activists and counteractivists and flacks. Most important, it's becoming the repository of deep, hitherto unexpressed yearnings from the heartland. Never mind that these yearnings are contradictory; they're authentic and fresh—the stuff of which paradigm shifts are made.

It's an intriguing idea in what looks to be an otherwise boring campaign season. And it's nonsense. In fact, the Reform Party is proof positive of Hofstadter's theorem. Perot in 1992 was the movement's zenith. Coming out of nowhere and running a makeshift, largely self-financed presidential campaign, Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote—the largest total for any American third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party campaign in 1912. And it wasn't because of his personality. Perot had a cause—deficit reduction—that perfectly symbolized what many recession-weary Americans felt: that government was irresponsible, arrogant, and beyond their control. Before Perot, the conventional wisdom held that deficit reduction was a dry-as-dust issue, capable of mobilizing only the nerdiest of wonks and goo-goos. After Perot's 19 percent, both major parties made deficit reduction their own. The Clinton administration famously chose Rubinomics over Reichonomics in 1993, and the Republicans in 1994 tried to do the administration one better. Upon winning Congress, they pledged that by a date certain they would not merely cut the deficit but end it. When Perot first proposed that idea, it seemed like political and fiscal lunacy. In two years it was on the mainstream policy agenda. In six years it was reality. That is how successful third parties work.

TODAY, BY CONTRAST, the Reform Party is all buzz and no sting. It survives because of a quirk in the campaign laws: the $12.6 million in federal matching funds waiting for its presidential nominee next year. It survives because the expansion--and dumbing down--of the broadcast media has blurred distinctions between the political mainstream and the political margin, turning the latter into a plausible simulacrum of the former. (Imagine what might have happened in 1912 if the schismatic Theodore Roosevelt or, for that matter, the socialist Eugene V. Debs could have schmoozed on camera with Larry King.) And it survives because it has become a Rorschach test. There are discontents in America, and discontented Americans of all stripes like to think of themselves as reformers.

But this does not add up to a political future. The Reform Party of 1999, unlike the Perot movement of 1992, does not have a compelling issue all its own. Its closest thing to an issue, campaign finance reform, has already been picked up by mainstream presidential contenders, in the time-honored American manner. In fact, none of its leaders has anywhere near as much credibility on the issue as does Republican John McCain.

What the Reform Party has is aging crusaders, each in desperate search of some political fountain of youth. The crusaders, notably the supporters of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, may be young compared to the electorate as a whole, but their ideas are old and spent. They have a history in American politics—a history of coming to nothing. The Reform Party is fast evolving into a museum of quixotic causes tricked out in the latest telegenic gear. The party is about to fail spectacularly not just in one sense but in two. It will not elect anyone president, and, more important, it will not change the way American government addresses the major issues of the day.

One year before the election, there are really three Reform Parties, led, respectively (from right to left), by Buchanan, Ventura, and the (comparatively) obscure New York-based radical Lenora Fulani. Buchanan has the backing of Perot's crony (and 1996 vice presidential running mate) Pat Choate; Buchanan has apparently also struck an alliance with Fulani. Ventura hopes to keep the party from falling to the extremists; along those lines, he's helping promote Trump's candidacy while leaving open the possibility that he might enter the ring himself, so to speak. Perot, down in Dallas, is said to be leaning toward Buchanan, but the Texan has been known to change his mind, and it's by no means clear that Perot still controls the contraption he built. Anything could happen. And, no matter what happens, the Reform candidate will represent an earlier, failed political sensibility.

BUCHANAN WOULD REPRESENT the biggest regression, at least in terms of chronology. Some of his dark apprehensions about the future are rooted in the deep, pre-American classical past. (The title, if not the content, of his new book, A Republic, Not an Empire, conveys much the same message as Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War: that a government overextended by military adventures will collapse of its own weight.) Moving closer to the present, Buchanan lays claim to the highly diverse legacies of Henry Clay (as a high-tariff protectionist), John C. Calhoun (as a prudent, not imperial, expansionist), and Andrew Jackson (ditto). But, more than anything, Buchanan harkens back to the 1930s—and to a brand of nationalist pseudo-populism that, then as now, had a curious appeal at either end of the political spectrum.

At heart, Buchanan is a man of the old Catholic right—echoing the anti-New Deal catechism popularized by the "radio priest," Father Charles Coughlin, and the muscular, pietistic, corporatist anti-communism that found a hero in Generalissimo Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. (To call Buchanan a Hitlerite, as some of his opponents have, is unfair; Francoist comes closer to the mark.) He detests the welfare state, which he sees as an intrusive secularist force. He regards the world beyond our shores as a tempest of savage tribalism, and he would like, on that account, both to halt immigration and to pull the United States out of the United Nations. He has a penchant for conspiratorial thinking, illustrated by his remarks about the devilish "foreign policy elites" and the pro-Israel "amen corner" that supposedly control our policies abroad and corrupt our politics at home.

The pundits who believe that Buchanan represents a genuinely new synthesis often say that his politics confound customary right-left distinctions. They point to his success among blue-collar Democrats and his ties to Teamster head James Hoffa Jr. But, if Buchanan's politics transcend right-left divisions, they transcend them in awfully familiar ways. The nostalgic view of America as a once-noble republic corrupted by special interests, the instinctive distrust of foreign involvements (and of foreigners), the economic nationalism that would enshrine nineteenth-century protectionism for all time—this has a long pedigree among supposed liberals and radicals as well as among conservatives and reactionaries. Sixty years ago, such ideas propelled the rise of the isolationist group America First, which Buchanan defends in his new book as a sort of forerunner of his own political insurgency. Although dominated, as Buchanan writes, by "small-government Republicans," America Firstism won over any number of leftish intellectuals, ranging from the aging historian Charles Beard (who later wrote obsessively that Franklin D. Roosevelt helped engineer Pearl Harbor) to younger authors-to-be such as Murray Kempton and Gore Vidal. No one should be surprised, then, that Buchanan has gained a respectful hearing in some pro-labor and erstwhile "anti-imperialist" circles, where his opposition to free trade and his polemics against the traitorous rich and the new world order outweigh his right-wing moralism.

Nor should anyone be surprised when Buchananism amounts to little or nothing. Isolationism, as commentators love to say, has a deep history in this country.But it is a history of failure. Isolationism has been a powerful force in twentieth-century America only once—after World War I, when phobias about entangling alliances defeated Woodrow Wilson's plans for American entrance into the League of Nations. America First dissolved for good on December 8, 1941, as soon as war became unavoidable. Some of its spirit lived on after 1945 in the Robert Taft conservative wing of the Republican Party, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the imperatives of the cold war.

The cold war, of course, is now over, which makes Buchananism possible. But 1999 is not 1919. World War II and the struggle with the Soviet Union have invested American internationalism with a moral dimension that it did not have in the aftermath of World War I. The cost-benefit argument for isolationism may retain wide appeal, but, early in this century, its defenders could claim that isolationism was also moral. In an America whose citizens remember Hitler, Stalin, and Milosevic, Buchanan has lost that argument before his campaign even starts.

BUCHANAN'S CROSSOVER APPEAL may explain his weird alliance with the pro-Fulani Reformers. Or it may be a marriage of convenience. But, either way, the alliance brings into play yet another familiar fringe--what might be called the psycho-left. Fulani first attracted public notice in the early '80s as a perennial candidate of the New Alliance Party, based in New York. The NAP was, in turn, the offspring of the Institute for Social Therapy and Research, one of a number of peculiar psychological sects that arose in upper Manhattan after the New Left's demise in the early '70s. Dedicated to the idea that political protest is itself a form of developmental liberation, the Social Therapy acolytes took the logical step, in 1979, of organizing themselves into a formal political party. Then, late in 1994, after years of getting nowhere with the electorate, Fulani and her supporters shut down the NAP--only to moderate their rhetoric and refocus their abundant energies and tactical know-how on capturing various pro-Perot grassroots organizations.

Behind the Fulanites lies a lush history of left-wing efforts to unite the class struggle with the liberation of the psyche. Frustrated dissenters of the late '40s and '50s climbed into Wilhelm Reich's orgone boxes to overcome the repression of self and society. Campus New Leftists in the '60s fondled volumes of Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon, charting the devious connections between capitalism, colonialism, and mass pathology. Poking around any well-stocked, reasonably hip bookshop in the early '70s, you were bound to find further variations on the theme in the manifestos of left-wing drug mavens and left-wing nudists and left-wing psychoanalysts. But only a hardy few kept the tradition alive through the Reagan-Bush era; Fulani was among the hardiest.

Tactically, Fulani's insurgency also represents the old, parasitic Marxist tradition of "boring from within"--camouflaging its actual political agenda behind anodyne talk of ending racism and democratizing the political system. Back in the '80s, for example, NAP partisans tried to confuse voters and potential donors by calling themselves members of the "Rainbow Alliance" and the "Rainbow Lobby," as if they were nothing more than Jesse Jacksonians. In their latest, even more moderate incarnation, the Fulanites have suppressed their socialism and posed as hard-nosed welfare reformers to fit in with the more conservative Perotistas. Yet none of these efforts shows any greater likelihood of success than the Communists' infiltration tactics of the 1920s or their mendacious, pro-New Deal posturing in the mid-'30s. Even in the Reform Party itself, which is considerably more tolerant of marginal agendas than is the electorate as a whole, the Fulanites are being exposed. At a recent party convention in Dearborn, Michigan, Perotistas dismissed them as Reds.

THE SIGHT OF Fulani joining forces with Buchanan is almost enough to make one sympathize with Ventura. The Minnesota governor does not truck in protectionist dogma, anti-immigration demagoguery, or left-wing psychobabble. More than that, he strikes many observers as a refreshing force in our national life--an anti-political politician, a down-to-earth man unafraid to call 'em the way he sees 'em. Yet Venturaism only seems new. It, too, has a history, and, like that of its Reform Party rivals, its history is not marked by success.

Nearly forgotten amid the hoopla over Ventura's rise to power is one of the chief reasons he won his election: the implementation of Election Day voter registration in Minnesota. To encourage the masses of stay-at-homes to exercise their civic duty, in 1973 Minnesotans enacted a law that permitted unregistered residents to sign up just before they cast their ballots. The reform, like the federal "motor voter" law linking driver's license registration with voting registration, was meant to amplify the voice of poorer and younger voters. And so it did--as swarms of Minnesotans (many young wrestling fans among them) showed up to vote for "the Body" instead of his staid, mainstream opponents. Ventura's improbable victory, in short, was an unintended consequence of his home state's high-minded progressive impulses.

Those impulses have a venerable history, especially across the nation's northern tier. Since the end of the last century, from the upper Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, all sorts of structural political reforms--including the ballot initiative, the recall, and the referendum--have flourished. If the technical aspects of the political system could be perfected, the reformers presumed, then the voice of the people would prevail, and good policy would reign. Ventura apparently agrees: His most audacious political effort since coming to office has been to try to abolish Minnesota's bicameral legislature and replace it with a single house.

Compared to the Buchanan-Fulani combine's machinations, Ventura's neo-Progressivism is encouraging. But it's hardly the vehicle for an independent political insurgency. Structural reforms may well benefit the political system, making it more efficient and responsible, as the turn-of-the-century Progressives hoped they would. But they can carry a political movement only so far. Eventually, the politics of clashing interests kick in, and the question of who gets what from whom overwhelms procedure. In other words, it's not enough to have beliefs about means. Eventually you must have beliefs about ends, as well.

Progressivism had mass appeal as a third party in 1912, when it combined good-government reforms with Theodore Roosevelt's "new nationalist" conception of a regulatory state that stood up to big business. Twelve years later, the Progressive Party revived under Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette because of its strong labor support, winning 17 percent of the popular vote against Calvin Coolidge. Ventura, by contrast, lacks the compelling economic ideology that powered his Progressive predecessors. Insofar as he gets beyond structural reform, he seems to favor fiscal responsibility and social laissez-faire. Ten years ago that would have made him an unusual figure in American politics; today, however, he fits fairly easily into the New Democrat camp of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. So Ventura's Reform Party is caught. If it focuses only on process, it will be a distinctive force, but one without a compelling message. If it combines process reformism with social liberalism and pro-business moderation, it will be redundant.

THE REFORM PARTY will produce a lot of sound and fury over the coming twelve months. It will keep talk-show hosts in business, and it will cause the major parties headaches. A Buchanan candidacy, in particular, could sap the Republican nominee of support, which might prove decisive in a close race.

Furthermore, the two-party system is not invincible. There has been a steady decline in partisan loyalty over the past three decades. According to one recent poll, two-thirds of the electorate now favors the existence of a third party, more than double the figure of 30 years ago. Somewhere down the line, a new movement will almost certainly do again what Perot did early this decade: knock our political system for a loop.

But the Reform Party will not. The two major parties have absorbed its best issues. What remains is a strange reunion of lost causes, causes that historically have caught fire only in circumstances that neither America nor the Reform Party can replicate. After their auspicious debut in 1992, the Perotistas had reasons to feel heady; and there is still some lingering headiness surrounding the Reform Party. But that bee has stung. The buzz you hear is its death rattle.