"The Island of Misfit Toys" - Weekly Dig, January 21, 2004

One reporter braves a weekend of energized political rhetoric, ruins his car, and ponders the fate of woebegone third parties in America

Conveniently disregarding the fact that most every election is deemed “incredibly important,” this election does seem pretty significant – for voters all across the political spectrum. America hasn’t been this divided since Vietnam. Liberals and conservatives alike feel that they are under attack by partisan fanatics. Contentious wars are being waged, environmental regulations overhauled, tax systems dismantled. The air is charged with fear and anger and, most of all, utterly impenetrable confusion.

In spite of the gravity of the situation, we know the race will come down to Bush and a Democrat.  We will have but two choices, A or B, winner take all.  This blows.  It can barely be called democracy. It’s hardly an original question, but why are there no other viable choices?  Why do the two major parties dominate the process to exclusion, when about 35% percent of Americans identify themselves as independent?

Despite the swift marginalization of anyone outside of the two-party system, however, independents’ ranks are growing.  These voters don’t like parties, they don’t like partisanship, and they don’t like the way moneyed interests control the nation’s agenda. 

They have an organization that wants to un-marginalize them: the Committee for a Unified Independent Party.  CUIP is running a campaign called Choosing an Independent President (ChIP) to provide a coherent voice and role for independents in the upcoming election.

The ChIP campaign is coordinated by Jacqueline Salit, who says ChIP has less to do with ideology – be it left, right, or center – and more to do with reforming the political process.  Salit insists CUIP is not trying to create another party (“we’re not buying into the paradigm that has been created”) even though there are many third-party veterans involved.  Her bold prediction: “Independents will become a force that no candidate, and no president, can ignore.”

It’s a tall order.  The Democrats and the Republicans always say they want to empower all voters, to ‘bring democracy back to the people,’ but their first strategy is invariably to ‘energize their base,’ which constitutes less than one-third of the electorate for each party. 

Sucks for the last and biggest third: the independents, who are left twisting in the wind, and who happen to hold a plurality. If the parties truly wanted to empower voters they would support such reforms as same-day voter registration, instant runoff voting, and an overhaul of the partisan structure of election boards (many state boards derisively call independents ‘blanks’).

Of course, that is if the parties wanted to empower voters. Democrats only want to spend enough time and energy to get one more vote than the Republicans, and vice versa.  They are actually quite happy with a disenfranchised electorate, because it means that much less work for them to do.  It also means a greater stranglehold on power, leading to more bickering and partisan gridlock, and disenfranchising more voters in a self-perpetuating cycle.  Small wonder less than half of eligible Americans vote.

Last year ChIP sent out a questionnaire to all candidates asking how they account for the growing discontent with the political establishment, and how they stand on basic electoral and political reforms.  To date, five have fully responded: Governor Dean, Senator John Edwards, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Reverend Al Sharpton and Libertarian Gary Nolan. President Bush and General Wesley Clark and have made contact with the group as well.

I myself filled out one of ChIP’s voter questionnaires last September, and – showing one striking similarity with the big parties – they’ve been on my ass since then to contribute money and time, and to spread the word about their movement.

They held their national conference in Bedford, New Hampshire on the weekend of January 10, “to galvanize independent voters around the ChIP strategy,” and I decided to attend.  I was curious to see how ‘energized’ these independents could be.

Day One Marked by High Hopes, Indignation

When I arrived at the Wayfarer Inn in Bedford, I headed for their convention center, where there was quite a crowd assembled.  But something was amiss.  It took me a minute to realize this wasn’t actually a political conference, but a Mary Kay convention.

After narrowly escaping a complete makeover, I found the ChIP people in a different section of the hotel.  Libertarian Gary Nolan, who had just officially entered the ChIP process, was addressing those who had shown up early.  Nolan was playing the crowd well, throwing around lines like, “You want to have a safe country?  Let’s quit causing wars!”  These zingers would be followed by strong applause peppered with shouts of “Amen!” and “You got that right!” and an occasional “Mmmm, hmmm!”  I’ve never attended a gospel church revival, but I imagine this was pretty close.

With Nolan done sermonizing, I worked the attendees for information.  I met Michael Fjetland of Texas, who had challenged Tom DeLay, House Majority Leader, for his seat in Congress in 2002.  DeLay was none too pleased about this, and had the signatures Fjetland collected to enter the race thrown out in court.  After $10,000 worth of legal wrangling, Fjetland was put back on the primary ballot, and he received 20 percent of the Republican vote, without benefit of any mailings or TV exposure ($10,000 might have come in handy for that). 

Since then, DeLay has led the effort to turn Texas into a twisted mess of slithering, snake-shaped districts to the benefit of the Republican Party and the detriment of everyone else concerned with democracy.  Fjetland is running as an Independent against DeLay again this year.  God bless him, the man is a glutton for punishment.

I met Taneshia Lomax and Alistair Sealy from the Big Apple.  They were representing the Independence Party of New York, which like CUIP is more a loose collaboration of independents looking to reform the process rather than proselytize about issues.  Sealy got involved specifically because of the bitter fight over non-partisan elections in NYC last fall, which were vigorously opposed by the local Democratic Party and even New York Senator Hillary Clinton.  For non-partisan elections there are no primaries, just people running all together – say three Democrats, two Republicans, a Green – winner take all.  Sealy was troubled that one of the Democratic ballot workers tried to follow him into his voting booth, he thought to ensure the ‘correct’ selections.

All this electoral talk was making me thirsty.  There was a break until 6pm, so I ambled down to the hotel bar for a drink. There I met three of the nine delegates from the National College Convention held earlier that day, next door in Manchester: Dennis Mitchell of East Carolina University, Brent McLean of Alabama-Birmingham and Sean Brophy of Drexel.  A spirited debate broke out about where to draw the line of inclusion for debates.  The 2000 Bush-Gore debates excluded Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, despite polls showing 57% of people questioned wanted both involved.  Should debates include all candidates, no matter how minor?  The California recall had 150 some odd candidates – one would have to draw the line somewhere.

These kids were clearly more politically active than I was during my college days.  I was a strident supporter of the Old Milwaukee subset of the Beer and Apathy Party (one begets the other after all, much like partisanship begets corruption).  I have since learned there is more to life than cheap beer – namely good beer.  And of course wanting to create a better government.

After our debate it was onto the real show – in the convention center no less, after it had been ‘made back’ from the Mary Kay convention.  Sitting near me was Laura Nesta of the Independent Party of Waterbury, CT.  She had been Majority Leader of Waterbury’s Board of Aldermen as a Democrat until January 1, when she suddenly became Minority Leader for the Independent Party, representing six newly elected Independent aldermen (alderpersons?) out of fifteen total.  She explained that her being a Democrat had been more a marriage of convenience than anything else, and she was tired of the corrosiveness of partisan politics. 

Saturday night’s festivities were hosted by coordinator Salit.  She, like Gary Nolan earlier in the day, knew how to play to the crowd:  “Have you ever noticed that rich people seem to get more things for free than poor people?”  She talked of the “lifestyle clusters” that pollsters and pundits have created to classify people, and, coincidentally, to make their jobs easier – the bystanders, the education-firsters, and the young, economically pressured, “who will no doubt soon be called Yeppies.”

There was song and dance (an actual song and dance, in fact, as opposed to the song and dance the big parties excel in) with members of New York’s Castillo Theater performing an amusing number called “Votes” written by Fred Newman, the theater’s artistic director, and a conference convener. The tune was taken from Newman’s musical The Last Temptation of William Jefferson.  As in Clinton.  He described it as “kind of a fantasy about Bill and Hillary and the game they’re playing, culminating with the Monica-thing.”  The burly Newman himself might have been separated at birth from Jesse “The Body” Ventura, which only seems right since they’re both independents.  He claimed no relation, however, to the Fred Newman who is a sound-effect-guy-extraordinaire for Garrison Keillor’s NPR show, A Prairie Home Companion.

There was audience participation.  Zach Lewis from who knows where asked simply: “How do we get rid of Bush?” August “Gus” Jaccaci claimed that he has been introduced as “the Governor of Vermont, but for 98% of the voters.”  He actually only received 0.9% of the vote in 1994, and 0.99% in 1992, but we won’t quibble. And we heard from “seriously worried Republican” Keyno Hicks of Florida: “Let’s make [candidates] promise to put independent and third-party candidates into the cabinet…  Half of Bush’s Cabinet should have been Democrats…  Al Gore should have been invited down to the White House at least every six months.” 

I don’t know that these are the beliefs of any sort of Republican, let alone a seriously worried one, but they made damn good theater.  And yet he has a point.  Europe has far more representative governments because minority parties are included.  It is not winner take all, and loser be damned.

There were dozens of people lined up to speak when I realized the late hour.  I had an hour to drive that night, and an hour back in the morning.  Needing my beauty sleep, I quietly slipped out of the hall, only to be accosted by a fellow named Jimmy Walter, dressed up in full Chicken-Hawk Bush military regalia.  He insisted on performing his march for me.  It was worth the extra five minutes.

Day Two Spoiled By Melnea Cass

The next morning, I warmed up my car in the bitter cold to head back up to New Hampshire. I got as far as Melnea Cass Blvd – AKA Pothole Alley – before my suspension gave out and my tire exploded. It seemed my car wanted to express some independent thoughts of its own. Together we slowly limped home. There would be no conference-going that day.

Regrettably, I missed the representatives from the Clark and Kucinich camps who spoke, and who, according to CUIP’s media apparatus, duly listened to the attendees’ concerns.  Kucinich already has a certain resonance for independents because of his vigorous anti-special interest stance.  As does Howard Dean, for the revolutionary new ways of grass-roots fund-raising his campaign has created. Of course if any of these candidates won the hearts of the devout independents it would sort of defeat the purpose of the convention, now wouldn’t it?

I also missed Ralph Nader, who is considering another run for President, this time as an independent.  Many people still accuse him of sentencing us to four years of President Bush, as he siphoned off crucial votes from Al Gore as a Green in 2000. He is accustomed to being called a spoiler, as independent and third-party candidates have been called for years.

Was This an Exercise in Futility?

All told there were over 300 people from 30 states who attended ChIP.  There was a lot of energetic rhetoric thrown around, some of it politico-speak, some of it incoherent gibberish, but most of what I heard was thoughtful and sincere.  There was no endorsement of a specific candidate, or even a political platform, but that was never the point.  The goal was to further the discussion, and build a greater role for independents. But will thoughtful, energetic rhetoric actually accomplish anything unto itself?  There’s a lot of that every election, not so much afterward when things return to business as usual.

The degree of participation from candidates was hardly overwhelming, but then CUIP is a grass-roots organization with a very modest budget, building from the bottom up.  Salit for her part stressed that they do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past.  Ross Perot’s Reform Party was built from the top down.  Perot got 20 million votes in 1992, 8 million in 1996.  Pat Buchanan took over after brutal infighting in 2000, and didn’t get half a million.  If anything they have served perhaps only to further marginalize the notion of a viable third party.

Then again the Reform Party (and the Green Party, and all the other minor parties) bought into the prevailing paradigm of being a party, something ChIP is trying not to.  But that begs the question: can they effectively lobby for change, being just a loose confederation of voters, on the outside looking in?

There is another intriguing dynamic at work here.  Salit herself said she was “hired to create a political association for people who hate political associations.”  And now her association is seeking out candidates from the Democratic and Republican Parties, people who are part and parcel of the establishment they dislike and even loathe.  It seems unseemly, yet how else does one gain entry into the process?

At any rate, questions of effectiveness and viability aside, I personally found ChIP’s show to be a hell of a lot more attractive than its alternative: Extreme Partisanship. And it seems that for the time being at least, that is their edge.