Thoughts on the Reform Party Meltdown (What's an Outsider to Do? Pt. II)

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by Steven Yates

Last week the Reform Party held its national convention out at Long Beach, Calif. While most observers thought the meeting would be acrimonious, the result was two "Reform Parties," each with its own candidate for the presidency and a possible court fight over who is the "real" Reform Party candidate in 2000. Is it Pat Buchanan, ex-Republican firebrand and culture warrior, or John Hagelin, physicist and former Natural Law Party standard-bearer?

As much as some of us might go on and on about the two dominant parties, we have in this exhibition one of the most important reasons why third parties are not working. It is not a media blackout that is no longer technologically possible. As I observed in a previous article, the messages of the Pat Buchanans and other third-party hopefuls are readily available this year (although Web savvy is very helpful, of course). The Long Beach convention in particular was reported in major newspapers, usually near the front page. The entertainment-driven print media would not have missed that show for anything!

Third parties are failing not because of media neglect or direct opposition from the establishment. They are failing because their members cannot get along with one another, and because different groups of “outsiders” are unable to work together. They cannot set aside specific differences and produce a sensible, consistent vision for the country's future that the public can relate to. Therefore they have no united strategy of opposition to Democrats and Republicans, and only end up leaving themselves open to ridicule by such journalistic luminaries as Gail Collins of the New York Times whose most recent column delivered just that.

At the Republican convention, one might not have agreed with all the speakers. Conservatives, moreover, may have listened for certain things (repudiation of affirmative action, for example) and simply not heard them this go around. But without exception, the people inside the convention hall in Philadelphia conducted themselves like adult professionals, not rowdy teenagers or amateur enthusiasts. Christians, for example, may have felt slighted, but they did not get up, walk out in a huff, and hold their own impromptu "convention" down the street. With the Reform Party, we got just this, and it made them look silly and juvenile: if I can't get what I want, I'll pick up my toys and go home!

This is unfortunate, because Buchanan's acceptance speech (available on the Buchanan organization's web site) merits attention. Buchanan is neither an amateur nor a mere enthusiast, and he does have something to say. For example, quite unlike George W., he ripped into the Clinton Regime's nasty little war in Kosovo, asking pointedly, “Why did we do this? Why did we bomb this little country for 78 days when it never threatened or attacked the United States?” I do not think one has to be an “isolationist” to wonder about such things. It is a common horse sense kind of question. Buchanan acknowledged the fundamental ugliness of what had been going on there. He called Milosevic “a thug and a tyrant.” But “look at the disaster we wrought, after Clinton launched this war. Thousands died, a million Albanians driven out of their homes; now, a quarter million Serbs ethnically cleansed in KLA counter-terror. Serbia is smashed. Kosovo is destroyed. Russia has been driven into the arms of China; and American troops are tied down in a Balkan peninsula that has nothing to do with the vital interests of the United States.”

Buchanan's criticisms of establishment foreign policy continue as he observes that despite the fundamental wickedness of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the ten years of U.S. Sanctions since the ill-advised Gulf War launched by George W.'s father have harmed the Iraqi people far more than the Iraqi government. Sanctions, as a general rule, have a way of doing that.

And, if Milosevic and Hussein are “thugs and tyrants,” is Madeleine Albright any better? Buchanan served up a number of choice Albright quotes: when told about 500,000 Iraqi children having starved because of U.S. sanctions, she replied, “We believe it was worth it?” Buchanan asked incredulously, “When did the greatest nation on earth start making war against children?” Albright has also said, “If we have to use force… it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.” Buchanan's response: “Talk about the arrogance of power.” From Buchanan, author of A Republic, Not an Empire, we get the message of, “We are Americans who say with our fathers: to hell with empire; we want our country back.” What follows is the repudiation of expansive, intrusive government at home and the push toward global government coming from the United Nations that we no longer get from Republicans and shouldn't expect from Democrats. This is significant, since the U.N. is scheduled to hold a confab of the smoke-filled room variety the first week of next month on the very theme of global government — or, if you prefer, the New World Order, about which the “insiders” are completely silent.

But none of this is what the Reform Party as a whole is communicating. While Republicans (even that weasel McCain) united behind George W. Bush, the Reform Party now looks like a group of nut cases whose original leader, Ross Perot, has lost interest, and which is now splintering and fragmenting. Small wonder Gail Collins, in the above-mentioned column, could call it "an excellent demonstration of why Buchanan should be kept out" of the upcoming Presidential debates. She goes on to call the Reform Party a "cheesy fringe operation" and hopes that Buchanan and Hagelin both will "sink into obscurity in peace and quiet."

Whether one agrees with Buchanan about everything or not, if he not in those debates, we will likely hear no mention of the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund or the steady push toward global government and erosion of U.S. sovereignty. Rather, we will hear about Medicaid and Social Security and vouchers – all of which will be trivial if we continue on our present course toward less and less control over our lives. We might, if we are very lucky, gain some insight into what George W. means by "compassionate conservatism." We might also learn that Al isn't likely to step out on Tipper. We will almost certainly not hear him called onto the carpet about the extent of his involvement in shady Clinton Regime deals with agents of the Beijing government.

The Reform Party has done this to itself. It has blown its credibility without help from the establishment. It began as essentially a personality cult surrounding H. Ross Perot, who turned out to be slightly nutty in his own right despite obvious business acumen. Its platform became a few slogans that sounded reasonable but said little. Once Perot's 15 minutes of fame were up, things began to go downhill. We saw the rise of the libertines following Jesse Ventura, the ex-wrestler who rode celebrity status into the Minnesota governor's mansion. We saw meetings degenerate into near brawls that had to be broken up by police. Things went downhill faster when the libertines found themselves confronted with the socially conservative Buchanan Brigades who found the vacuum created by Perot's abdication easy to fill. The Reform Party "leadership" arranged a nationwide mail-in "primary" which turned out to be an expensive joke no one accepts as valid, although Buchanan won hands down in all but three states. The Reform Party is now hopelessly divided, and may continue to implode as the two factions fight over who has the right to $12.5 million in taxpayer-paid federal campaign funding.

So one of the most incisive critiques of the warmongering, empire building and state worshipping of both Democrats and Republicans to come along during the past year has been lost amidst an atmosphere more reminiscent of a three-ring circus. This is truly a shame, and the country will be worse off for it.

Steven Yates has a PhD in philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). A frequent contributor to and The Edgefield Journal, he lives and freelance writes in Columbia, South Carolina.

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