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Chapter Twenty-seven: Building a Third Party Movement: Part 1

 

It’s getting late in the book. I promised to write something about the Independence Party and the future of third-party politics. That is where I want to put my own time and effort. From my experiences with Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, I think that we are looking at a two-step process. Because Minnesota third parties took such a shellacking in the 2002 election, we need, first, to build up third parties in general. We need to strengthen their position within the electoral system. After that is done, we will need to redefine and advance the agenda of the Independence Party. I have my own ideas, of course. They are ideas which presumably found favor with 31% of the Independence Party voters in the 2002 U.S. Senate primary. So I have a right to be out there, too, advocating those ideas.

Right now, third parties and, indeed, all political parties are suffering from a lack of oxygen. They are suffering from a lack of media support. Publicity about political events is the “air” which sustains the whole process. Every political enterprise wants and needs publicity. The “news” is supposed to be about civic activities in which politics plays a central role. Traditionally, newspapers pass along elected officeholders’ or political candidates’ views as a part of reporting community affairs. Political events are “news content”; they are the reason that people read newspapers.

For better or worse, however, publishing newspapers is also a commercial enterprise. Every business wants to make more money. It may be that scheming journalists or media managers have decided that politicians do not deserve all the free publicity that they would receive if the media reported their activities as news. So they begin to filter the news and put their own imprint upon it. They make it harder for political actors to get their message across undistorted. If the news becomes too restricted or distorted, then politicians conclude that the best way to communicate with the public is through paid political ads. This, of course, brings money into the newspapers’ coffers. Around election time, all serious political candidates must have many paid ads.

A cat-and-mouse game takes place between politicians and the news media. In July 2002, that wily schemer Norm Coleman proposed to small newspapers around the state that he produce a newspaper column for them which would be called “Norm’s Coffee Shop Talk.” This suggestion brought an immediate uproar. “Just because we live more than 200 miles north of the Twin Cities doesn’t mean we have ‘Dumb’ painted on our foreheads,” responded LuAnn Hurd-Lof, editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise. The publisher of the Monticello Times, Don Smith, suggested that Coleman was trying to dupe newspaper editors into accepting advertising “camouflaged as news”. He said: “It seemed pretty astounding to me that someone who has the sophistication of Norm Coleman would believe we’d be so naive as to run this.”

Political candidates and news media do need each other. The candidates provide content which sells newspapers. Newspapers amplify the candidates’ message. However, journalists’ increasing reluctance to report political events as news or to transmit politicians’ words without distortion has created a crisis in the political system. This is the immediate cause of big money’s control of politics. Certain candidates are favored at the expense of others. In his campaign brochure, for instance, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Sullivan, a multimillionaire, claimed that he was “the only candidate who has the resources to speak over Minnesota’s liberal media and burst Ventura’s media bubble.”

Jesse Ventura found a solution to this problem. He was a celebrity because of his professional-wrestling career and stint as a radio-talk-show host. That meant that people were already interested in him when he jumped into the Governor’s race. Ventura’s reported activities would sell newspapers. Even so, it was a struggle for Ventura to be included in the candidate debates and gain free publicity. It was even a struggle for him to find a bank which would lend him the money, against receipt of the taxpayer subsidy monies to which he was entitled, to run the cute Hillsman-produced television commercials that helped him be elected Governor. Ventura knew that he had to nurture his celebrity status to remain politically viable. That’s why, as Governor, he did a weekly radio call-in show on WCCO radio.

Will Haddeland, a former executive at Minnesota Public Radio, called this “an end run around journalism.” Ventura made a proposal to WCCO shortly after taking office in 1999. “The governor wanted to communicate directly to the people of Minnesota without having to deal with the journalists he distrusted,” Haddeland wrote. Ventura’s radio program did not violated FCC fairness rules because this was an intrastate communication. However, Haddeland complained, “there is no journalistic integrity in Ventura’s weekly broadcast (especially when he plugs Tim Penny’s candidacy). It is what it is: a gift from a large corporation to a sitting governor.”

I once had an opportunity to talk with Jesse Ventura about celebrity politicians. (Yes, he even asked for my autograph.) At a campaign fundraiser for an Independence Party House candidate, I gave Ventura a copy of my book, Five Epochs of Civilization, pointing out that he was mentioned in the book. I had cited Ventura, Ronald Reagan, and others as examples of political leaders who were in synch with their times. Since the book proposed that we are living in the age of entertainment, experienced entertainers tend to make today’s successful politicians. Ventura agreed with that idea. Cocking his head, he mused: “Don’t you think that politicians are a kind of entertainer? They need that skill.”

Ventura and Brian Sullivan discussed this subject on Ventura’s radio show. They were wondering why the proposal for a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins could consume so much of the governor’s time. Ventura remarked: “It’s government’s job to see that you are entertained. I’m now involved up to my neck (in discussions of the Twins stadium) because entertainment is one of the functions of government.” Sullivan disagreed. He commented rather sourly: “Minnesotans should expect more from our governor than just entertainment. When the going gets tough, he (Ventura) goes to Hollywood.” Ventura, however, knew something which Sullivan did not. Like it or not, political leaders are obliged to be entertaining persons just to communicate with their constituencies. The news media will no longer give publicity away for free unless politicians deliver something that has entertainment value.

While traveling around Minnesota as a candidate for U.S. Senate, I depended entirely upon receiving free media coverage. I found most newspaper editors to be quite generous. Maybe it was because the image of a Don Quixote-like character holding up a sign with two outlandish messages made for good entertainment. This was something different - a kind of “news”. Besides, a statewide candidate traveling to distant communities does stimulate local interest. Because the editors knew that I had worked to be there, they were reasonably sympathetic to my campaign. Some, however, would recite the rules: The initial announcement of your candidacy is free. From that point on, you have to pay for publicity through our advertising department. In the Twin Cities metro area, however, I could not attract free publicity. The Brahman editors at the big newspapers (excepting the St. Paul Pioneer Press) knew that they had political candidates over a barrel. They would decide who was and who was not deserving of coverage.

At my level of campaigning, newspapers were the media. Radio and television are more important to the big candidates. The need to advertise in the electronic media brings a different set of problems to politics. In theory, the public owns the air waves. The FCC gives certain companies an exclusive right to broadcast on certain frequencies. There is no charge to receive that monopoly privilege. Current license-holders presumably enjoy “squatter’s rights” which give them a perpetual leasehold on their broadcast frequency.

The National Association of Broadcasters is a powerful and feared influence in Washington, because they control the communications pipeline connecting elected officials with their constituents. Any attempt to undo the government give-away to commercial broadcasters would meet with swift and certain retaliation. The FCC used to have rules requiring broadcasters to make certain accommodations to the public interest; these have all been abolished. When the Clinton-Gore Administration proposed that television broadcasters be required to give political candidates some free air time in the period before elections, this idea was rebuffed. No one wanted to offend the powerful broadcast industry. That is too much trouble for politicians worried about the next election cycle.

Therefore, these politicians, needing to amass a huge campaign fund to pay for television commercials, became prodigious fund raisers. The expensive television commercials necessarily presented slick images and sound bites. Some of the more effective commercials were attack ads: “Call Senator Wellstone and tell him you’re fed up with his outmoded, big-spending ways. Minnesotans don’t want this.” (With a different twist, there were equivalent Wellstone or DFL ads attacking the Republican candidates.) Such commercials produced a degraded political discussion. Their negativity soured the public on political campaigns.

The worst part, though, was that, to raise the big sums of money for television commercials, elected officials had to solicit contributions from economic-interest groups. They became beholden to these groups in formulating and supporting legislation. The public came to believe that their government was up for sale. In reaction, there have been proposals for campaign finance reform. But the basic problem is the need for heavy expenditures for television commercials during political campaigns. The candidates have a need to deliver an undistorted message to the voters. Because the communications media will not let them do that through news reporting, the campaigns have had to pay for expensive commercials. Someone has called this process “bypassing Sam Donaldson.”

Entrenched incumbents from the two major parties benefit from this situation. It is to their advantage to keep election campaigns expensive so that newcomers will find it hard to dislodge them. The Democrats, once the champion of poor people, are now into recruiting millionaire candidates who can afford to play the money game. The Twin Cities ad man, Bill Hillsman, has twice proved able to pierce the television-cost barrier by producing cheap but effective commercials to elect underdog candidates. Yet, Hillsman found himself out of work during the 2002 campaign. I ran into him at a Ralph Nader speech at Minneapolis City Hall in late September. Nader said that Wellstone would be smart to hire Hillsman to produce campaign commercials. I asked Hillsman if he would do that. “I haven’t been asked,” was the gist of his response. Evidently, Washington political operatives, especially Democrats, have told their party’s candidates not to touch him.

Why is that? Hillsman told an interviewer for the Rake newspaper that “the Democratic Party would rather maintain a self-perpetuating organization than win, if it comes to that ... I was on a phone call once with a pollster and a DSCC official and Mike Ciresi (a wealthy attorney who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000). First off they wanted him to raise a lot of soft money for the party. I told him, ‘Don't be fooled - they’re not going to put any of that money back into your race unless you toe the party line and it looks very winnable.’ I’ve seen them do this with lots of congressional candidates - they say in effect, go raise money, and later they tell you to get in line with the party platform or get left out in the cold.” Only a handful of Congressional races each election are in real contention. The Democrats, said Hillsman, “have plenty of money to run strong races in those 25-40 districts. But they hold that money over the heads of the candidates as a carrot and a stick. They tease them with it, and then they say,’But you’ve got to play ball.’ You get a purity test.”

That is what the major-party candidates face. Candidates of third parties have an even more daunting challenge in convincing media editors and reporters that they are mounting “serious campaigns”. Because almost anyone can become a political candidate or form a political party, the news media have a legitimate interest in reporting significant campaigns and not cluttering up their news reporting with other coverage. Of necessity, they must set “standards” for coverage. So, how does an aspiring political candidate in a third party, or a nonendorsed candidate in any party, get to first base with the media? You try to be clever, entertainment-wise. You try to cultivate media relationships. If necessary, you try to protest, shame, or sue your way into debates. There is no single good answer, and that is what makes campaigning for the small, underfinanced candidates such a problematic enterprise. It’s all a game.

My pet solution grows out of my experience with Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. I tried to put it into effect on a broader scale with the “Orange Party”. If we could not attract coverage of our events from the large commercial media, we set up our own media to cover them. We had our own free-circulation newspaper and cable-television show. These could not be slick productions looking like political propaganda. We needed to host forums of free expression since today’s sophisticated public can recognize a staged event when it sees one. We could not afford to lose credibility in manipulating the image. Allowing certifiably “bad” people to appear is better than trying to censor expression. In the process, we had to learn tolerance and forgiveness. So it is, I think, that politically interested persons of many different persuasions might cooperate in putting on a type of discussion that will give them each opportunities to be heard. If third parties are together facing extinction, it would be well for them to put aside the bickering and demonizing of each other and work on a common enterprise. They could jointly sponsor a third-party forum.

This scheme would cost money. The Property Rights group enjoyed an advantage in having a membership base of landlords who could afford the $55.00 annual dues. The group had a relatively unified agenda. Contributions could be justified as a business expense. It cost about $10,000 a year to keep the show afloat. Additionally, certain individuals put up their own money to publish the newspaper. In contrast, an organization which consisted of third-party activists from several parties would be pulled in different ideological directions. These might be persons of modest income, in it for the love of politics. Who would finance the operation? How might the cost be shared by the politically diverse groups? What decisionmaking mechanism might exist to moderate between competing interests?

To put third parties of various ideological temperaments under a common institutional umbrella would be in itself an accomplishment. But the fact is that each such party faces a more significant challenge today in getting its message out and having the public take it seriously than in harmonizing ideologies. At least initially, third parties must work together to build a structure for their type of enterprise or they will be smothered by the two-party system.

So dismal is the current situation that we need to build a structure from the ground up. I remember reading once about the cultural environment from which the Mormon religion sprang. In the 1820s and 1830s, the area near Rochester, New York, was crawling with evangelists, preachers, and miracle workers representing many different denominations. There were tent debates between the preachers of these Christian denominations, each claiming to speak God’s truth. “What is the truth?”, young Joseph Smith asked himself in bewilderment. Eventually he had a revelation of his own. Taking a broader view, one can readily see how a climate of religious fervor and controversy might spawn a dynamic new religion. The same is true in the political area. Controversy grabs people’s attention. Debates produce a more refined and contemporary form of truth. We need, then, to go back to the point of fundamental uncertainty to revitalize politics. Let each point of view be heard.

Political activists need also to deal with the media problem. Why should private businesses, beyond public control, be allowed to set the political agenda for the larger community? Why should they decide which candidates can receive enough coverage to be elected to public office? This is an inherent scandal within the democratic system. Now I am not suggesting that governments take over management of the large daily newspapers. I do suggest, at least initially, that the newspapers themselves address the problem of internal caucuses and biased reporting. If unseen journalists pursue hidden agendas of hate, the public needs to know about it. The public needs to know who the people are who are causing those contentious messages to be disseminated. What are their personal backgrounds? What axes have they to grind?

The same is true of Hollywood. Political agendas advanced under the guise of entertainment are equally unfair. We need to disclose more about communications that consistently project a politically or socially partisan message. As consumer-product disclosure laws tell the public what ingredients are in a product, so the communications media need to open up the process of creating their own product and let the sunshine of full public disclosure inform consumer decisions.

Government may well have to use its big stick to beat the media into accepting this kind of reform. The degree of competition may dictate what needs to be done. Being print media, newspapers have potential competition from start-up publications including free-circulation newspapers. There is also the Internet. The press have certain First Amendment protections. The electronic media are quite another matter. In their case, government has granted monopolies to certain businesses to use a limited resource. It is not possible for competitors to enter that domain without FCC approval. Yet, the public interest must above all else be served. The proposal to require broadcasters to make available a certain amount of free air time to candidates during campaign season is reasonable. If the broadcast industry refuses to accept that arrangement, then Congress could put pressure on the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider the stations’ broadcast licenses or allow low-watt stations to compete with them.

Political candidates can also communicate with voters through cable television. Cable-access shows are an efficient pipeline to voters in particular communities. Local governments have given certain cable companies a monopoly on service in their area. But, since the number of cable channels is potentially unlimited, there is no reason why political parties, working through local elected officials, cannot push the cable companies to expand the broadcast time available on these channels and reserve part of the time for political discussions. Third parties would benefit, in particular.

Many American newspapers started out as mouthpieces for political parties. I would foresee that, in the initial phase of their revival, third parties would acquire their own media and, in some cases, become self-directed media operations. They would have their own apparatus for communicating with voters. Political activity in this mode would consist of two parts, content and media production, not just content. Content, in a broad sense, would consist of presenting issues to the public, generating relevant information, acting to persuade government to implement certain policies, or seeking to be elected to public office for those purposes. In a narrow sense, it would consist of staging debates. Media production is self-explanatory.

To capture public attention, it is necessary to maintain quality in both parts of the operation. Third parties cannot afford to put out poorly written newspapers which merely trumpet their views. They cannot afford to put videos on the air with poor camera work and problems with sound. But the content also needs to be of high quality. Politicians should be deliverers of a useful and inspiring message, filled with good information, which leads to intelligent public-policy recommendations. Done right, the third-party debaters could put on a show which puts today‘s “candidate debates” to shame. Once the public grows accustomed to high-quality discussions of community affairs put on by third-party organizations, they may no longer be satisfied with the bipartisan dancing around tough issues and the candidates jumping through arbitrarily chosen media hoops.

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