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Chapter Twenty-eight: Building a Third Party Movement: Part 2

 

When people think of political activity, their thoughts are usually directed at efforts to achieve solutions of force. They go to the legislature to pass laws or file court cases to set a judicial precedent. But much that is wrong in our society is not government-mandated. It comes about through acquiescence to intimidation. For this type of problem, the better remedy is political action directed at changing public opinion. Passing laws cannot coerce the human heart to change. Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee started out pursuing coercive solutions. We filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis in federal court. A judge tossed out our suit. We made an effort to introduce legislation at the state capitol but were overpowered by opposing interest groups. That left us with the option of influencing public opinion. That last-chosen approach succeeded brilliantly.

One of the best ways to influence public opinion is to tell a story based upon personal experience. The Property Rights group meetings have featured stories of landlords, small business people, and others abused by Minneapolis city government. The meetings were videotaped and shown on cable television (Fridays on Channel 6, 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.). Political action can take creative forms such as the “crack tours” which tell stories of a community. Our biggest asset has been our ability to communicate directly with the public through the cable-television show and free-circulation newspaper. Our activities have also received coverage by the mainstream media when something we did struck their fancy.

And so we did our part to create an action-oriented political culture in the Twin Cities. Such a culture needs both activities and media willing to cover them. If successful, the political culture can inspire a community to move beyond self-absorption, apathy, and passive-aggressiveness to give people a sense of power in expressing themselves. It can remove some of the bitterness from our hearts. Changing public opinion is indeed powerful.

Although leaders of the Property Rights group sometimes received complaints that we were “not accomplishing anything”, we did change public opinion over time; and that was no mean accomplishment. Public opinion is that soft, amorphous force from which political power springs. Persons of crude sensibility prefer looking at laws and lawsuits as if these are the “reality” of public policy. They are only its bureaucratic shell. What the public thinks and believes is the real policy. One affects policy as much by action as by reasoned persuasion. When people see someone courageously standing up for himself, it is an inspiring sight. The “monkey-see, monkey-do” principle is alive in even sophisticated human beings. Anyone can resist intimidation through action if he is ready to pay the price.

I am suggesting, then, that a political party can do more than elect candidates to office, appoint judges, and pass laws. It can also be a community of activists. It can provide the social framework for individuals to work on projects along the lines of their common values. Even though the Property Rights group showed that you can successfully fight City Hall, you cannot do it alone. You need other people’s encouragement and support. Effective political action needs people pitching in unselfishly according to their individual skills. The structure of the landlord group consisted of a regular monthly gathering where people met face-to-face. Even more, it was a web of telephone calls between persons working on something together. Protest demonstrations would energize the membership. People were encouraged to take the initiative in developing group projects. With a political party having diverse interests, that approach may not be possible to the same extent. Yet, some mechanism needs to be established which authorizes its members to act freely on behalf of the group.

The main function of political parties, as they exist today, is to elect candidates to public office. Secondarily, it is to formulate issues that will identify the party in terms of policy and attract candidates sympathetic to those views. This requires endless rounds of “business meetings” to decide what should be the party’s position. Let me say that I am personally put off by that aspect of politics. It attracts talkers who sound reasonable and polished but who may not have a clue about what actually goes on in the world. I have seen neighborhood groups pretending to do good while their members were scheming to acquire real estate without paying for it. People think they are accomplishing something by passing carefully worded resolutions. They debate minor changes in wording. It were as if these individuals were engaged in an important enterprise like drafting the U.S. Constitution. In reality, the politically apathetic public cares little about the resolutions and policy statements adopted by political groups. It’s a worthless enterprise.

In my view, political organizations need to be focused on action. The important thing is not engaging in internal discussions but going out to meet the public. That is where the political rubber meets the road. Candidates who actually do this deserve respect. They know they will meet people who disagree with their positions, some quite strongly. That forces the candidates to reconsider previous opinions, refine them, and perhaps develop a different position, not produce definitive statements on some issue. Most persons elected to public office are better for having gone through that process. With respect to groups, it is also important to confront that part of the public which does not agree with its views.

I am personally hard-pressed to sit through a lengthy political convention. The time is taken up by debating temporary officers and rules, proposed changes in the party constitution, resolutions, and selection of candidates. Some persons at the convention are experts in parliamentary procedure or in maneuvering with the aid of Robert’s Rules of Order. They propose minute changes in someone else’s resolution. Then the chair has to explain the rules to decide this matter. Someone will rise with a “point of information”. Maybe that, too, has to be debated. It’s all humbug - a big waste of time. Political parties need to recognize that their first order of business is to attract people into the organization. If meetings are a way to do that, then those meetings need to be made personally interesting and worthwhile. Otherwise, people will stop coming. If that means dispensing with Robert’s Rules of Order, so be it. People come to political conventions for certain narrowly defined purposes, usually to nominate a candidate. Let the conventions be organized more efficiently towards that end. Don’t waste people’s time.

Therefore, I believe that, as political parties need to develop a mechanism to deliver their message to the public, so they need a better one for conducting internal business. The object in both cases is to improve the flow of communication. Individuals are interested in politics for certain reasons. Let them talk about what really matters to them. Structure the meetings to maximize the time for communication on subjects that interest the people attending them. Give everyone a chance to speak. Let people learn something at these meetings: Make sure that good, solid information comes out of them. Let the meetings facilitate meaningful discussions between likeminded persons and between persons who may disagree. There is never any lasting, definitive agreement on important questions. Aspiring Thomas Jeffersons who want to write the Declaration of Independence need not apply.

I am, of course, projecting my own values upon the political process. While writing this in the context of Independence Party politics, I ignore the fact that there is an existing Independence Party structure and institutional heritage. It is unlikely that the force of my arguments will persuade too many people to give up what they have been doing. Besides an illustrious history, the Independence Party now has its first member of the Minnesota legislature, State Senator Sheila Kiscaden of Rochester, elected under the party’s banner. It has other elected officials in local offices. It has a growing membership base. It has Tim Penny’s list of more than 30,000 contributors who, collectively, contributed more than $1 million to his gubernatorial campaign. It has a new permanent office in the midway district of St. Paul. It officially enjoys “major party status”. In other words, the Independence Party has a lot going for it in its present state.

Even so, new ideas can be useful if they make sense to people, and I am hoping that mine will. Perhaps this book will put a proposal for change on the table and some may want to respond. Perhaps, also, they may help to arouse a new constituency which might want to join the Independence Party or some other political party depending on how events play out. My twin issues of support for a shorter workweek and opposition to political correctness are sure to offend many. I would not want to force this agenda upon anyone. However, my personal hope is that the Independence Party will be a place to sponsor candidates who would embrace those particular ideas and take them to the voters as I did. The waters are not too cold.

As a technical matter, I will use the term “New Independence Party” to designate the political program being advocated here. The idea is not to advocate the formation of a new political party but to identify a potential caucus within the existing Independence Party which, hopefully, will arise as a result of this book’s publication. A website at http://www.newindependenceparty.org will keep interested persons informed of developments related to the book or its agenda.

In my view, the imperative to adhere to a party platform is unhelpful. Party platforms may be useful as policy recommendations, but nothing more. The candidates’ own views and how they are projected to the public are more important. More important still is the discussion taking place among the general public. To the degree that the Independence Party embraces my twin proposals, I would suggest that they become an additional element within the party, not something to replace what is already there. There should be no litmus tests for membership in the party. The important thing is to find new people to join our common enterprise and give them freedom to express themselves. But I will go where my own interests lie. They lie partly in revitalizing third-party politics and the Independence Party, and partly in pursuing the two issues.

Having said that, however, I also believe that the existing Independence Party has a ideological flavor or a personality which distinguishes it from the other political parties. Ross Perot, founder of its predecessor organization, and Jesse Ventura, whose election brought us to power in this state, have given the party a certain identity through their personalities and opinions. If I may be so bold as to characterize the Independence Party, I would say that, like the Greens, our ranks are filled with idealists. Otherwise, we would be like Democrats and Republicans chasing after the spoils of office. In comparison with the Greens, we are positioned more toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. Our Perotist upbringing has given us a desire to reduce the deficit and to sympathize with veterans who have given much to their country. We are not scheming to get rich or stay in power by using other people’s money or lives. We also tend to be older than the average Green. Our membership tends to be more male. Even though racial minorities and women fill our ranks, Independence Party members, from what I have seen, disproportionately consist of older white males.

In my chauvinistic opinion, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Males tend to gravitate toward new territories. They are disproportionately the cowboys on the western frontier, settlers in Alaska, and persons who would respond to Ross Perot’s call for a new party. They are not the type of person who would be offended by Jesse Ventura’s brash personality. They would secretly or openly admire him for getting away with his politically incorrect views. So, if the Independence Party disproportionately represents “angry white males” who live in exurban Anoka or Chisago County, lack social polish, and own guns, it does not bother me. We can keep this kind of membership or watch it change. People can join the Independence Party or they can leave. That is beyond our control. Thanks to Tim Penny, our center of gravity may, however, be shifting toward the southeastern part of the state.

I have argued that the party needs a clearer identity in terms of fundamental political questions and that it needs to differentiate itself from the two major parties. Being in the “sensible center” is too policy-wonkish. We need to speak to the gut issues. Economic policy and the Civil Rights legacy are the big ones. Besides those, candidates will have to deal with a host of specific issues which insert themselves peripherally into political campaigns. Gun control and abortion are two which come to mind. Perhaps the best approach is to give individual candidates freedom to choose their own position - any position is OK - and then communicate it honestly to voters. Maybe, to satisfy those with a Voter’s Guide mentality, we can develop a matrix of positions on each type of issue.

The hard fact is that the Independence Party needs to appeal to voters who think that candidates from the Democratic and Republicans are more likely to win. We need to give people a good reason to vote for our candidates. As I said before, we cannot afford to be timid or nuanced in what we are proposing. We need to present our honest views to the public, warts and all. We need to stand up for our own values. We need to do picketing and public protests. Forget the pundits. Forget political realists. Catering to this type of person is not going to bring fundamental change. Paul Wellstone showed that a candidate of strong, honest convictions could attract votes even from persons who disagreed with him.

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