When Edmund Burke called perfect democracy “the most shameful thing in the world,” he was not referring to the mixed forms of popular government that had existed in ancient Greece and Rome, much less to the newly liberated English colonies that had been struggling to form “a more perfect union” on the Eastern seaboard of North America. These were constitutional governments in principle, and in practice (for the most part), they observed the rule of law. What Burke viewed with alarm was the French experiment in perfect democracy, based on the principles of equality, irreligion, and human rights. In striving to reach a moral perfection that lies beyond the limits of law and custom, radical democrats remove every obstacle to the total state. What Burke knew—and we knew once upon a time, though we have forgotten it—is that absolute democracy is absolute despotism.

When Americans speak of restoring or purifying their democracy, they generally have something like the government of Robespierre (or of the Paris Commune) in mind. Such Active democracies have proved to be excellent vehicles for destroying civilization; and, if we discount misery and oppression, they have created nothing. People who descant upon the glories of democracy are like certain Catholics who would not trade places with the Apostles because, while Peter and James had known Jesus personally and suffered martyrdom, no one in those days had yet defined papal infallibility. This is putting the cart before the horse with a vengeance.

The best that has been claimed for democracy is that it is the least bad form of government. Although it may be difficult to trace the connections between genuinely democratic states, such as Athens in the fifth century B.C:. and Switzerland in the 19th A.D., and the mixed republican governments of modern Europe and the United States, most people would say that, under popular government (a more descriptive term), the people are the ultimate foundation of sovereignty and that there are constitutional mechanisms (elections, ostracisms, referenda) by which the people can protect their interests and change their magistrates.

In America (as in Switzerland), the “democratic” genius of the people expressed itself in a firm commitment to state and local governments and in opposition to a standing army and a permanent bureaucracy. None of these commitments, in America at least, has survived the ordeal of the 20th century: We have imposed upon ourselves a vast apparatus of national government enforced by riot squads, national guard units, and domestic intelligence agencies; we pass referenda only to see them overturned by unelected and irresponsible judges; and every four years, about half of us try to choose the less dumb, less evil, and less crooked of the machine-rigged candidates presented to us by the two major parties.

H.L. Mencken wondered how, in a country this size, we could find no one more qualified than Calvin Coolidge. Mencken was justified in his contempt for Silent Cal—who now seems like a moral and intellectual giant compared with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Yes, Mr. Bush probably is less evil and less stupid than Mr. Gore, and there may be good reasons to hold your nose and vote Republican. But if you do, try not to deceive yourself into thinking that your vote has something to do with democracy or that Bush is better qualified than your next-door neighbor.

Actually, George Bush is preferable to my former next-door neighbor, the turncoat “conservative” Republican and apostle of world government, Rep. John Anderson, who now lives in leftist luxury somewhere in Florida, where he does not have to face cold winters or the sneers of the voters he betrayed.

Mr. Anderson, in running a third-party campaign in 1980, tried to help the left keep Ronald Reagan out of the White House. My experience of third-party candidates is not limited to this quasi-neighbor, who only showed up next door once or twice to sell the property (which, to show his contempt for his neighbors, he had allowed to become run-down and had rented out to what some neighbors called a biker gang) and to complain about my famous tall bushes. I know and esteem Harry Browne and Howie Phillips; Pat Buchanan is a friend and ally; and two of Pat’s predecessors in the Reform Party—Gov. Dick Lamm and Adm. James Stockdale—have written several times for Chronicles.

The role of the party in American politics has been debated from the beginning. Parties were flourishing in Britain when the Constitution was being cobbled together in Philadelphia by the faction leaders and fixers who inserted no mention of parties into their design. Washington himself warned against the development of parties, even as Hamilton and Jefferson were at work dividing the nation. But even in Jefferson’s administration, his brightest supporters showed their spirit by going into opposition to both the Federalists and Jeffersonians and forming the Tertium Quids.

The first real party, however, in the sense of being an organized vehicle of corruption that can coerce its members—including elected officials—into accepting the party’s positions, was Martin Van Buren’s reorganized Democratic Party. John C. Calhoun struggled in vain against the machine, and his integrity cost him the White House. The early emergence of the two-party system—informally in 1800, then a generation later as a pair of synchronized and well-oiled machines—has meant that the interesting action (for good and ill) in American politics has always come from third parties.

Some have been single-issue (like the Greenback Parts) or single-candidate (e.g., John Anderson) movements; others have had longer legs, like the Progressives and Socialists or—most successful of all—the xenophobic, anti-Catholic Know-Nothings who regrouped on the slavery issue and helped to create the Grand Old Party. In their classic, non-partisan study of the American system, Willmoore Kendall and Austin Ranney expressed considerable skepticism about the virtues claimed for minor parties. They conceded, however, that “forming a third party has been and still is the indicated course of action for . . . any ethnic, class, sectional, or occupational group” which feels “that it has no chance whatsoever of getting attention for its demands from the major parties and the groups that support them.” (In other words, all those who have neither bought into nor been sold into the system.) This suggests that the opportunity for any third party will come from Americans who pay taxes without receiving contracts and kickbacks; who do not belong to a designated minority group based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation; who adhere to the traditional religion (Christian), civilization (Western, classical, British), and morality (the common moral traditions of Christians, Jews, and European pagans).

Over the past decade, Ross Perot’s Reform Party had some success in appealing to disgruntled, middle-class, European males, but Perot’s lack of coherent principle—even more than his personal zaniness—kept his party an unfocused mob of loudmouthed malcontents. By supporting abortion, Perot excluded the religious and moral conservatives, and by advocating trade restrictions and open borders, he showed that his primary concern was with big business, not with the future of the American people. Pat Buchanan’s vigorous attempt to refashion Perot’s incense-and-adoration club into a genuine party has met with obstacles all along the way, some of them set up by Perot loyalists, others seeming to sprout naturally in the exotic hothouse of minority parties.

When, out of pure spite, some of the leading Perotistas were willing to support a professor of levitational physics at Maharishi U, the essential stupidity of Perot and his cult was exposed. When most of mv friends were voting for Perot, I told them he was a dangerous megalomaniac who wanted to suspend constitutional law and make himself popular dictator; and when Dick Lamm set out to challenge Perot four years ago, I said the Reformers were setting up a smoke-and-mirrors show to give the illusion of democracy.

What a political sinkhole the Reform Party has been, sucking in die energies of dissent without producing a coherent challenge to the party state that has replaced republican government. Previous third party challenges—the Populists, the Progressives, the Socialists, the Wallace movement—all had principles and platforms that challenged the ruling party coalition. They were vehicles of protest, of course, but in standing for principles, they redirected political debate and, in the end, had more concrete influence than either of the major parties, which even in the 1890’s were bastions of entrenched interests. Perhaps the third time is the charm, and the Buchananites who have taken over Perot’s party can inject substance into the term—as hollow as a tract-home door—”reform.”

Let us suppose that, by some strange mischance, Mr. Buchanan fails in his presidential bid. What are the prospects for breaking up the oligarchy and recreating some form of popular and republican government? About what they have been since 1945: none. In 1940, 1944, 1948, and 1952, at least, the Republicans could conceivably have gone into opposition by supporting someone like Sen. Robert Taft. They preferred people such as Willkie, Dewey, and Eisenhower, solid establishment men of no discernible principle, men who could have belonged to either party. (No one actually knew which party Ike adhered to, and Dewey was closer to FDR than he was to the supporters of “Mr. Republican.”)

But George Bush is no Tom Dewey, much less a Calvin Coolidge, and Vice President Gore is a Washington lobbyist disguised as a window dummy. I cannot be the only American who has reached this conclusion; Only 17 percent of those eligible actually voted in the primaries in which the two candidates were supposedly chosen. The rest of us knew that the fix was in. It is not as if there were nothing at stake in an election that pits Haliburton against Occidental Petroleum.

Part)’ polities has changed very little since the 18th century, when Robert Walpole perfected the system as an instrument of corruption, or since the Victorian age, when W.S. Gilbert described it as a sort of machine for sorting dullards:

When in that house M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

But then the prospects of a lot

Of dull M.P.’s in close proximity

All thinking for themselves is what

No man can face with equanimity.

If Dennis Hastert and John Conyers had not joined parties, they might have had to make up their own minds without having anyone to pay them for not thinking. “Ignorance maketh most men go into a party,” observed the generous Halifax, “and shame keepeth them from going out of it.”

I speak from admittedly limited knowledge: My only real experience of presidential campaigning (apart from going door-to-door for Stevenson when I was 11) came in 1964. I was a college student and interested in two girls; one of them, who had fallen under the spell of a Yaffie admirer, persuaded me to march in a parade for Barry Goldwater; the other was an Irish Catholic and, therefore, a born Democrat. She was a Johnson girl and dragged me out to the airport to welcome Ladybird. The First Lady seemed a decent enough person to me, and on a whim I had rooted for Lyndon in the 1960 primaries. (Anybody but Jack, I felt back then and feel now.) On the other hand, Goldwater displayed more pep—though I thoroughly disliked the prissy didactic tone and convoluted rhetoric supplied by poor Barry’s speechwriters, who lost him any hope of winning the election.

Let me be candid: I was not a Republican or a Democrat; I was neither liberal nor conservative. My party was the party of most young men—the Girls Party. Why else do men join parties, if not to satisfy their three basic desires: money, power, and women? If you are a Clinton or a Bush, you get all three, and if you are a Gore—under the thumb of an aging cheerleader who supports “family values” and a woman’s “right to choose”—you have to settle for only one. (Even if elected, the Occi Petroleum lobbyist will wield no more power than, saw the younger Gordian.)

Whenever I contemplate the American political scene, Roman—not Greek—parallels come almost instinctively to mind. When Caligula—who preyed upon boys as well as girls—was overthrown by a conspiracy of his future victims, the senators seriously debated the prospects of reestablishing the republic. The Praetorian Guards had another idea and dragged out the dim-witted stutterer, Claudius, whose agents may have taken an active role either in the conspiracy to murder the emperor or in the Praetorian plot. Some of the senators were no doubt serious about restoring the republic, and some of them were to die, over the next generation, for their republican sentiments. Most of them, however, were as cowardly, treacherous, and self-indulgent as the Roman mob itself. How eager the senators were, remarked Tiberius on his accession to power, to be slaves.

I say nothing against my fellow citizens who have good reasons for supporting Al George or Gore Bush. If I had a business or an estate to protect, I would pull the straight GOP lever. But what of all the outcasts: the Christians; the shopkeepers and guys in the trades; the factory workers, black and white, whose jobs are being shipped off to Mexico or given away in Illinois to low-paid immigrants; the parents who once read Dickens and Shakespeare and are frightened at the prospect of their kids growing up on Toni Morrison and Kate Chopin? If they are green or pink, the losers have Ralph Nader—God bless him—to vote for; if they are “whites” in the Russian sense (that is, conservative Christians), they will turn out for Buchanan or Phillips; and if they are sturdy individualists, there is the estimable Harry Browne.

If all the minority parties can scrape up 25 to 30 percent of the total vote, then we shall not be wasting our time debating tire future of the republic. Otherwise, let us accept with good grace the Claudius or Caligula whom the party praetorians select and get on with the perennial business of man.