“We don’t have anyone else from the third congressional district. We need you to fill out our slate,” said the voice on the other end of the phone, a dispatcher from Pat Buchanan’s national headquarters.

I couldn’t believe it. The third district of Wisconsin stretches over a sizable portion of the western part of the state, sprawling from the Illinois border northward along the Mississippi to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. They could not find Buchanan supporters in Melrose, Independence, Mt. Hope, La Crosse, or Eau Claire? No desperate dairy farmers or blue-collar laborers barely hanging on against globalism’s onslaughts?

Apparently, there was only me. Headquarters had gotten my name from a volunteer card I signed at a Twin Cities fundraiser last fall just as Pat had announced that he was leaving the Republican Party to join the Reform Party. I was willing to do some work in my spare time here in northwest Wisconsin, a.k.a. the Indianhead. I had neither the desire nor the cash on hand to drive to Milwaukee on such short notice.

But they obviously needed help, and I had offered my services, regardless of circumstance. A strong desire to do my part for the cause (along with the promise of reimbursement of travel costs: My father would be proud) made me decide to go. I remembered my mother’s tales of volunteering for Robert Kennedy in Indiana; my own generation seems to have no ideals to fight for beyond our self-indulgences. I wanted stories to tell my children and grandchildren.

What I will tell them is hard to say. Was this the start of something big, or just more political factionalism of the kind that third parties often engage in?

The convention was part absurd and part old-fashioned frontier democracy. Brawls and fisticuffs were common throughout the early 19th century, sometimes over great issues of the day, other times over where to locate the town flagpole. Such behavior lasted through much of the 20th century, before television made raucous politics taboo.

After surviving an April storm that dumped eight inches of snow on Milwaukee, I arrived at the Radisson Hotel-Airport. I was disappointed. Surely the Wisconsin Reform Party convention should take place in a grand hotel, reminiscent of the great conventions of yesteryear!

I should have known things were fishy right from the start: The ten-dollar fee I paid at the registration table only allowed me to be a spectator. I was not a member of the Reform Party. That would cost another $15. Even if I had been a member, I would have had to wait six months to have any say on party leadership, rules, or candidates. The state chairwoman, a poor man’s Ann-Margret, read a letter from Minnesota Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who left the party earlier this year because it had become “dysfunctional” (that is, out of his control). All the while, Muzak drifted down through the speakers, drowning out the voices of the state party leaders at the podium.

Although Buchanan campaign officials assured us they would take care of the voting rules, the realization was setting in that I had wasted my time. These rides, which had been enacted in a February meeting that nobody bothered to tell the Buchananites about, were intended to legislate against opportunism, which is about as effective as legislating against immorality. Thus the paradox of the Reform Party: It cannot grow without the Buchanan Brigades, but it will not be the same party with them in charge.

The Buchananites segregated themselves in the back of the room, foreshadowing the sundering of the state party. Right from the start, the voting rule was challenged. “Point of order!” cried one man, a tall mustachioed chap wearing a Reform baseball cap. He was challenging the legality of the meeting that had established the voting rule through an extensive working knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order, which a true Reform Party member, like a lay preacher with his Bible, should not be without.

The meeting’s parliamentarian, an Ichabod Crane look-alike, promptly ruled him out of order. He claimed to be a professional parliamentarian, but since he was not from England, I figured he was one of the state leader’s friends, a hotel employee, or someone from the airport. He did not prove impartial. “Point of order!” the Buchananites cried from the back. “I challenge the ruling of the chair!” To which he replied, ‘You’re out of order!” He swatted down each motion.

The Buchananites realized that the fix was in, so they proceeded to organize their own meeting in the back. Pandemonium broke out, complete with yelling, catcalls, arguments, and threats to call the cops. Now there were two conventions of the Wisconsin Reform Party. (Thanks to the Radisson staff for providing the Brigades with our own podium.) Both proceeded to elect their own delegates, national committeemen, and state officers, while trying to talk over each other. Meanwhile, a hotel manager frantically ran around, trying to figure out what was going on. Since we had already paid our ten dollars to get in, he let us stay. Repeated attempts to turn off the Muzak were unsuccessful.

The event was reminiscent of the scene in Warren Beatty’s movie Reds in which John Reed and his socialist compatriots are driven out of the party at their Chicago convention in 1919. Soon they are meeting in a boiler room, setting up the “Communist Labor Party of America” and splitting the communists until there is nothing left but splinters. This is one reason why the Founding Fathers distrusted political parties. While they claim to organize around ideals, for the most part, parties evolve around personalities. Human nature being what it is, disagreements then split the parties into more and more factions until the original point is lost. Our ancestors feared that a strong party could only be organized around a strong man and centralized according to his vision, which would threaten the idea of liberty itself. Looking at the Jacobins, the communists, the Nazis, and the fascists, it’s hard to argue that they were wrong.

This is the struggle Buchanan ultimately faces. His political movement is animated by very strong ideals, but it is also personality-based. Because the Brigades are loyal to him personally, they would not have joined the Reform Party without him. They think he is the only candidate who addresses their views, and I agree. But many would have followed him to the Workers World Party or any other party he might have joined. If Buchanan loses this fall, does he stay, and do they stay, in the Reform Party? Do they work to make it stronger? Or do they walk away after what will perhaps be his last campaign?

This is what concerns and upsets longtime Reform members. Even some Reformers sympathetic to Buchanan’s cause were put off by what they saw as a putsch. One state leader said, “I’ve been working with this part)’ since it was founded eight years ago!” She sounded like a little kid whose tree-house club had been taken over by the kids down the block. The problem is that parties are not clubs—at least strong ones are not. But Wisconsin Reform has not been much of a party.

Up until this point, I was more or less a fly on the wall, worried about spending an evening in a Milwaukee jail cell for my political views. But since I was the only third-district delegate there, I was named to the Buchanan slate to the national convention in Long Beach, California. I am reluctant to go, but maybe I will, at least if headquarters cannot find an alternate to take my place. I would like to participate in a real national political convention.

Once upon a time, such events took place: scenes of great battles for presidential nominations and forums for heated and passionate discussions of the pressing issues of the day. Then they became sanitized for television’s sake. Perhaps the Reform Party will hold an old-fashioned convention. Perhaps I will actually see people willing to put their fists and their faces on the line for what they believe. I’ll be sure to pack a set of boxing gloves.