H.L. Mencken, in 1923, noted the “amalgamation of the two great parties. Both have lost their old vitality, all their old reality; neither, as it stands today, is anything more than a huge and clumsy machine for cadging jobs. They do not carry living principles into their successive campaigns; they simply grab up anything that seems likely to make votes. The old distinctions between them have all faded out, and are now almost indiscernible.” To Mencken’s delight, Robert La Follette carried the banner of the Old Republic into the 1924 campaign, but though Fighting Bob won 17 percent of the national vote his Progressive Party captured only the 13 electors of Wisconsin. La Follette died the next year, and despite quadrennial entreaties his heirs (Senators Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and William E. Borah of Idaho) eschewed the third-party route.
Does anyone not on a public payroll or a network-news staff disagree with Mencken’s indictment today? What Jerry Brown keenly calls the “Incumbent Party” has purged national polities of its sap and vim. Doughty insurgents who “work within the system,” as we are instructed to do from childhood, are smeared by Establishment toadies, usually hack journalists and Distinguished Senior Fellows with an eye for the main chance. Just ask Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan, the best—and therefore most mud-bespattered—of the primary lot. Even muckier obloquy greets he who, like Ross Perot, goes it alone.
Mr. Perot is a dangerous man. He seemed harmless at first, palavering with Larry King and showing off his Norman Rockwell collection. But folksy Ross turned out to be a Texarkana patriot who acts on Wendell Berry’s dictum, “Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.” No naif, he knows something of the national-security state and doesn’t much like its sordid doings: the Nixon-Kissinger abandonment of American POWs, the Reagan- Bush skullduggery in the Middle East. Raising these matters during the campaign, Perot tripped the alarm and—woof! woof!—got sicced by the servile hounds of the corporate press, who tugged at and soiled his trouser legs all the way to November 3rd. “Paranoiac! Conspiracy fantasist! Nutcake!” they yipped, until half of America believed it.
No wonder so little public discussion takes place in these United States, outside the free-speech zones of talk radio and the coffee shop. The corporations that monopolize the information industry (one percent of owners sell nearly half of all daily newspapers) stifle wholesome parochial impulses within their subject populations. Dull and shrewd alike understand Gore Vidal’s epigram that “the price of freedom is eternal discretion.” Fittingly, the only outlet that gave Perot a fair shake is owned by an old-fashioned buccaneer capitalist (CNN’s Ted Turner) whom the opinion-molders despise.
Perot weathered the blizzard of slander about as well as can be expected. His witty, bantam presence was the only reason to watch the televised “debates” through which he salvaged his good name. His peppery disrespect of pert, insecure lady newsreaders was marvelous to behold. His proposal for an electronic town-hall—a direct descendant of the war-referendum amendment once championed by La Follette, William Jennings Bryan, and most famously Indiana Democrat Louis Ludlow—terrified editorialists, who much preferred the insipid gruel of Perot’s soberly responsible and tax-happy United We Stand movement.
So where do we go from here? The outline of a Perotist third-party platform is visible: it features an array of citizen-politician measures, including term limits and restrictions on lobbying; deep spending-cuts and entitlement reforms; the withdrawal of most if not all U.S. troops and subsidies from Europe and Asia; and a Main Street can-do civic responsibility ethic that is the healthiest face of Babbittry. This is a queer admixture of populism and goo-gooism (not unlike La Follette Progressivism) that misses the boat on the biggest “issue” of all: how to return education, charity, government, and everything else to a human scale. Nevertheless, there is enough common-sense radicalism here to excite genuine enthusiasm in the 57 percent of Americans whom pollster Gordon Black tells us would welcome a strong third party.
Will such a movement be capacious enough to include Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan? Despite their liabilities (Brown’s fickleness, Buchanan’s friendship with the computerized-mail racketeers), each represents a worthy strain of American populism. I wonder: do these decent men realize how much they have in common?
Patriots of left and right used to have the guts to stand together: Robert Taft campaigned for Robert La Follette, Jr.; Mencken championed political prisoner Eugene V. Debs; William Appleman Williams rehabilitated Herbert Hoover. Why don’t their heirs at least sit down for a chat?
Pat and Jerry and every other stouthearted foe of the Incumbent Party should be cheered that 19 million Americans left the polls humming the old Populist tune, “I was a party man one time, the party would not mind me / So now I’m working for myself, the party’s left behind me.”
The forces unleashed by the Perot rebellion may dispel, especially if Ross is defanged by wily Willie’s blandishments. Perhaps United We Stand will be taken over by the salaried vampires who always try to take things over. But maybe, just maybe, the murmurs we heard throughout Middle America on Election Day were the rumbling auguries of an empire-toppling earthquake.
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