There has never been an election conducted above the local level in which one single ballot determined the outcome. And even if there were, I doubt it would matter. Suppose you could cast the deciding vote in a contest between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Can you honestly say that you would bother?
Visiting the polls is more a religious act than a political one, an affirmation of one’s fealty toward America’s civic faith. This confession does not stress individual revelation and one’s personal relationship with the Deity; nor does it express a communal identity through mystery and pageantry—though it sometimes tries. The point of this church is to show up most Sundays and try not to fall asleep.
Creative voters often try to transcend the bland affirmations of the Civic Church. They may embrace a splinter cult—a protest campaign or a third party. They may go pagan, and write in their own gods: Faustus Kelly, Randy Weaver, Donald Duck, or whoever strikes their fancy on the spur of the moment. The best of them become self-made prophets and enter the race themselves, on their own terms. These holy men constitute a religious tradition in their own right, an esoteric order that only occasionally slips, partially, into the spotlight.
The last time this happened was in 1994, when infamous radio personality Howard Stern earned (some say, stole) the gubernatorial nomination of the New York Libertarian Party. His platform consisted of reinstating the death penalty, using criminals’ corpses to fill potholes, “staggering tollbooths” (whatever that means), and resigning after three weeks. Across the land, pundits asked, “Is this a joke?”
Well, yes and no. It was not a joke in the sense of Canada’s Rhino Party, which advocated turning the entire private sector over to the public sector and vice versa, or the mid-60’s Hamiltonian Party, a wholly imaginary group led by a Flint, Michigan, college freshman who called himself “Mike, Mighty Man of God.” Unlike the Rhinos and Hamiltonians. Stern seemed to believe at least most of his slim platform. Nor was it a joke in the way Bill Clinton or George Bush or Bob Dole is a joke. Stern, at least, meant to be funny. No, Howard Stern’s campaign was a dead-serious jape, an electoral prank. And this placed him squarely in the Tradition.
In 1969, Normal Mailer ran for mayor of New York City on a Paul Goodmanesque platform of radical decentralization and community control: neighborhood sovereignty for black militants and right-wing ethnics alike, and citywide secession from New York State. Cars would be banned from Manhattan, gangs would fight formalized jousting matches in Central Park, and everyone would celebrate “Sweet Sunday”—one day a month when, in Mailer’s words, “New York would stop for 24 hours. Everything would stop running. Electricity, cars, planes, trains, name it. If nothing else, it would give New York a chance to clear itself once a month. And people would hear themselves think for a change.”
Jimmy Breslin ran for City Council president as Mailer’s running mate, and—paralleling Stern’s Libertarian candidacy—the pair gained the endorsement of Murray Rothbard’s tiny Radical Libertarian Alliance. Other than that, most of their unconsiderable support came from the left.
A year later, gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson ran for sheriff of Aspen on a “Freak Power” ticket, promising to sod the streets, put dishonest drug dealers in stocks, rename the town “Fat City,” and crack down on the developers he felt were raping his Colorado home. His was not the only tongue-in-cheek countercultural campaign that year; hippies and yippies across the country were running for municipal or county office. But Thompson did something none of them (or Mailer or Breslin) could manage: he almost won. He carried the city, losing only because of the “Spiro Agnew vote” (his phrase) in the suburbs.
Perhaps the greatest of the jape campaigns came in 1979, when punk rocker Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco. Biafra, then frontman for the Dead Kennedys, called for “bringing government out from behind closed doors” by auctioning off high city positions publicly rather than in smoke-filled rooms. He also wanted to legalize squatting in any building left empty for a tax writeoff, require downtown businessmen to wear clown suits between nine and five, rehire laid-off public employees as panhandlers at 50 percent commission, make police officers stand for election, and create a Board of Bribery to set standard rates.
He finished a solid fourth in a field of ten, with 3.5 percent of the vote. The victorious Dianne Feinstein admitted he “made the race more interesting.” Her campaign manager added that if someone “like that” could do so well, “this city is in big trouble.” (Some of us feel that way about Feinstein.)
To some extent, this Tradition is self-conscious. Biafra, for example, has admitted being inspired by another campaign buccaneer: “In my hometown [Boulder] there was a history of people pulling stunts like that. In particular there was a man named John Davenport, a 50-year-old independently wealthy hippie who would run for city council advocating all kinds of weird things. Everybody else would appear in their suit-and-tie photos for the candidates’ profiles in the newspaper, and he’d be in a pirate’s suit with an eyepatch and some of his teeth blacked out. He wrote great letters to the editor, attacking the cops.”
None of these people really expected to win; even Thompson started his candidacy on a lark. Mailer publicly stated that it would take “a miracle” for him to emerge the victor. This freed them, not only to push radical ideas that make more sense as poetry than as policy proposals—calling for a “Sweet Sunday” makes a fine satiric point, but surely Mailer did not really want to shut the city hospitals down for 24 hours a month—but to be brutally honest in a way no “serious” politician ever can. To quote Mailer and Breslin’s campaign slogan, these are campaigns with No bullsh-t.
So Mailer and Breslin were on the level about overthrowing the city bureaucracy and restoring power to the neighborhoods. Thompson was dead set on stopping the gentrification of Aspen. Biafra was out to show up the local corporate-state interests and to make fun of the police. Stern’s was a populist thrust at the two most common complaints about life in New York: crime on the streets, and the streets themselves.
And that is why this invisible college is, if not important in its own right, at least more significant than the soul-less civic faith it challenges. Even if Stern had not dropped out of the race, he would not have been elected governor. He would have gathered a lot of votes, though—not so much from people who like the death penalty and hate potholes as from those who think that Stern is funny and the other candidates are slime. After all, what does “don’t waste your vote” mean, if not “do something special with it”?