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Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Billionaire's Curse (September 1999)
Jack Beatty wonders why we should feel sorry for Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape and epitomizes "capitalism's hurricane of progress."

Sex and the Social Critic (August 1999)
Jack Beatty on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut -- and what the film's detractors failed to see.

Most Valuable Player (July 1999)
Jack Beatty on Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, a new book examining the economic impact of his Airness.

All the Presidents' Man (June 1999)
Jack Beatty reviews Name-Dropping, the new book by John Kenneth Galbraith, and recalls the days when liberals were cool. Seriously.

Slaves' Wages (May 1999)
What price can be put on the exorbitant theft of labor that was American slavery? Jack Beatty looks at a new work of history that suggests an answer.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Step Right Up

What does the Reform Party's cast of odd characters suggest about the state of our political culture? Think Fellini. Think David Lynch

by Scott Stossel

October 15, 1999

The only time George W. Bush has appeared to break a sweat in this campaign (aside from when clumsily deflecting allegations of past drug use), was when he implored Pat Buchanan not to bolt the GOP for the Reform Party. Clearly the idea of running against Buchanan in a general election makes Bush nervous.

As perhaps it should. For a nation as resolutely two party as the United States, the persistence of third parties on the political scene is remarkable. For more than a century, factions on both right and left have attacked the major parties as unresponsive, or indistinguishable, or irrelevant, and declared the need for new and different options -- and for just as long, the Agrarian Party, the Greenback Party, the Prohibition Party, the People's Party, and many others, have risen, fallen, and died on this premise, without ever achieving more than a kind of truculent marginality. Of the 545 elected officeholders in Congress today, all but two are Republican or Democrat.

Which is not to say third parties have never had a discernible impact. The two most successful third-party presidential campaigns in this century -- Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party candidacy in 1912 (which won 27 percent of the popular vote) and Ross Perot's United We Stand America candidacy in 1992 (19 percent) -- effectively guaranteed victory to Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, respectively, and helped focus the nation's attention on issues (regulation of business in 1912, the deficit in 1992) that were glossed over by the mainstream candidates. Nevertheless no third party has ever had a realistic chance at victory -- the political system in the United States, unlike in Europe, is rigged against them. The most significant role they can hope to play is that of the spoiler, the wild card in the electoral pack that can throw the election in unexpected directions.

But their lack of electoral success doesn't mean third parties can't tell us something significant about our political culture. Indeed, it's possible to glean a shorthand version of U.S. political history during the past century simply by glancing quickly over the third-party candidacies: the decent showings by Socialist candidates between 1912 and 1944 suggest the potency of concerns about economic inequality; Strom Thurmond's States' Rights campaign in 1948 and George Wallace's American Independent campaign in 1972 bookend the major Southern resistance to the civil-rights movement; and Ross Perot's two campaigns (the first notably more successful than the second) were barometers of concern about the deficit and the insecurity of American jobs in a globalizing economy.

So what does the Reform Party tell us about American politics as the 2000 presidential race gets underway? Does it, like previous third-party movements, represent an upswell of populist frustration? Or does this third-party effusion tell us something more than that?

Imagine you were to stumble one evening (God help you) into a dinner party at which the principals of the Reform Party were the guests. You might wonder if you had somehow been transported, Purple Rose of Cairo-style, into a Fellini film. And what a cast! Playing themselves, you meet:

• The diminutive Ross Perot, with his overgrown ears, his high-pitched voice, his billions of dollars, his manic paranoia, and, best of all, his multicolor charts of trade and budget deficits.

• The overgrown, shiny-headed Jesse "the Body" Ventura, who has traded in the trademark feather boas and pink tights of his professional wrestling career for the dark suits of the Minnesota governor's office. And as if that's not enough, don't forget that he used to be a Navy SEAL, that he freely admits to consorting with prostitutes before he was married, and that he proudly bashed religion and fat people in his interview in the October issue of Playboy.

• The maverick conservative, Pitchfork Pat Buchanan, he of the gleefully impolitic soundbite. Remember his comments in 1991 about the "amen corner's" support for the Gulf War? His exhortation to his supporters to "lock and load" in response to illegal aliens crossing the border? Nor will we soon forget the assertion in his new book that it was a mistake for the United States to get involved in fighting the Nazis, that we would have been much better off letting Hitler and Stalin tear each other to pieces on their own.

• The impeccably coiffed Donald Trump, millionaire real estate developer, dater of models, and sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder (he refuses to shake anyone's hand for fear of picking up germs), who says he would like Oprah to be his running mate if he chooses to run.

• Finally, the bit players: celebrities Warren Beatty and Cybill Shepard, both of whose names have been bandied about as possible Reform Party nominees, and the legion of weird presidential aspirants wandering around the Reform Party's convention last August.

Nevermind Fellini; this crew is pure David Lynch. Lynch's best work features creepy, grotesque characters -- think of Twin Peaks's freaky dwarf, or of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, sucking desperately from his enormous oxygen tank -- and has a surreal nightmarish quality. No wonder Lowell Weicker, the former Republican senator and governor of Connecticut, and the only "real" politician to be discussed in conjunction with this bunch, has repeatedly declined overtures from Ventura to seek the party's nomination.

All of which may suggest that what the Reform Party represents, more than any articulated political ideology, is the dark millennial unconscious of American politics. Each of these figures might be seen as some sublimated desire of the U.S. electorate which has been denied expression by the more buttoned-up mainstream parties. Consider:

• Ventura as raw id. He used to make his living body-slamming people, he wants to legalize drugs and prostitution, and he told Playboy that if he could be reincarnated, he would like to be a size-38D brassiere. Support for Ventura (and although he hasn't said he's seeking the nomination, I'm guessing he will have announced his candidacy by next summer), would be nothing less than the desublimated expression of, among other things … well, every straight guy's desire to be reincarnated as a bra on a large-chested woman.

• Trump -- the avatar of greed, vanity, and the desire for celebrity -- as the embodiment of the entire 1980s, and support for him (if any materializes) as an expression of nostalgia for that period's shameless worship of wealth.

• Pat Buchanan as the Dark Side: the racism, nativism, jingoism, and isolationism that are to some degree repressed natural impulses in all of us. If he wins the nomination, it will likely spell the end of the Reform Party -- that, or the beginning of the apocalypse.

• Warren Beatty, were he to join the party and win the nomination, would be the manifestation of something even more deeply repressed than greed or sexual desire: genuine progressivism. As the Democratic Party has moved toward the center, left-liberalism has gone deep underground. A serious Beatty candidacy would represent progressivism finally bursting forth from the depths of the popular unconscious. Not likely, though; this stuff is too deeply repressed.

• Finally, Ross Perot, pulling the strings behind the scenes like the Wizard of Oz, as our repressed Messianic delusions. Perot achieved, for a brief period in the spring of 1992, a mythical status: a savior coming to fix American politics. Then he stepped out from behind the curtain, and we saw him for the imp he is. This time around, so far, he's shrewdly chosen to remain concealed.

Critics complain that characters like these trivialize politics. The critics are wrong. The Reform Party is the carnival sideshow at the political circus, and as any carny will tell you, while people may say they're going to see the trapeze artists or the lion tamer, the biggest draw is always the freak show. (Who cares about the Flying Wallendas? I want to see the Bearded Lady and Lobster Boy.) If people follow politics more avidly this election season than in the recent past, and if voter turnout is higher, we may have the Reform Party to thank.

But don't look to the Reform Party for a coherent politics. Built on the framework of Perot's United We Stand America (which did have a coherent worldview: anti-free trade, anti-deficit, anti-Washington culture, without -- despite Perot's bizarre paranoia -- Buchanan's frightening nativism), the Reform Party has degenerated into a collection of largely incompatible issues and desires. Jesse Ventura (progressive, socially liberal, moderate free-trade supporter) and Pat Buchanan (conservative, socially reactionary, ardently anti-free trade) represent the party's polar extremes. As currently constituted the party runs on celebrity, ego, and colorful personalities (along with, yes, a dollop of populist resentment). On these alone, it cannot long endure. In the meantime, however -- step right up! -- the Reform Party may inject some fun into politics. These days, that's no small achievement.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Scott Stossel is executive editor of The American Prospect, a magazine of policy, politics, and culture that will be unveiling a new look at the end of this month.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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