Those who Make the Rules, Rule

October 15th, 2002

Those who Make the Rules, Rule
Omar H. Ali

The Emergence of the Beltway

A fundamental restructuring was affected in the early 20th century, which further entrenched the power of the major parties as they became increasingly corporate and centralized in both their structure and character.

In the 1930s, faced with massive economic collapse following the stock market crash and the ensuing Depression, the government intervened to create a safety net – not just for the poor, but for the free enterprise system itself. The Democrats and Republicans transformed the federal government from a kind of coordinating body to an extremely centralized regulatory body that provided welfare for impoverished Americans and for corporate America. During this time the federal government became far more extensive, invasive and powerful than even the staunchest Federalists could have imagined.

This change to a highly regulated system of government also created significant changes in the political economy of the country. With regulation becoming a key avenue for businesses to improve their competitive edge, corporate boards began to transform from groups of manufacturing and industrial magnates to pools of lawyers expert in navigating government regulations for the maximum profitability of their companies.

Political influence over the two major parties became more important than ever, since elected officials (invariably from the two major parties) were the ones who enforced the regulations. Tragically, the legislature, which had in the earliest stages of American history been the most populist, democratic and responsive to the people, was becoming one of the most partisan, most corrupt and top-down controlled institutions of American government.

Throughout the rise of these regulatory trends, and in the throes of the Great Depression, independent mass movements were organized – which took the organizational form of unemployed councils, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the black Sharecroppers Union, all of which fueled support for a flurry of independent parties. The Democratic Party and President Franklin Roosevelt moved effectively to capture that political ferment and convert it into an electoral base which allowed them to dominate the Republicans at the national level for some time and gave them the imprimatur of being the “party of the people.”

Still, both the Democrats and the Republicans kept close guard on protecting their two party system. They took serious measures to ensure its stability and their shared control of the governmental process. Ballot access regulations, designed to protect incumbency and favor the two parties, restricting and discouraging independents, were quickly enacted in state legislatures across the country. (Where once voters simply wrote the names of candidates or brought their own ballots on the day of the election, a highly discriminatory set of ballot access regulations – documented by Ballot Access News editor Richard Winger – were written by major party legislators to remove any independent threat to their bipartisan monopoly).

Over the course of the century, campaign finance laws were written and rewritten, largely as a function of two party rivalry, but always with an eye toward repressing the rise of independents. Reapportionment and redistricting were implemented by bipartisan legislatures. Bipartisanism, as opposed to nonpartisanism – in the conduct of elections was institutionalized, for example with the Federal Election Commission in 1975, and then with the pseudo-governmental Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987. Thus, the two parties took more direct control of the election process, the legislative process, and thereby the policy-making process, all of which have been customized by the two parties over the last seventy years to suit their interests.

As independents were being systematically rooted out of the electoral sphere, along with the advent of television in politics (which, in part, necessitated the centralization of parties since the cost and access to such technology requires a strong national party fundraising effort in order to be competitive) a distance grew between the major parties and their rank and file supporters. Costly television-based media campaigns became increasingly important in deciding election outcomes. As a consequence, the grassroots organization that was once the foundation of, for instance, the Democratic Party structure, disintegrated, leaving those who constituted its political base with less and less of a direct connection to their own party.

The union movement – or more accurately the union bureaucrats – played their mediating role between the party and their members, rallying them as troops and voters on Election Day (although unionized workers comprise only 13% of the workforce today). Black elected officials, primarily of the Democratic Party, came to play that role within African-American communities. Layers of bureaucrats mediate the Democrats’ relationship to their base, while the so-called “party of the people” enhances its own political power largely at the expense of the people.

Is it any wonder then, that when Ross Perot announced his independent run for the presidency, and tens of millions of Americans answered his call to take back our government, that the two party establishment panicked?

The independent movement exploded onto the national political scene in 1992, unearthing a sleeping giant of popular discontent with the political status quo. By the spring of 1992, Perot was at 40% in the presidential polls. The ‘American independent’ was the country’s most coveted and enigmatic voter. Where that movement would go was anybody’s guess. The Democrats and Republicans began immediately to work to stifle and co-opt it, absorbing significant aspects of its agenda into their own political matrix.

Newly elected President Bill Clinton, together with a chastened Congress, balanced the federal budget – the clarion call of the Perot movement’s demand for fiscal responsibility. And the Republicans captured control of Congress in 1994, skillfully – if disingenuously – embroidering the Perot movement’s demand for massive anti-incumbent, pro-democracy political reforms into its “Contract with America.”

Meanwhile the independents – including the progressive African-American Dr. Lenora Fulani who had herself run for the presidency, twice as a New Alliance independent, and Jim Mangia, a California independent active in gay and community causes – both of whom were pioneering the building of left/center/right populist coalitions – joined with leaders of the Perot movement to lobby Perot to run again and build a new national party in the process. That party became the Reform Party, which briefly entered the national political stage offering an extraordinary opportunity to affix onto the political scene a populist independent party oriented to “changing the rules” of American elections and governance. Unfortunately, however, the Reform Party began to lose its populist moorings – its connection to the base of Americans from which it came – and became vulnerable to co-optation and manipulation. Shortly, it – and the opportunity it presented for America – died down.

But there were important lessons learned and new models created off of and during that experience, models for movement and party-building where the organizing is bottom-up, the politic is based on creating left/center/right coalitions and the focal point is on political reform, i.e. changing the rules through which the two parties cling to their massive power. Built along these lines, the independents cannot be co-opted by the Democratic and Republican parties because changing the rules involves undercutting their power.

When Professor Muzzio observed,

“He who determines the rules, rules,” he was commenting on the activities and influence of the Independence Party of New York, which has been effectively challenging the rules that govern traditional partisan politics. The New York Times piece on the Independence Party, in which Muzzio was quoted, captures some of the party’s populist and unique character:

Despite its associations with eccentric, controversial and wildly divergent public figures, the party has maneuvered itself into positions of influence in both the governor’s race and on the city’s Charter Revision Commission.

And that, political analysts say, is something of a trick, given that the party, an amalgam of Reform refugees, New Alliance converts and a host of others frustrated with conventional politics, is not really a party in the traditional sense.

It does not exactly lean to the right or left. It does not take positions on issues like education, housing, crime or taxes. Indeed, its own literature acknowledges that many of its members sign up believing they are registering as unaffiliated with any party.

Even that phenomenon sits just fine with Independence leaders, who have worked to create a tent so big, in their description, that it verges on the metaphysical.
“The people who wanted to be independent are as much our constituency as the people who wanted to be in the Independence Party, because we’re kind of an anti-party party,” said Jacqueline Salit, a city party spokeswoman.

Nevertheless, of late it has been acting every inch the political player. A longtime supporter of nonpartisan elections, the party endorsed the candidacy of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, after he committed himself to their position, and brought him more than 50,000 votes in last November’s election – well over his margin of victory.

The process of building a populist independent movement is well underway. The fact is, in New York we ran people for office for years, where we got ten votes; for years we lobbied, with little success. But our years of work of immersing ourselves in politics as independents, reaching out to other independents, and learning the rules that keep us out by challenging them on the ground, has created new coalitions and has uniquely and potently positioned independents, and specifically the Independence Party, in the state of New York. We do have “fusion” in New York – which permits cross-endorsement allowing independent parties to endorse candidates running in other, including major party-lines, which the Independence Party has used effectively to bolster the power of independents. But in any state – indeed, in every state – we can organize and build and participate as independents. We can all build local clubs and immerse ourselves in local elections as independents.

That process of building locally, which is hard work, but important work, is exactly what we need to be doing all over the country to grow our movement. Independents must become activists across the country – forming independent clubs, getting involved in local elections as independents; running in campaigns as independents, or supporting candidates in other parties, including major parties – depending on what the conditions are; participating in government in various ways, including in public hearings and testifying at local events; meeting other independents and meeting elected officials. We can make independents a part of the process with a strong and distinct voice; we can champion the cause of reform by challenging the existing rules of the political game to make it fair and democratic.

What do we want? We want a substantial increase in democracy. The major parties have clearly written the rules to keep most of us out. That’s their edge. Just imagine a situation where 90% of Americans participated in elections. It’s hard to do so, since the change would be so radical, so dramatic, that the political landscape would be virtually unrecognizable. Our political culture, our economic culture, our international culture, and all the policies that are created within these spheres, are simply determined by who participates. That’s why the major parties work so hard to keep us “outsiders” to the best extent that they can.

At this point in our movement’s development it’s not enough to simply talk about taking on the special interests, to talk in populist language, as Ralph Nader has been doing. On the one hand, I agree with what Nader and the Green Party have been saying about corporate special interests. But while their rhetoric is populist, their organizing has been exclusive and ideologically driven. In doing so they’ve effectively abandoned the tens of millions of Americans who are not leftist in their political orientation, but are independents nonetheless. Such populist rhetoric renders itself politically irrelevant, whether from Nader or from Al Gore, if it’s not connected to broadly organizing Americans, free from ideological categorization. That’s populism in practice! Most people aren’t interested in just switching parties, as the Perot phenomena should have taught us, they’re rejecting “partyism” and all the constraints that come with it. At the end of the day, any political direction that narrows the organizing of independents to party-building as an end in itself misses what Americans are looking for.

As independents, what we must be concerned with is the overall movement, not any single party, or any single issue as such. Democracy, the participation of ordinary people in the decisions that shape their lives, underlies all issues. It’s the issue of issues! Without meaningful participation in our political system by Americans, America will not be for its citizens but for the special interests that govern it – the most powerful of all special interests being the major parties.

Towards growing the independent movement as a whole, the Committee for a Unified Independent Party is holding a national conference for all independents on January 19th where delegates of organized local groups will come together to dialogue and discuss what is in the best interest of our total movement. We’re looking to bring together a body of people who report on what they’re doing locally. We don’t just want people with ideas, but people who are working and building their presence as independents locally, which undoubtedly looks different from place to place and from person to person.

The context for independent politics has never been so ripe. The responses thus far to my national lecture tour have been but one small indication of the potential for the growth of our movement around the country. The desire for new options, new choices, new ways of doing politics, has only grown over the last decade, not diminished. A decade ago independent politics was hardly known, but now it’s in the air. We’ve been through a process, a history – rough at times as it has been. We’re better known as independents now than ever before. But we can’t bypass the critical step of building locally and participating in local politics as independents to further our growth.

So come join me, and the millions of independents in America ready, willing, and able to organize our movement.

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