Posted by: exiwp | March 24, 1997

The American People Want Reform. How Are We Going To Get It For Them? (1997)

by Jacqueline Salit (1997)

On March 15, 1997 the National Committee of the Patriot Party met in Washington, DC. We had several hours of discussion on a range of issues having to do with the building of the Reform Party that I wanted to communicate to all of you. These discussions were about the vision and design of Reform and how to make it most relevant and useful to the American people. We discussed the issue of whether the party would be developed as a populist and inclusionary party or whether it would be built along centrist and/or ideological lines.

Some in the Reform movement have mistakenly identified the Patriot Party with the so-called Schaumburg group. This is ironic, since some in the Schaumburg group identify the Patriot Party as under the control of “Dallas.” Neither is accurate. The true story is important, however, as it has very direct bearing on some of the circumstances inside the Reform Party now, and on the emerging debate on the political choice between populism and centrism.

Some Working Definitions

Different people have different definitions. Here are some of ours. Centrism, or the model of building a party “at the center” is basically a term that reflects a particular political strategy. Sometimes it is confused with “moderation” or being a moderate on particular issues. But centrism is not so much an ideology as a “real-politic” approach. Centrists (in the current moment) see the Democratic and Republican parties as so distinct and far apart from one another, that there exists the opportunity to create a new party in between them. Its a way of positioning and making an appeal to voters on the basis of that positioning.

Populists, on the other hand, see the Democratic and Republican parties as pretty much the same and, in order to win elections, at the center. Consequently, there is not enough “space” between them to build a winning party there. Populism is a model of party-building that is more vertical, more bottom (the American people) versus top (the two parties and the government) than a horizontal model based on the left/center/right paradigm of centrism. Many populists (like most Americans) are moderates who don’t agree with the extreme positions taken by either the ideological right-wing of the Republican Party or the ideological left-wing of the Democratic Party. At the same time, populism is an inclusive grassroots approach that is tolerant of divergent views, which often differs from centrism which tends to want to include only those ideologically “at the center.” But centrism is not an ideological position. Its more of a political compass than an ideology. Hence, the equation between “centrist” and “moderate” is a confusion. After all, most who vote for the Democrats and Republicans are also moderate. Yet many are dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of the two parties which has to do, not with the failure to be moderate but, with their fixation on winning even at the cost of their effectiveness to govern, i.e., their centrism.

The Truth About the Patriot Party

More on this debate later. Now for the true story of the Patriot Party. The Patriot Party, founded in April 1994, was, in essence, an experiment. Pro-third partyists who had become politically active through the Perot â92 campaign and independents based among what have been traditionally Democratic Party and liberal constituencies — African Americans, Hispanics, gays and progressives — came together in hopes of creating a new party. We set out to create something unique and specifically suited to this moment in American political life — a moment in which the vast majority of Americans, from different walks of life, are deeply alienated from and distrustful of our government and its two party rule. Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign had thoroughly exposed this. And the Patriot Party wanted to create a political instrument that was responsive. The Patriot Party was a party that was not based on any ideology — not conservative, not moderate, not liberal– but had a vision of including all Americans, regardless of ideology, in a new kind of party oriented toward political and fiscal reform and government accountability.

This unique Patriot format, governed by democratic and inclusionary rules and a set of ten principles — rather than a “social issues” platform — was not established without a protracted fight. One entire wing — led by Lenora Fulani — of what would ultimately become the Patriot Party was barred from attending the Kansas City meeting in the fall of 1993 that laid the groundwork for the founding of Patriot. Significantly, that meeting was convened and shaped by several people who are now significant influences on the so-called Schaumburg group including pollster and author Gordon Black, former Governor Lowell Weicker and Dick Lamm’s 1996 campaign manager Tom D’Amore. In spite of the fact that this process got off on a very exclusionary foot, the group adopted rules for a founding convention that were open, grassroots-oriented and which, through its Congressional District representation structure, allowed for the inclusion and participation of all Americans who wanted to be a part of this fledgling effort. Much of the work to create, adopt and apply these rules was led by Nicholas Sabatine, who went on to become Patriot Party National Chair and Tom McLaughlin, a Patriot Party leader who is now the chairman of the Reform Party Rules Committee.

At Patriot’s April 1994 founding convention, where 110 delegates from more than 20 states were credentialed, a fierce floor fight broke out over whether the term “centrist” should be incorporated into the party’s principles. Among those advocating that it should were Gordon Black, who believed strongly in the concept of a party that was “centrist” (and “moderate,” confusing the two in our opinion) and Laureen Oliver, a New York delegate. When the majority of delegates opposed the use of the term on the grounds that it was exclusionary to define the party along such lines, because it meant that people who did not define themselves as such were unwelcome, Oliver, Black and several others stormed out of the convention and immediately undertook to find ways to try to either destroy or take over the Patriot Party. (One of their methods, by the way, was to circulate false charges of anti-Semitism and extremism against Lenora Fulani and Fred Newman, taken from materials prepared by the Anti-Defamation League. Oliver herself was interviewed by the ADL for an anti-Fulani pamphlet released the following year which is now being aggressively distributed throughout Reform by Schaumburg activists and other Lamm supporters.)

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The process that the Reform Party is now going through has some very similar characteristics. It even has some of the same characters!

The “Democracy” Gambit

It was for this reason that the Patriot Party, which had aggressively lobbied Ross Perot and the members of United We Stand, America to make the move to initiate the Reform Party and then actively supported and participated in the building process that began on September 25, 1995 in California, convened a meeting of its own National Committee on March 15 in Washington, DC. We had invested substantial political and human resources in the building of Reform; been a part of the magnificent results produced on election day in which the national infrastructure of a new, independent party was cemented; worked coalitionally to build numerous state party organizations; participated through various individuals in the 50 state conference call and the Nashville meeting, and were proud to have Patriot founders James Mangia elected to serve as national secretary of the Reform Party and Tom McLaughlin appointed by the partyâs officers to serve as chair of the Rules Committee. We felt throughout and feel now extremely positive about the growth and development of Reform, and about the many working relationships that have emerged between Patriots and many UWSAers, the Dallas staff and the many independents in activist and leadership roles in state parties.

Like others in Reform, we have also been concerned about the ongoing fixation by a vocal few on the so-called issue of “internal democracy” that permeated Nashville and has flooded the Internet since. The Patriot Party meeting was convened to discuss this state of affairs. It appears to us that the effort to focus the Reform Party on a fight over “internal democracy” — whether Ross Perot does or should “control” Reform; whether Russ Verney does or should “control” Reform; whether the Schaumburg group does or should “control” Reform and the various state level permutations of this in Illinois, California, Virginia and elsewhere — obscures an underlying and more significant issue for the Reform Party: namely, the issue of what kind of party we are building. Of course, everyone pays lip service to democracy and democratic rules. No one says they think things should be undemocratic. But an obsession with rules, however democratic those rules might be, means little in the absence of using them to guarantee inclusion and open debate and means nothing at all if they are used, as a cover for exclusion and stifling dialogue on key issues facing the party. Moreover, while rules are important to the process, democracy is not simply a structural or administrative matter, Mr. Roberts’ rules not withstanding! It is also a posture, a spirit, a commitment to the open and free exchange of strategies and approaches. It is as much about the culture of a new kind of party as it is about the written rules of the party.

Centrist or Populist?

How do we answer the question of what kind of party we are building? One Patriot leader, Fred Newman, puts it this way: There is currently a disagreement in the Reform movement over whether the party should be a centrist party or a populist party. The centrists view the political situation in the country like this: The two parties are at the “extremes” — the Democrats being on the “left” and the Republicans being on the “right.” As referenced earlier, the centrists believe there is such a great space between these two parties that a new party — a party of the center — can be created and win elections there. This party would, in effect, try to get into the game now being played by the Republicans and Democrats, the game of winning elections by creating an electoral majority at the center. Those who believe in a more populist model have a different view of the political situation in the country. They — the Patriot Party is among them, and so, we believe, is Ross Perot — think there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans; that both parties have taken control of the government and are running it on behalf of themselves and the mega-interests which fund them. Consequently, for the populists, ideology — right (conservative), center (moderate), or left (liberal) — is not fundamental. The real issue is creating a bottom-up, inclusive party that can unite all Americans regardless of their ideology, their background, their race, religion, ethnicity or lifestyle, who are excluded from ownership of a government and a country which, as Ross Perot has said, belongs to us. The populists aren’t interested in creating a new party to get into the bipartisan game. Populism is about changing the rules of the game so that the American people can take back our government.

Win, Lose or Build

In response to this characterization of these two distinct positions, some Reform activists have said that while they strongly support the concept of a bottom-up, inclusionary, tolerant party, they like the characterization of Reform as “moderate” because the majority of the American people favor positions on social issues that are not at the extremes, but closer to the center. We agree. However, the point of creating a new reform-oriented party is to break the deadlock of the two party system. Defining a party in terms of positions on social issues, even moderate ones, does not promote that kind of reform. Everyone in two-party politics today calls themselves a moderate. Bill Clinton is for “responsibility” and “opportunity.” Newt Gingrich is for bipartisan cooperation. Why? Because most voters consider themselves moderates, and the Democrats and Republicans want their votes. If a new third party simply defines itself as moderate, then it is trying to appeal to voters on the same basis as the two parties. But in addition to being moderate, the American people are rejecting the “win at all costs” game. The highly partisan and very corrupt system of American politics must be taken apart and reconstructed to be democratic, inclusive and a proper tool for governing by and for the American people.

Some in the Reform Party have a different take on this issue of the party’s focus. They see the critical and immediate objective for Reform being that of winning elections in the short term. With that as your objective, it makes sense that projecting the party as “moderate” would seem important, since that’s how you win elections in America these days (that, plus millions of dollars from special interests). Some have argued against this strategy because it is too ambitious and “bigger” than we are. My problem with the strategy of “winning elections” is that it isn’t ambitious or big enough! Reform is out to reform the political system; to change the way our government is elected and run. The more Reform wants to project itself as the new political party that can accomplish that, the more we will grow. In my opinion, in the not-too-distant future, we will attract support from millions and millions of Americans because our message is their message. Then, winning elections will be a snap.

The American people are fed up with politicians whose idea of governing is figuring out how to take positions in order to raise the most money for their reelection campaigns. This system of political compromise has compromised our political system. We don’t want compromise. We, the American people, want solutions. In order to get to those solutions, Reform is going to have to be more than “moderate.” It’s going to have to lead the fight to de-politicize our government and policy-making and revitalize our democracy through structural political reform. It is the focus on political reform — which in Patriot has meant the focus on principles rather than social issue programmatics — that makes the Reform Party uniquely relevant.

It goes without saying that everyone in the Reform movement — not to mention everyone in the country — has the right to choose whatever position on this matter they like. While the Patriot Party does not agree with the premise of a centrist party, we respect the right of those who hold to this position to do so. We’d love to see the populist vs. centrist debate put right out on the table. That’s why we’re distributing this paper. However, rather than have an open and democratic dialogue on this issue, some of the pro-centrist elements of our party have attempted to drive what they would characterize as the party’s “conservative/right” and “liberal/left” out of the party in order to create a pure party of the (moderate) center — before anyone even gets a chance to consider whether they think those ideological labels are useful and whether they want that kind of party or not.

Ideological Cleansing

What is the value of doing this, from their perspective? Presumably, if you have a new party that is “centrist” in its approach, it will be able to compete with the Democrats and Republicans for that “space” at the “center.” After all, while the centrists believe the two parties are at the extremes, presumably they also recognize that the Democrats and Republicans are both clutching for a “center,” too. That’s why the two parties are so into “bipartisan cooperation.” However, “bipartisanism” is easier said than done. The Democrats have a “left” and the Republicans have a “right” — both of which are balking at their respective parties’ attempt to muzzle them as the two parties seek compromise and accommodation with one another. Perhaps, the independent centrists believe that if they can chop off Reform’s “left” and “right” from the start, it could give the party a significant advantage in the competition with the two major parties.

Presented in that framework, there may be some truth to the “centrists'” argument. The problem is that the framework is only useful if you’re looking to create a third party that is just like the Republicans and the Democrats. Why would we want to do that? The American people are tired of politics as usual. We want to break out of the existing two-party mold, not simply by adding another clone to the picture, but by creating a party that is different in its approach to governing and spending, different in its ethics and accountability and different in its ability to unite the majority of Americans who currently have no place in the political system. That is the populist view.

The efforts at “ideological cleansing” inside the Reform Party have been ongoing and insidious. Some months ago, under the guise of a fight to “democratize” the Illinois Reform Party, accusations were made against Dawn Larson that she was a supporter of David Duke. Recently Jim Mangia was verbally attacked at a meeting of the West Los Angeles chapter in California Reform for his relationship to Lenora Fulani, who in turn was vilified for being a leftist. The discredited and politically (Democratic Party) motivated ADL report on Fulani and Newman has been widely circulated inside the party, most recently by members of the Board of the Colorado Reform Party who are aligned with Dick Lamm. These divisive efforts and others too numerous to mention emanate from the same circle which asserts the need for “internal democracy” and ideological purity. Obviously, the party is free to democratically decide that it wants to choose this ideological path. But no such decision has been made.

To the Convention

So far, the major decision that has been made with respect to this critical and self-defining issue, is to hold a national founding convention with hundreds of delegates, representing Congressional Districts and, thereby, diverse populations of Americans from across the country. This convention will democratically determine the character of the Reform Party. This convention will decide what kind of party we want our party to be. And it is a great strength of Reform and a tribute to all who are playing a role in building it that we have placed the future of the party in the hands of all those who are and will soon come to be building it.

And so, what is the Patriot Party’s role in this process? Some have asked (more or less provocatively) why we still exist? Why haven’t we simply “merged” into Reform?

In some respects, of course, we have. Patriot leaders hold varied posts in the Reform infrastructure. In states where election law provides for registering voters into a party, Patriot activists register voters into Reform affiliates. Patriot News reports on and analyzes developments in Reform and the broader independent movement.

At the same time, the Patriot Party believes in and is a particular model of a new political party. It is the populist model, the non-ideological approach, the inclusionary, bottom-up approach. Some call it Patriot populism. Some call it Perot populism ö in recognition of the populist and non-ideological voice that Ross Perot has contributed to the party-building effort.

The success of Reform has brought it to the point where it is in a position to deal with these very fundamental party “engineering” issues. Given the road Patriot has traveled, given our experiences and all that we have learned from our “experiment” to date, we hope that we have something very particular to contribute to the process, not the least of which is our ability to bring different kinds of Americans together for constructive dialogue on our shared future.

New York City
March 24, 1997

JACQUELINE SALIT is the editor of Patriot News, a National Committee member of the National Patriot Party and a State Committee member of the Independence Party of New York.

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