At the moment, as unlikely as it seems, Pat Buchanan genuinely believes he sees a path to the White House via the Reform Party. In this last lesson of the semester devoted to the political side of the political economy, I’d like to explore the conditions that have given rise to what Buchanan sees, whether or not he is successful. My own estimate is that the time is ripe for the Reform Party to pull together a broad coalition of Americans who feel disenfranchised and that if it does not happen this year, the political realignment the voters seem to be looking for will simply be postponed to the next election cycle.
Serious third-party candidacies throughout history have sprung up when the two major parties for one reason or other are not connecting with the wishes of the broad electorate. In parliamentary systems, a new political party can take root in a single legislative district and spread from there. In our federal system, the focus is on the presidency, which primarily sets the direction of the nation. If neither major party produces a nominee who embodies the leadership possibilities that seem promising, the discontent in the body politic will generate one or more candidates of third parties. By threatening to drain off support from one major party or the other, they tug it in a direction that may be more satisfying to the electorate as a whole. Traditionally, such candidacies are around single issues or themes, which prevent them from doing more than tug at the big boats. What we have in the Reform Party this year is the potential for a full-scale, soup-to-nuts candidacy that is capable of putting together a broad coalition of discontented voters -- from those who would not vote otherwise and from those who fully intend to vote, but are so unhappy with the major party nominees that they can be peeled away. We actually saw this happen in 1998 when the Reform Party candidate, Jesse Ventura, shocked the political world by winning the governorship of Minnesota. He won defections from both parties, but his victory was made possible by an unexpectedly large turnout of people who would not have bothered to vote if he had not presented a reasonable alternative.
What Buchanan sees is two major parties that are incapable of sufficiently changing direction to attract the discontented. He correctly observes that both are wholly committed to the central Political Establishment that represents as little change as possible, the status quo. This has not happened before in U.S. history, as far as I know, because one or the other major party always has been able to adjust during the course of a campaign to win back those who are moving toward the alternative. We can already see this in the fact that the four men who are said to produce the likeliest winner -- Gore, Bradley, Bush and McCain -- have each said they would support the monetary policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and none of them would support a cut in the capital gains tax. If you accept my argument that Greenspan’s monetary policy benefits the elites at the expense of ordinary people, and that a lower capital gains tax always benefits ordinary people who are without capital and has been opposed by the elites, you can easily see how the Establishment now seems assured that one of their men will be elected. Only the Republican Steve Forbes would upset the status quo on economic policy, but his campaign has left voters with a confused picture on social and foreign policy. As a rank amateur at politics, he thus far has not shown he knows how to go about winning and his great wealth has been squandered on pushing sterile themes.
Buchanan has been around the political track as a Republican candidate for the presidential nomination, in 1992 and 1996. His weakness, though, is that he has never run as a Reform Party candidate. He is brand new to the kind of coalition building required to outvote the major party candidates. If you think of the Establishment as the top half of a pyramid and the masses of ordinary people being the bottom half, you can easily see that the most extreme points of difference are at the bottom corners. The task of a Buchanan is to find common ground with other populist leaders, including those whom he would normally only meet on the opposite side of a Crossfire debate. The fact that he has been willing to make a black Marxist, Lenora Fulani, a co-director of his campaign was the most interesting sign that he may know what he must do to pull off a Ventura-style victory at the national level. Fulani, the only woman to run for President on the ballots of the 50 states, knows third-party politics as well as anyone in the country. If he wins the Reform Party nomination, overcoming what might be a serious Donald Trump bid, it only will be because Fulani devoted herself and her followers to the effort. If he goes on to win the presidency in November, it only will be because he could with her help assemble and hold together the pitchfork coalition that now seems so unlikely.
The fact that Fulani is a “Marxist” only means she appreciates the political insights of Karl Marx, not that she is a “communist” or even a socialist. In essence, Marx was a populist, who early in life concluded that the folks at the bottom of the pyramid had to unite in order to dominate the elites at the top. He was only 30 years old when he wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 with Frederick Engels. If you want to do justice to this lesson, you should read that document in order to see how social and political forces appear and reappear. You will find Marx inveighing against globalization and “Free Trade,” in terms not dissimilar to Buchanan’s complaints today. It will help, as you read it, to realize that as Marx grew older, living in London, he observed that the lives of ordinary Englishmen improve as the political system became more democratic and real wages rose in a steadily expanding economy.
By the time he died in 1883, he was insisting he was not a “Marxist,” of the revolutionary variety we observed in 1848. Here, though, is Marx writing several months before the Manifesto, about the situation in Germany.
The bourgeoisie was becoming aware of its own strength, and was determined to break the chains wherewith feudal and bureaucratic despotism had fettered its commercial enterprise, its industrial capacity, its united activities as a class. Some of the landed gentry had already devoted themselves to the production of commodities for the market; this section had identical interests with the bourgeoisie, and made common cause with it. The petty bourgeoisie was discontented, grumbled at the burden of taxation, complained of the hindrances that were imposed upon its business activities, but had no definite programme of reforms that might safeguard its position in the State and in society. The peasantry was weighed down, partly by the burdens of the feudal system, and partly by the extortions of usurers and lawyers. The urban workers were partners in the general discontent, were inspired with an equal hatred for the government and for the great industrial capitalists, and were being infected with socialist and communist ideas. In a word, the opposition consisted of a heterogeneous mass, driven onward by the most diversified interests, but led, more or less, by the bourgeoisie....
Marx admired the accomplishments of the bourgeoisie -- the new capitalist class that had overcome feudalism in the previous century, but he also knew that once settled, they would be as protective of their entrenched interests as the feudal lords in preventing competition from below. Only “active, universal suffrage,” said Marx, would enable the masses to keep society fluid instead of stratified. This is exactly what the Reform Party is about. We have come a long way in the last 150 years, of course, but as long as there is history, there will be entrenched interests at the top of every political pyramid, trying to use political and financial muscle to keep their gravy train going as fast as it can. And there will be entrenched interests at the bottom of the pyramid trying to slow things down. As the political year unfolds, this is the dynamic to watch.
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If there are a significant number of good questions that come in this week, I’ll wind up the semester next week with a Q&A session. If not, we can move right into the spring semester and a focus on public finance.