The Reform Party and Multi-Party Systems
Jude Wanniski
January 14, 2000


As my discourse on Mexican federalism last week suggested, I believe a political economy only can be as good as the structure of its government and political institutions. The United States is the most successful nation to have evolved in human history. Yet Mexico, its neighbor, while having a marvelous climate, splendid natural resources, endless stretches of arable land, a gorgeous coastline that extends forever AND a constitutional democracy remains one of the poorer countries on earth. If we were to say there is something genetic about Mexicans that requires them to be inferior, we could not explain the success of those audacious, entrepreneurial Mexicans who flee their constitutional democracy for ours, often by illegal means.

Indeed, it long ago occurred to me that Mexico would have advanced much further and much faster had their most discontented citizens been forced to stay at home instead of voting with their feet. Their energies might have forced the kind of internal reforms that would have made the structure of the political economy more hospitable to an entrepreneurial class. Mexico has more of a European structure to its government and institutions -- which is the case throughout Latin America. There is a ruling class of oligarchs and there is the ruled class, the masses of ordinary workers and peasants who can creep up the ladders of opportunity only with great difficulty. They remind me of the mythical Sisyphus, who tries to roll a boulder up the mountain, only to have it topple back upon him again and again. It was a great pleasure to watch Mexico grow as rapidly as it did in the six years of the Salinas administration, from 1988 to 1994. The people of Mexico actually thought they might have the secret of getting the boulder to the top! And then came the peso devaluation in the first month of the Zedillo administration, and the boulder rolled back down to where the climb began.

We might properly ask, though: If Mexico is a constitutional democracy, and the people are free to vote for one political party or another, one candidate or another, why do they always vote for the establishment? The status quo? The other political parties and their candidates quickly will say it is because of corruption, stolen votes, patronage, even ignorance of the peasantry. These are all excuses, which deny the faults that lie in the structure of the constitutional democracy, I believe. There are in the Latin countries from time to time "strong men" who ride in on horseback, subdue the oligarchs, and provide temporary relief from lives of misery and hopelessness. Argentina's Juan Peron was the exemplar, a populist leader able to pull together a coalition that could outvote the ruling class. As was Fidel Castro, who came to power with a gun, against the entrenched interests of a corrupt ruling class. He has remained in power for more than forty years because he has given the people one thing they did not have before, which is a fluid society. It may not be that far from the bottom to the top in Cuba, which allows our editorial writers to laugh at how the people of Cuba now equally share in their poverty. On the other hand, Cubans of color, who were held at the bottom of the pile in pre-Castro days, are not so sure they would not be returned to the bottom if the Florida Cubans were to return. There is no assurance that what would succeed Castro, were he to be removed, would not be the same as that which Castro removed. The largely white Cuban exile community in Florida certainly acts as if its primary interest were vengeance. My observation is not meant to elicit sympathy for Castro or to slur the leaders of the exile community. It is to explain why Castro has been durable and even popular. If he were not, the Cuban masses would long ago have found a way to remove him.

It is because of an attempt to understand Cuba that I invited Karl Marx back to life in 1994 and wrote my long essay, Karl Marx Revisited: A Fluid Society. I struggled to understand why it is not enough to simply have the right to vote, if the ruling class has rigged the electoral system to narrow the choices. I'd begun to see that process underway in the United States and came to see Ross Perot's entry as a third-party Reform candidate in 1992 as an attempt to give voice to the masses of Americans who have become frustrated with the major parties as being flip sides of the same status quo establishment. Marx was the most insightful populist of the 19th century and in my mind remains one of the most important political economists of history. Marx certainly would have understood the forces behind the Russian Revolution of 1917, but would not have blessed the "communist" experiments in his name, grotesque offshoots that were fashioned by V.I. Lenin. As I wrote in that 1994 essay:

First of all, [Marx] was not a republican, but a democrat, who would feel most comfortable today in Switzerland, which, while not perfect, is the most democratic of all countries.

He lived at a time when democracy, as we now know it, still did not exist anywhere on earth. In 1847, at the time the Manifesto was written in London, the United States was the most democratic of nations, yet it still countenanced slavery, limited the franchise to a fraction of the male population, did not have direct election to the Senate or a one-man-one-vote rule for the House of Representatives, and most importantly did not have secret balloting. The "Australian," or secret ballot, was not used until the early years of this century. Voters could not hide their true feelings behind a curtain, a key to democratic control of the oligarchs. In London, class was dominant and democracy was, of course, a much iffier thing. The Reform Bill of 1867, which extended the franchise to the workingman, was enacted 20 years after the Manifesto was written. It is not hard to see Marx identifying class struggle as the central fact of social evolution, dialectical materialism: "The history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggles." If he were around today, as a political analyst, he would say that it still is. My own belief is that class struggle, as Marx used the term, has appeared frequently as a tactic of the forces of history, but that the driving force has been civilization's search for mechanisms that produce superior political leadership -- leadership that finds harmony and avoids struggle. Would Marx buy that formulation? With my advantage of hindsight, I think so.

Mechanisms that produce superior political leadership, I think, must come as close as possible to the mechanisms of the basic family unit, which is the fundamental building block of the nation and the nation state. The political leadership of a family requires there be one parent with the last word, especially in the most critical decisions. But the other parent must be consulted extensively, taking into account the collective interests of the family as a whole. There are patriarchal families and matriarchal families, but the two-parent family that acts in harmony is the sturdiest we find in the history of civilization. The father -- the husband and breadwinner -- traditionally has gotten the last word. But men and women are intellectually equipped to play both roles, as they must if one or the other for any reason is removed from the family unit, usually death in battle or of disease, but also in childbirth or divorce. Indeed, a child with a well-balanced single parent can turn out better than a child with two parents who are unbalanced, individually and together.

Look around the world and you will find the United States really is the only nation state with a two-party history. It is now instructive to watch the debates over political structure underway in Italy, for example, where the constitutional structure almost requires a multi-party system. There have been 57 governments in Italy since WWII, perhaps as an overreaction to the one-party strongman system that evolved under Benito Mussolini. Imagine a household with several husbands and several wives, mingling together in weekly or monthly or annual "coalitions," and you see how chaotic such a system must be. As difficult as the government makes divorce for individuals, that's how easy it makes divorce for coalition partners in the government. When individuals in marriage know how difficult it would make it on the family to divorce, there are modalities arranged to somehow keep the marriage intact, for as long as possible. Husband and wife find they must consult each other on critical decisions, even if they might wish it were otherwise. The structure of the Israeli government may in fact be the culprit in its 50-year history of failure in making peace with its neighbors. There technically is a two-party system, Labor and the Likud, but with a parliamentary system that encourages myriad small parties with fragile coalitions and perpetual stalemate on the Palestinian issue.

This is the great advantage we have had in the United States. When third parties appear, they do so when the two major parties for one reason or other have been failing in their responsibilities. And the third party almost never succeeds in establishing itself as a major party, because our system forces a two-party leadership through the winner-take-all rules of the Electoral College. In neither of his two elections as President did Bill Clinton get a majority of the popular vote, but he did get clear majorities in the Electoral College. This was because of the presence of Ross Perot, who was propelled onto the scene when President Bush broke his "read-my-lips" pledge to not raise taxes. In other words, the central issue facing the nation in 1988 was whether or not to continue the Reagan Revolution of cutting tax rates that had become so high as to smother economic initiative. When one party pledged to do so and the other said it would not, the electorate could side with the Republican Bush over the Democrat Michael Dukakis. When Bush broke his pledge for no good reason, the national family was faced with a 1992 decision on the Republican who had broken his pledge and could not be trusted, and a Democrat who promised only to be a new kind of Democrat, i.e., more like a Republican. The national electorate practically dragged Perot into the campaign, with the net result that Clinton won the race but without a popular mandate. The voters were saying they were content to mark time.

When Ronald Reagan was the GOP nominee in 1980 and President Jimmy Carter the incumbent, a third party nominee appeared in the form of Rep. John Anderson, an Illinois Republican who cast himself as a caring, compassionate Republican, who would be more like a Democrat than Reagan. His candidacy may have drawn as many votes from Jimmy Carter as had been subtracted from Reagan, but it turned out his presence really was not required. He entered the race believing Reagan would run as a right-wing screamer and would be thrashed by the unpopular incumbent. He gambled that he could wedge between them and win on the strength of not being either of them. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran as a reform party candidate, the first nominee of the new Republican Party. Had not this energy existed in the still new nation, there would have been a two-way race between the secessionist Democrats and the compliant Whigs. The most likely outcome would have been separate nations, the remnants of the United States and the Confederate States of America. Lincoln saved the union and his third party became the dominant party for three score years and ten, ending in Hoover's Great Depression.

The situation facing the United States today is a third straight election cycle with a third-party Reform challenge. In the next several weeks, we will see which of the contestants win the major-party nominations. There really never before has been a time where both major parties were closer in their views of the nation and the world. Some of this has happened because both parties are driven by public-opinion polls and focus groups, which define a status quo. A great part of it is the pressure of campaign finance. In an earlier lesson, I believe I mentioned a discussion I had in the early 1960s with the manager of one of the major Las Vegas gambling palaces, a place reputed to be owned by the mob. I was a young reporter covering the local races for the county commission and wondered why the gambling industry did not get behind one candidate or another. The man told me the casino owners really did not care who was elected to the local or state governments, as long as they were not harassed. So they gave equally to each major party candidate, and gave the winner a bonus.

So it is with our two national parties. The Establishment -- the big money of the multinational corporations and banks -- really does not care who wins the White House and Congress, so long as they can call on the government whenever they have a problem. George Bush and Al Gore are the main contenders of their party establishments, but the Political Establishment itself would be about as satisfied if John McCain won the GOP nomination or if Bill Bradley won for the Democrats. There may be tiny differences between them on social programs or tax rates. But as long as they do not rock the boat on matters of primary big-money issues -- involving international economic policies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other centers of "corporate socialism" -- either major party candidate will do. Why are voter turnouts getting lower all the time? Because the broad electorate cannot sense a difference between the parties that might make a difference to it. The major parties of course are not interested in competition from a third party, but have been forced to deal with the one that has emerged. There are ways to keep its nominee from being effective or from winning. The rules can be changed to make it difficult for him to participate in the debates. State laws can be changed to make it difficult for the party to get ballot access. All these things occur in the interests of preserving the status quo. History teaches us that the elites can bottle up change for awhile, perhaps even a generation, but eventually the masses of ordinary people force change in dramatic ways.

Next week, we will discuss the Reform Party challenge this year and how Pat Buchanan might shake things up, if he can in fact win the party's nomination away from others who do not want him to. If you would like to get a head start, please go to Buchanan's website and read his two most populist speeches to date, both of which raise primary questions of our national identity.