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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Testimony to the decline of political intelligence....

UPDATE/NOTE, 10 June 2006: Well, on the one hand it looks like I had it wrong in terms of the name of the party -- it is Unity08 -- as well as the web site. I am pleased to know that the effort ("an experiment in internet democracy") is (seemingly) a bit more credible than I initially imagined (at least their web site is decently designed, and not part of MySpace). On the other hand, I am still far from impressed with the logic or substance of this effort. The Founders Council points in the direction of a movement where a few college students (with familial links, it seems, to some political operatives) were able to initiate this project. I wonder how much they know about the Unity Party????

Last evening I was innocently watching the NewsHour on my local PBS station when I witnessed what may be the most amazing thing -- two members of America's political elite engaging in the promotion of perhaps one of the most ridiculous ideas I have heard in years: the creation of the Unity Party of America.

The two spokespersons on the NewsHour were Hamilton Jordan, a key member of the Jimmy Carter Administration and (until now, at least) generally well-respected political commentator, and Doug Bailey, the founding editor of The Hotline (an "inside-the-DC beltway" news source, now part of The National Journal group) and self-described Republican Party strategist. The idea they were hyping -- the Unity Party -- was the brainchild (so to speak) of Bill Hammons, who seems to be a well connected blogger obsessed with running, writing, the balanced budget, and Boulder (Colorado, that is). [Hammons' talents, whatever they are, do not extend to his blogging or web-designing; his two sites for the Unity Party are embarrassing at best; see here and here.]

If I understand this correctly, Hammons, a political activist who supported the candidacy of Wesley Clark for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2004, was running through Central Park one day when it suddenly came to him (shades of Martin Luther) that the solution to America's political problems was the formation of a middle-of-the-road (literally) political party that would offer Americans an alternative to the increasingly extreme options of the Democratic and Republican parties -- a "common sense" option where those politicos who are alienated from their own parties can go to offer the vast majority of frustrated middle American voters a better choice than those of the current two-party system.

This is the stuff of political naivete, which is why it was shocking to see folks like Bailey and Jordan pushing it on NewsHour. It is likely that only the presence of two notables led to the otherwise sensible NewsHour folks to devote more than a passing mention (if that) to the Unity Party, but whatever the reason there they were -- making fools of themselves.

In a "Fields of Dreams" scenario, the idea of the Unity Party is that if you build an alternative to the two party options, millions of disgruntled folks will come forward to support the effort, which would attract even more frustrated mainstream politicos to join in (shades of the emergence of Lincoln's Republicans in the 1850s), and the bandwagon will ultimately lead to a major revamping of the American political system into something that reflects and represents the vast majority of middle or the road Americans....

It is hard to know where to begin in expressing the utter absurdity of this effort (I am really trying my best to avoid calling it "stupid" -- but there it is, I did call it "stupid").

Let me start with the premise that there is this vast mythical "middle" among American voters that is (1) unrepresented and (2) just waiting for an third option they can clutch to. This is the latest version of the "silent majority" myth that was put to great use by Nixonites in the 1960s (thanks to Kevin Phillips) and found expression in the "Moral Majority" movement to which we owe much of the current influence of the Christian Right in US politics. As with its mythical alter ego, the Red state- Blue State "cultural divide", this rhetorical construct has been created out of statistical "thin air" and has little of empirical substance to support it. But in a media-driven political culture, it is simplicity and appearance that matters, and so the danger lies in possibility that this empirically empty idea might catch on. After all, if Jordan and Bailey bought into it -- and they seem like sincere believers -- than it has a chance becoming a factor in the 2008 presidential election. I worry, for things are bad enough as they are without having this nonsense clouding up the political atmosphere.

A second premise of the Unity Party effort is that political parties are formed from the top, not the bottom, and that the current technological revolution (e.g., the Internet) makes what was difficult in the past actually possible today. They point to the Ross Perot phenomenon, asking us to imagine how much more successful that effort would have been in the era of the Internet. They seem to ignore the very qualities of our fadish and media-driven culture in their rush to the Third Party "promise land", and fail to talk about what happened to the Reform Party when it tried to pass from media-hype to political reality -- even with the help of an emerging Internet.

A third premise is that the current system is "broken", which is based on the even more fundamental assumption that there was ever a set "system" to break. As an example, consider their constant reference to the shocking (so-called) fact that just a few folks in Iowa and New Hampshire play the central roles in determining who runs for president. As one now close to at least one of those locales, I will be accused of having a bit of a bias on this point, and rightly so. But my problem is not that the Unity Party folks are wrong about the unrepresentativeness of the first primaries/caucuses; rather, it is that they (along with the media, many political scientists, etc.) completely ignore the constantly (re)constructed reality of the presidential campaign "system" narrative. I am no postmodernist, but it is clear to anyone who carefully considers the history of presidential campaigns that the process is constructed and reconstructed differently each iteration, and that the role of the Iowas, New Hampshires, South Carolinas, Californias, etc is "storyline" that is just one among many factors that shape each cycle of the presidential election process. Iowa and NH are merely rhetorical "straw men" in the Unity Party effort, and I cannot help but feel disappointed that seemingly sincere and well-meaning folks like Bailey and Jordan -- folks who should know better because they have witnessed and engaged in the process -- would assume such simplistic perspectives.

I could go on -- and I probably will tonight as I take this issue into the classroom as an example of the politics of reform in the US.... I have the feeling this will be the subject of more comments as I blog along....

NOTE: The NewsHour has one of the more accessible online operations, and I use it regularly. Every segment is posted and podcast -- or so I thought. And that goes for last night's show -- except for the segment that is the subject of this blog. Could it be that when they were finished with the interview it became evident just how bad an idea this Unity Party concept is? Were Jordan and Bailey (and perhaps Woodruff, the interviewer) so embarrassed that they decided it was best to drop the segment (and hopefully the idea) from public view? One can only speculate or hope -- although that will make my plans for class this evening difficult....

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