Everything You Need to Know About Third Parties (and Aren't Going To Be Told)
Print Friendly and PDF

By John O'Sullivan

One of the oddities of this campaign season is the lenient treatment accorded by the media to John Hagelin who led last week's walkout of anti-Buchanan delegates from the Reform Party's Convention in Long Beach and who is now the presidential candidate of the party's Perot rump.

Mr. Hagelin is usually described in respectful terms as "a physicist" and his connections with the Maharishi movement are mentioned but hardly explored. A New York Times report even wondered ruefully just why someone with an advanced degree in science would descend to the vulgar rough and tumble of electoral politics. Yet - as Evelyn Waugh remarked when Tom Driberg, the promiscuous homosexual and Soviet agent of influence, described himself as a "journalist and churchwarden" in his Labour election address - to describe Mr. Hagelin merely as a physicist gives "a very imperfect idea" of his full resume.

As an adept of the Maharishi's school of transcendental meditation, a member of its Natural Law party (and, incidentally, its candidate for the presidency to boot), Mr. Hagelin is one of the very few physicists who believes he can fly. Fly, that is, without artificial assistance, like an airplane. These claims are advanced with a becoming modesty by the Maharishi's followers who tend to be charming and well-mannered. But they are advanced nonetheless - along with such related claims as being able to reduce crime and violence by mass meditation.

When I visited the Maharishi's British headquarters some years ago, I was told by one amiable indoor airman: "Well, it's a bit of an exaggeration to call it flying. We can't stay up for very long or move forward and backward at will as yet.  Actually, among ourselves we call it 'hopping.'"

It is hard to be brutally inquisitive in the face of such self-deprecation. And some members of the press may well have looked the other way out of sheer embarrassment. Still, the willingness of the New York Times to draw a discreet veil over Mr. Hagelin's little eccentricities may not be wholly unconnected with the fact that his main rival in the Reform Party is Pat Buchanan.

After a brief flirtation with Mr. Buchanan earlier in the year, the mainstream media seems to have decided that he is either sinister or a joke and so, in either event, an unworthy presence in politics. Indeed, now that the two main parties have chosen candidates broadly acceptable to the media elite, this dismissive hostility seems to have spread to all third parties. And since neither Buchanan nor Ralph Nader of the Green Party have yet hit double digits in opinion polls, they are held to count for little or nothing. They should therefore withdraw from the race and let the Republicans and the Democrats slug it out. Again, the New York Times has been especially lofty, instructing Mr. Nader not to take left-liberal votes from Vice-president Gore (who apparently has a prior right to them) and thus let Governor Bush slip to victory.

While Buchanan and Nader have yet to score well in polls, however, it is not true that their candidacies are foolish, trivial, futile or meaningless. Both men represent the deep unease that many Americans feel about globalization - a globalization now advocated by both major parties and treated in polite society as an apolitical fait accompli.

Of course, they represent this unease in different (though overlapping) ways. You might say that Nader dislikes globalization because it limits the regulatory power of governments whereas Buchanan opposes it because it overrides the sovereignty of nations. Thus, Nader is concerned that allowing re-imports from countries that tolerate pollution will ultimately undermine U.S. environmental regulations; Buchanan fears that an International Criminal Court would prosecute GIs as war criminals; and both men oppose U.S. corporations closing down factories in the U.S. in order to open them in low-wage Latin America and Asia or increasing the number of H1-B visas that allow Silicon Valley to import cheap software programmers when there is a surplus of unemployed Americans in the industry.

These various anxieties may be mistaken. (I think at least some of them are.) But they are shared by many people who currently intend to vote Republican or Democrat. And more of these voters may rally to the Green or Reform parties as the campaign develops. The press has some inkling of this. Journalists see Ralph Nader as the electoral representative of the economically discontented-labor unions, environmentalists, welfare workers, etc. - who rioted against the WTO in Seattle and the IMF in Washington. They like Nader anyway - he is a sort of secular saint to many in the media - and they look upon the rioters as counterparts of themselves in the sixties. So they take the trouble to find out more about them. And even when they disagree with their anti-globalization theme, they see a praiseworthy "idealism" at work. Their conclusion tends to be that "globalization" needs to accommodate their concerns over labor rights and environmental regulation.

Political journalists, with very few exceptions such as John Judis on the Left and Sam Francis on the Right, have no such insights into "Pat's people." Insofar as they consider them at all, they see them as nostalgic throwbacks to a simpler America, doomed to fade away as the New Economy either turns them into "wired workers" or quietly eases them into retirement. And because the Buchanan brigades are plainly being left behind by political evolution, journalists show little interest in what makes them tick or whether they might represent larger social trends.

This mixture of snobbery and laziness has led the American media to ignore what is a striking political development across the entire advanced world. Buchananite coalitions of the culturally discontented - nationalists, language defenders, anti-immigration groups - have formed third parties in Australia, Denmark, Italy, Canada, France, Austria, New Zealand, Belgium and elsewhere and won from 6 per cent to 30 per cent of the national vote. They have split the Right in the process and helped the social democratic Left to get or keep power. And the signs are that such parties are still building their support as issues like mass immigration rise in salience, especially in Europe.

America has so far experienced only a very mild version of these convulsions. And while the U.S. electorate is sedated by the long American boom, the media can probably justify its decision to put Nader and Buchanan on the same level as flying physicists.

But serious social discontents rarely just disappear. Globalization will continue to spawn major social and economic changes for some time yet. It is even possible that Buchanan, Nader or some ally of both will put together an anti-globalization "synthesis" that appeals to voters on both Left and Right. If so, when the economy stumbles, Nader and Buchanan may begin to fly - while John Hagelin (and the pundits) are still hopping around below.

John O'Sullivan, a former aide to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was Editor of National Review 1988-1997. He lives in Washington D.C.

August 17, 2000

Print Friendly and PDF