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The Summer of Our Discontent

by Jackie Salit, published

Lately, I’ve been glued to my laptop watching CNN news clips from 1999, when Donald Trump was weighing a possible presidential run in the Reform Party. “Everybody wants me to run for President …” he told the media at the time.  The media smirked, “What vanity!” as they turned their attention to more serious matters.

But the tragedy-to-farce (or is it farce-to-tragedy?) story gets even more byzantine. At the time, Trump’s possible candidacy was being promoted by some leaders of the Reform Party as the antidote to a possible presidential run by arch-social conservative Pat Buchanan, who was weighing a defection from the Republican Party to Reform.

In order to win the nomination, after the historic bids by Ross Perot, Buchanan would need the support of the party’s left wing, of which I was a part. To win that backing, Buchanan had to pledge his support to the party’s core agenda of political reform, the non-ideological platform championed by Reform’s unique, though fragile coalition.

On CNN, Trump allies scoffed at the idea of this left/right alliance with Buchanan, challenging the party’s progressives who had recently broken bread with him.  How can you consider backing Buchanan, don’t you know he wants to build a wall, appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, and promote ideological culture wars?

Honestly, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Donald Trump was going to save us from all that bad stuff.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus and later the renegade psychologist Carl Jung referred to the phenomenon Enantiodromia—the tendency of things to turn into their opposite. Case in point, I suppose.

It wasn’t lost on me, sitting in the dark and watching these clips, that the Reform Party is long gone and Donald Trump is President of the United States. Still, I was riveted by these 1999 segments. In them, my dear friend and a co-founder of the Reform Party, the stunningly beautiful Lenora Fulani (who ran for President as an independent in 1988 and who remains stunningly beautiful) defended our efforts to build left/right, black/white coalitions outside of the two parties.

That independent crusade hit a wall, but its transcendent promise remains. What if the Sanders voters and the Trump voters had found a way to join forces?

It also isn’t lost on me that today’s independent movement — now without a party (good!) and without a presidential candidate (we don’t need one to grow) — is going through a process of defining its values, its tactics, its relationship to the major parties, and its relationship to the masses of non-aligned voters in America.

The Reform Party was constantly attacked for “not standing for anything,” even though we stood for a concrete and radical overhaul of the rules of the political game. At the time, rules and process questions were regarded by the mainstream as technical, marginal and irrelevant.  Now they are moving to the center of the action. Another case of Enantiodromia?

Today, with Trump in the White House, voter rebellions in both major parties, a dysfunctional and unpopular Congress, and a record level of public disalignment from the parties (44% are independents), I’ve come to believe that the more unstable any set of ruling institutions become, the more authoritarian they become.  The rules become more restrictive and repressive. How to respond? How to achieve a redistribution and democratization of political power? Organize the American people to change the rules.

This drumbeat is rumbling through the organized forces in the reform movement like distant thunder. Some signs of these times: No Labels, devoted since its inception to pushing elected officials to find common ground on legislation, just launched a major new initiative for rules changes.   They want to mobilize voters to demand that members of Congress change their rules to deflect majority party control over the House Speaker, the committee structures and the pipeline of proposed legislation to the floor.

On other fronts, Level the Playing Field continues to push for changes in the rules governing the criteria for inclusion of candidates in the televised presidential debates. The United States Supreme Court is searching for standards to use in redistricting controversies, having rendered a unanimous decision in the Wisconsin case that party affiliation cannot be the standard for balance.

Independent voters are urgently demanding that the Democratic and Republican Parties supply a clear statement on whether or not they will be allowed to vote in the 2020 presidential primaries and caucuses. And in Maine, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting successfully used the People’s Veto to repudiate a full force effort by the Republican Party to block a voter-approved system for RCV.

This coming weekend, the Democratic National Committee meets in Chicago and will determine among other things the status of 2020 superdelegates (how to keep them!) and whether all delegates will be required to support the party’s nominee regardless of whom they were elected to nominate.  (Loyalty oath!)

And, in another step toward voter containment, a Michigan court just ruled that straight-ticket voting must be preserved, a practice used to contain voters inside a party, including, notably, to contain African American voters in the Democratic Party.

Next door, Wisconsin, controlled by Republicans, continues to impose voter ID requirements that suppress turnout. The battles over the rules are mounting.

Labor Day is generally when we mark the end of summer. How will we recall this summer, as attention turns to the midterm elections, at least among those who are paying attention? Too soon to tell. Maybe as the Summer of our Discontent? Maybe it will become the summer when America showed they were tired of the old rules and went to work on changing them.

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