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Chapter Six: Seeking a Political Identity

 

My campaign for Senate left me with two issues in two different fields. They were chosen to differentiate me, as an Independence Party candidate, from positions taken by the Democratic and Republican parties. The issue chosen to give voters an alternative to the Republicans was an economic one: I was in favor of legislation to reduce the workweek. The issue chosen to differentiate myself from the Democrats was an expression of identity politics: I was for the “full citizenship, dignity, and equality” of white males. In other words, I was positioning myself as an economic liberal and a social/ cultural conservative. I was taking the weaker side in both areas. For, it seemed to me, that both the Democrats and Republicans, as well as Independence Party members, were largely pro-business (and anti-labor) and also in favor of white-male guilt. That is also the position of corporate America.

Before beginning a campaign, it was important for me to consider what my political identity would be. What would be the content of the media coverage that I might attract? How would people perceive me as a candidate? I was not an elected official with a voting record. I was associated with no identifiable faction of either major party; neither was I in the mainstream of Independence Party politics, whatever that might be. With the exception of belonging to the landlord group, I was associated with no special-interest group. I was just out there doing my own thing. I was, in the summer of 2003, a 62-year-old white man, six feet tall, moderately overweight, married, with a step-daughter in college, who had worked in the accounting field for many years but who now supported himself from owning rental properties in Minneapolis. Behind me lay a reasonably successful campaign in the Independence Party contest for U.S. Senate with its legacy of the twin issues.

Both issues were controversial. Neither enjoyed a significant base of popular support. I embraced them for different reasons. The economic proposal grew out of a long-standing personal interest in the question of shorter working hours and trade. I had researched this area and published books on the subject. My first book explored the economics of shorter-workweek legislation. I had also coauthored a book on this subject with Eugene McCarthy.

My interest in “white-male” identity politics grew out of personal experiences had while living in the Twin Cities with its socially and culturally liberal politics. Feminism is strong here. The area’s racial politics embrace the legacy of Hubert Humphrey, who, as Mayor of Minneapolis, delivered a stirring speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in favor of Civil Rights. I spent the 1980s and 1990s working for a public-transit agency which, like previous employers, endorsed affirmative action and the idea that white people had oppressed black people and men had oppressed women over the centuries. I came to see a connection between the derogatory self-image foisted upon me by these people and the lack of economic opportunity which I and many others have experienced in such settings.

Which direction to go? It might be that the Independence Party, following a disappointing experience in the 2002 election, would look to me and my approach for guidance in resurrecting itself. Toward that end, I wrote a book about myself and the campaign titled “The Independence Party and the Future of Third-Party Politics (Adventures & Opinions of an IP Senate Candidate).” This paperback book, published by Thistlerose Publications, had an eye-catching cover with a picture of me in suspenders standing before the giant wooden statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota. I was carrying the sign which promoted dignity for white males.

In the book, I tried to combine stories about the Senate campaign, a discussion of issues, and my personal background in a coherent work. The approach was inspired by Ray Whebbe, editor of a free-circulation newspaper in Minneapolis called the Watchdog. He advised me to downplay issues and instead present my experiences during the campaign as an adventure story. He would give the book publicity in his newspaper. I also expected to sell copies by renting the Independence Party mailing list.
I attended both the Independence Party’s Fifth Congressional District meeting in May and its two-day state convention at a community college starting August 2nd. Several persons to whom I had given review copies commented on parts of the book.

Previously, however, my hopes to inspire a broader discussion within the party had been dashed when the Fifth District chair told me that, contrary to my earlier understanding, I could not rent the party’s membership list since that would violate confidentiality rules. Its email newsletter did mention my book but no one responded or ordered books.

While people at the state convention were friendly, this gathering brought the same processing of detail which had driven me up the wall the previous year. It was bogged down in an endless discussion of party platforms, rules, procedures, and the like. Party members debated ninety-seven separate platform issues, broken down between “cornerstone” and “supporting” planks, on subjects ranging from racial profiling to campaign-finance reform to smaller class size to electric-gas hybrid vehicles to privately owned casino gambling to support for a unicameral legislature. My chief rival in the previous year’s Senate primary, Jim Moore, whom I now supported, was elected the party’s state chairman.

The fact of the matter is that I had decided to run for President in June. It had become clear that my expectations of stimulating a fundamental discussion of ideology and orientation within the Independence Party were misplaced. There was no forum for that. There was, instead, the same philosophical difference between me and other party members as before. I wanted the party to go with one or two core issues which would give it an identity apart from that of the two major parties. Party leaders wanted to hammer out a multifaceted platform defining the party’s ideals. It seemed to me that the Independence Party was letting procedure get in the way of a coherent message. All this minutiae came across as a blur.

Having to get my own message out, if only to sell books, I needed to hit the campaign trail. The problem was that the Independence Party would not be involved in an statewide or national campaigns until 2006. A national organization called “Committee for a Unified Independent Party” (CUIP) had held a conference in New York City which I attended. Would CUIP provide a forum for fundamental policy discussions from a perspective of political independents? I came to realize that this group was more interested in advancing its own organizational agenda than in facilitating two-way discussions. The political universe seemed devoid of opportunities to discuss the kinds of issues that matter to people. The only party with a live contest in the next several years was the Democrats.

In the U.S. Senate campaign, I had opposed the Democrats in advocating “dignity for white males”. If I became a Democrat, would I have to change my views on this subject? No, it should be possible to participate in a Democratic Party primary while remaining faithful to one’s own political convictions. One way would be to seek the Democratic nomination for President but remain an Independence Party member. I checked with the Federal Election Commission and learned that the agency had no objection to that stance. Others had done it before.

Another possibility was to become a Democrat but run against what I perceived to be the core Democratic position: the politics of gender and race. I would be a candidate out to change the party’s philosophy. I could plausibly argue that the Democrats’ special appeal to African American and feminist voters was alienating the broad majority of white and nonfeminist voters. All the Republicans had to do was to stake a “moderate” position on social issues - one slightly to the right of the extreme position taken by the Democrats - and voters would fall in droves into its column. So the party was paying dearly for that position.

My first instincts were to remain with the Independence Party. Voters like to see some consistency in party affiliation. I had recently published a book with that party’s name in the title. On the other hand, I felt that party affiliations were overrated. Political parties are not like a religion where one must remain faithful to a particular set of beliefs but a tool to persuade government to act in a certain way. Beliefs and positions evolve. For me to become a Democrat, there would be no need to embrace the party’s current ideals. A party is whatever its members want it to be. And elections help them make that choice.

My two issues - a shorter workweek and dignity for white males - offended different groups with different degrees of emotional impact. The second item jumped out. So strong is the revulsion to racial or gender prejudice that to say one is in favor of white-male dignity is thought to mask hatred for other groups. Simply put, it is not respectable to say anything like this. Thought to represent the unhooded face of group violence, such views are like political pornography. Like regular pornography, however, they gain attention.

In contrast, it is not such a shocking thing to be in favor of shorter working hours. While the business community may not like it, American politics has a well-established tradition of considering issues disliked by business. At most, one is regarded as a naive idealist in supporting such concepts. The idea that I, as a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for President, would run on a platform of dignity for white males would raise immediate hackles. The other issue, while not in the mainstream of party thinking, would go down more smoothly. I would not be hated, just not receive any funding. What to do?
All this had to be considered in light of my own demographics. I am male. I am white. I had the advantage of a “good” education. In our society, people like me are a dime a dozen. Was I complaining that white males suffer disadvantage in the same sense that blacks or women claim this? The very thought makes people angry. So be it. Women, blacks, and others unlike myself have their concerns which are as valid as mine; but they are not more valid.

I don’t mean to suggest that anyone should pay special attention to my concerns. If someone like me is “successful”, then people pay attention to his thoughts. If he has biological children, he has continuing links to humanity. But an older childless man such as me, who in the course of many years has failed to distinguish himself through possession of money or notable success in a career, is passed off as delusional if he thinks that he might become or do something great. There is no support system for this kind of aspiration.

The fact that our society’s power structure disproportionately consists of well-educated white men such as myself merely confuses the situation. One would assume that my kind of person is favored in this society. Once that might have been the case, but not any more. Fifty years of the politics of social disadvantage, which celebrates and promotes the struggles of black people, women, and others to realize their dreams, have created an attitude of contempt for those in the old guard. White women today seem to specialize in putting white men down. And black men tell me that their black women put them down. We all put down people who are like ourselves. Perhaps we hate ourselves? Yes, I think that’s so. What one would call self-hatred is rampant today in America. When self-hatred is king, there is then little advantage in belonging to a group that is disproportionately powerful. The power structure merely focuses its self-hating energies on you.

I remember how, years ago, people expected great things from me. (Or was it only my mother who cared?) Today, I find far fewer who show any interest in what I do. I found almost no one who took me seriously when I said I was running for President. Even my close friends thought this was a nutty project. I tried to argue that, even if I could not expect to be elected, it embodied a serious purpose. Eyes glazed over. Granted, I had 62 years to prove myself and demonstrate that I could be someone. If I could not do it in all this time, what made me think I could now? Let me say only that, because I am running out of time in my life, I thought I might like to run for President. What else is there to do in one’s retirement years?

The Gospels said of Jesus that “a prophet is not without honor except in his home town and among his kinsmen and family.” After years of trying to convert the people of Mecca to his new religion, the prophet Mohammed had to go to Medina to achieve worldly success. If the principle of self-hatred affected those illustrious figures, it could affect anyone. I am certainly not in their league, but I do have some ambition and pride. I found that, while no U.S. newspaper would review a book on world history that I wrote, an African reviewer described it as “an excellent job, an epoch-making phenomenon in the art of history writing” and a reviewer in India said my book represented “a brilliant analysis of the march of world history.” Unable to find a wife among my own people, I easily found one in China, not a destitute refugee but an attractive and successful career woman. As an upper middle-class person from Beijing, she might have married any number of desirable men there but instead she picked me. Self-hatred, I think, might be present among all peoples. Also, I was lucky.

What this told me was that, if I ran for President, I could not assume that my own state, Minnesota, would be a hotbed of support for my candidacy. Any type of evident overreaching is discouraged in our starched Lutheran culture. Unless I already was someone politically, I would be shunned. The same might be true of neighboring states such as Iowa (scene of the nation’s first caucus) and Wisconsin. People there would see me as someone like themselves and resent the fact that I was running for President. But, if I went to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Louisiana, or another distant place to campaign, my candidacy would not grate so much on people’s nerves. They would simply take me as any other candidate and try to size me up objectively. Therefore, the campaign’s marching order must be: Hit the road. Fan out to other states to deliver your message. Travel to exotic new places and see what happens. Don’t just stay home.

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