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How this party can win

The presumption will be that any proposal to start a new political party in the United States is delusional if its supporters seriously believe they can elect a majority to government positions. That idea kills support from the start. No one wants to waste time chasing pipe dreams.

Certainly recent political experience confirms the difficulty of electing third-party candidates to office. In 2000, the Greens ran Ralph Nader for President, a highly intelligent and articulate man who has been a hero to many for decades. He gained around 3% of the national vote. Since Al Gore lost the election to Bush by a small margin, Nader’s candidacy was considered a “spoiler”. Pat Buchanan, a speech writer and political advisor to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, did even worse that year as presidential candidate of the Reform Party. These were, then, two strong political personalities, on the left and on the right, who could not gain political traction as independent candidates.

In 1998, a third party in Minnesota, then called the Reform Party and now the Independence Party, nominated and elected Jesse Ventura to be Governor of Minnesota. Despite several excellent candidates for Governor and other state or federal offices in subsequent years, this party has been unable to elect anyone to public office. One state senator joined this party after being kicked out of the Republican party for being too liberal. Another legislator, nearing retirement, switched to it as a protest against what two-party politics had become.

Public-opinion polls show that more than a third of the U.S. electorate consider themselves politically independent. Slightly smaller percentages affiliate with the Democratic and Republican parties. However, political independence does not necessarily translate into votes for a candidate. It could mean that the voters want “none of the above”.

How do people succeed in being elected to public office? The first way, obviously, is to be the nominee of a major party, Democrat or Republican, and wage an effective campaign. Party designation carries with it immediate credibility, both with the voters and with potential donors. The party label is a brand name which indicates the candidate’s probable stance on issues. There is an immediate constituency both in terms of issues and interest groups willing to supply funds and campaign volunteers. Journalists will take such a candidacy seriously.

However, there are also other ways to be elected without the support of a major party.

Jesse Ventura was known to Minnesota voters as a former professional wrestler. He had also been mayor of a suburban city. He could attract media coverage because he was a celebrity. Ventura’s breakthrough came when his campaign was able to tap into state funds given to parties when their candidates in previous years attracted a certain percentage of the vote. (The Minnesota Reform Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate had gained more than 5% of the vote in 1996.) With those funds, the Ventura campaign contacted Bill Hillsman, an advertising executive known for doing much on a shoestring budget. Hillsman created some cute television commercials. “Jesse the body” (the pro wrestler) became “Jesse the thinker” (sitting in a Rodin posture). Ventura placed ahead of the Democratic and Republican candidates. His celebrity friend, Arnold Schwarzeneggar, who attended Ventura's inauguration, later became Governor of California.

Another way to succeed in politics is to be a billionaire who can afford to finance his own campaign. Such a man was Ross Perot, founder of the Reform Party. As a billionaire active in several causes, Perot was a celebrity and, therefore, a person already of interest to the news media. He was also able to spend millions of dollars of his own money on television commercials. Ross Perot adopted a populist stance and had personality that appealed to many voters. He attracted 19 per cent of the vote for President in 1992.

If the candidate does not affiliate with a major party, is not a past or present officeholder, and is neither rich nor famous, what does that person do to seek office? One possibility is that the candidate be personally magnetic - gregarious, energetic, and a good speaker. Conceivably he could develop a good stump speech and make arrangements to deliver it before many different audiences. If the speech struck just the right chord with the public, the news media might report it, people might start talking about the candidate, and his campaign might catch fire. A problem with this approach is that there are fewer events today featuring live speakers than in previous times. People rely more on television.

Finally, it’s possible that a candidate will “get lucky” and catch the fancy of a media reporter or commentator who will give coverage to his campaign. Even if the candidate has no chance of winning, the campaign might be treated as “a human interest story.” I almost got lucky myself in this way.

So these are the negatives. A person who is not the endorsed candidate of a major political party, who has never held public office, who is neither a celebrity nor a wealthy person, who has a “Plain Jane” personality, and who has not gotten lucky with the media, does not stand much chance of being a successful political candidate. That’s roughly the situation of prospective candidates associated with Gold Party.

So what gives us hope?

First, consider that Gold Party does not intend to operate as a normal political party. Its function is less to endorse candidates, adopt platforms of issues, or raise money for campaigns. It is more to become an instrument of political change. Regular political parties offer boring experiences for members at their conventions. They spend hour after hour conducting business - rules changes, changes to the constitution, membership reports and occasional challenges, discussion of resolutions, etc. - according to Roberts Rules of Order. There is a set agenda and a tight procedure for handling party business.

This process allows little opportunity for members to express themselves . Little information is conveyed. From an entertainment standpoint, the experience of attending party meetings leaves much to be desired. One comes away from such events believing that there are better ways to spend one’s time.

A political party does not have to be like that. Like any organization, it needs to compete for people’s time and attention by providing experiences useful or enjoyable to them. I have in mind meetings of a landlord group, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. These were not business meetings but discussions focused on housing and crime issues. Although the meetings featured guest speakers, anyone could go to the microphone at any time to make comments.

Such meetings provided a free-speech forum. They were a combination of an informational presentation coming from the guest speaker and uncontrolled audience reaction. At times, the events became quite raucous. Someone once described them as “a combination of a public-policy discussion and the Jerry Springer show”.

At the same time, those meetings were about changing public opinion. Individuals freely speaking their mind on important subjects and, especially, telling stories about their own personal experience have a powerful effect on public opinion, more so than participants in slick public-affairs shows. Such meetings shaped opinion not only among persons attending the meetings but, since they were videotaped and shown on cable television, among the much larger number of persons sitting at home in front of a television set.

Therefore, Gold Party could be more effective than the mainstream political parties by doing things differently. It could attract people to its meetings by offering a superior experience in terms of transmitting knowledge, eliciting humorous or convincing expression, and creating an inspiring aesthetic effect. Freedom of expression should be the spirit of party events. Let the members create a party in their own image.

Face-to-face meetings are a foundation of political organization. In this day and age, however, they are insufficient to form opinions about candidates and issues on a scale that will sway elections. For that, you need media. The political organization needs to find a way to amplify the image of what it is saying and doing to a level of magnitude that can reach and sway opinions among the general public.

In conventional politics, the parties rely on commercial media - newspapers, television, and, to some extent, radio - to report their activities. The two large parties do receive news coverage for events such as the nomination of candidates for high political office. The smaller parties struggle to attract attention. This would be the case with Gold Party. The big media would either would refuse to cover its events, judging its aspirations to be unrealistic, or would stress the negative aspects, sensing a threat to the established order.

Newspapers in the United States began as mouthpieces of political parties. Given the political bias that exists among the major commercial media, it may be that disfavored political groups may have to create their own instruments for communicating with the public in order to remain viable.

Even if it is impractical to compete head-on with commercial television stations or the large daily newspapers, small to medium-sized organizations do have the ability to publish and distribute their own newspapers and produce cable-television shows. They have the ability to create web sites that will get the message out to a certain number of people. For a couple thousand dollars plus a core of dedicated members, a political group can create and sustain a full-fledged media operation.

Opportunities exist for groups to have free access to cable television on the public-access channels. Most public-access stations provide equipment and training to individuals at a modest cost. With respect to newspapers, it takes a certain amount of money and volunteer staff to run a newspaper. You need someone to write stories, someone to solicit advertisements, someone to put the paper together, and someone to distribute it.

At the present time, the scaled-back landlord group has two people, both with other business responsibilities, running the “Watchdog” newspaper. Several other people help. This is a newspaper distributed in racks throughout the city which also has a version on line. (See http://www.watchdog-news.com.)There is another website that gives the history of the organization.

One of the first things that Gold Party might do, after it is established, is create an online newspaper. Members would be encouraged to submit news stories or opinion articles to this electronic medium, either unedited but with a byline, or in an edited version which summarizes the day’s top stories. The aim would be to recruit dozens of “citizen reporters” to feed news items to this newspaper. Brief news dispatches would be OK.

Most newspapers reflect the world view of their editors and reporters. There are familiar story lines supporting that view. To persons not sharing the view, it may seem that stereotype rather than fact guides the news reporting. This is the origin of "media bias". If a political party ran the newspaper, the stories would suit its biased view. Parties can also, however, be a source of action. Its members can stage protest demonstrations and such things. The advantage of owning a newspaper would be that such events would be guaranteed news coverage. Direct action and media reporting would establish the party's presence in the community.

However if Gold Party is to achieve truly explosive growth, it will need to consider still other vehicles for communication, especially devices favored by young people. We are living in a time of rapid change in the area of consumer electronics. Each U.S. household spends an average of $1,500 per year on such gadgets. Apple’s new “iPhone combines the features of a cordless telephone, digital camera, music player, web browser, and text-messaging email tool in a compact, portable device. Today’s lifestyles revolve around the use of such wireless, multi-purpose gadgets. There is a certain chic associated with their use, describing the fast-paced life experiences of tech-savvy Americans.

A start-up organization such as Gold Party should try to stay ahead of the curve in this area, not pinning its hopes on stodgy old newspapers or even cable-television shows but on the entire range of communicative products coming out on the market. The trick is to integrate party activities into the lifestyles of youth. This involves finding new ways to use the products and developing suitable content. The goal of building party membership would fit nicely into that objective. Instead of frivolous communications, there could be a serious purpose. The users of those new devices could teach each other how to use them stylishly and enjoyably in the context of a common enterprise.

With respect to content, it would not be advisable to push self-serving political propaganda. People are sick of this kind of message. Seriousness can come when Gold Party has a serious chance of taking over the government. Until then, it should communicate in ways that appeal to the members.

Comedy would be one such way. Gold Party might sponsor competitions for stand-up comedians, putting a political spin on the humor. It might sponsor competitions for old-fashioned political orators who put passion into their statements. Restaurants, bars, and other places of food and entertainment might be willing to provide space for such activities, especially if they draw in paying customers or make people aware of their business establishments by broadcasts emanating from that location.

It would be foolish to try to prescribe how members of Gold Party should communicate with each other or what should be the content of their message. Suffice it to say that the goal of this party would be to develop entrepreneurs of political communication who can invent new ways of doing politics. The particular purpose of Gold Party - to increase membership - would provide a structure for their activities. In recognizing outstanding achievement by participating members, the party grows.

In its initial phase, the official “platform” would play only a small part in the process of party advancement. Nominating and electing candidates for public office would play only a small part. Until the party grows and is in a position to influence the result of elections, it would be better to downplay those aspects of its organization. Instead, focus on activities that help the party to grow.

Among those interim purposes might be the formation of communities brought together by the personal interests of participants. Individuals could find a place for themselves within the organization through the creation of subgroups targeted to aspects of its operation. Additionally, the party might create hierarchies of achievement that would confer recognition upon individual members. It could develop data bases about its members and potential members which, preserving the confidentiality of information, could be used to bring likeminded persons together to promote other interests.

The question of personal identity is increasingly important in today’s environment. Therefore, a process needs to be developed to explore such questions, helping members to understand who they are as individuals and to find other persons of similar nature with whom they identify. Friendship is another goal of this party.

This brings us to another way that Gold Party would differ from a conventional political party: Instead of giving everyone an equal voice in party affairs, it would reward those who contributed to the success and well being of the party organization by establishing a point system that determines their individual number of votes. Since the immediate goal is for the party to gain members, members would be rewarded in proportion to how they have contributed toward that end. The people who have most helped Gold Party grow would receive the most points.

Party members would cast votes in business decisions of the party in proportion to their number of points. For example, a member with ten Gold Party points would have twice the voting strength of a member who had only five points. This arrangement would not change the “one person, one vote” rule that governs election to public office, but would affect only internal party decisions such as the endorsement of candidates or issues.

There is an advantage to this type of system. Apart from providing incentives to help build the party, differentiated voting satisfies one of humanity's strongest desires. People want to be recognized for their achievements. They want to know where they stand. They appreciate value based upon real achievement. The process of building up membership in Gold Party through various creative exertions does constitute achievement. The points next to one's name would mean something.

There is no need to be coy about this. Gold Party should encourage its members to flaunt their points. It should employ computer technologies to compile instant point totals for all its members and regularly recognize those members who have the most points. As the McDonald’s in its early years advertised that the fast-food chain had sold 60 million, or 300 million, or two billion plus hamburgers, so Gold Party should regularly advertise its membership gain. Let this political organization be crass in its intention to grow. After all, “gold” is part of its name.

It follows, then, that Gold Party should not take itself too seriously. This should be an experimental party formed through an alliance between aging ideologues and a more youthful membership contingent that wants to have some fun along the way. The key to this party is to assemble and create a community of activists who will set the pattern for what happens when the party grows to a size that it can affect the outcome of elections. Once there is a community which has experience of itself and believes in itself, the move to significant stature could come quickly.

The immediate goal is to sign up party members, not on an exclusive basis, who will not expect immediate political results but can bide their time until conditions are right to assume state power. It is not unrealistic for a small group of people to dream of accomplishing things on a large scale, given the mechanisms of modern-day communication and the right message. In this age of YouTube and MySpace, individuals are interacting quickly with so many other people that the traditional geographical barriers to the spread of an idea no longer exist.

The fact is that these are not normal political times. The Bush administration and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have so mismanaged the nation’s affairs that the American public is inclined to look elsewhere for leadership. In the event that there is an economic or political collapse, a structure needs to be in place to assume power immediately. The current political establishment lacks the competence and credibility to do what is required. .

That’s why old notions about the ineffectiveness of third parties have little relevance to the present situation. We need to prepare ourselves for a coming time when it will be our turn to see how we can run the government. Otherwise helpless, the American public would need a plan to function in a crisis-filled environment. Gold Party has such a plan.

See also:

the power of an idea

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