It's become almost a cliche in American politics that a large percentage of the public is fed up with the two major political parties and unhappy with the "mess in Washington." The clearest evidence of this discontent was the large vote for billionaire businessman Ross Perot in 1992 and the visibility of his Reform Party this year, a visibility heightened by the candidacy of former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm.
But many of the assumptions fueling this movement are myths. The reality is quite different. Let's review some of these assertions:
*That the average citizen can't participate in politics. Nonsense. The Republican and Democratic Parties are desperate for volunteers. In many states, party precinct-delegate seats go unfilled because no one runs for them. The Christian Right figured this out long ago, and by running candidates for this basic party office, took over whole county and state GOP organizations.
*That the candidates don't represent the average citizen because they are taking money from political-action committees (PACs). Widely believed, but rarely true. A PAC can give a congressional or presidential candidate the grand total of $5,000. (An individual can give $1,000.) Most congressional campaigns today cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. While the candidates need money, any one PAC contribution is a drop in the bucket.
Besides, candidates usually accept money from PACs whose positions they already have an affinity for. PACs give money to people whose positions they support (or whom they don't want to alienate). Does anyone believe that a candidate is pro-life on abortion because he or she gets money from pro-life organizations? Or that a liberal votes that way because he or she gets money from liberal PACs? One could turn the argument on its head and say that a candidate who accepts money from lots of PACs is more representative of more interests than a rich man who spends his own money and is therefore beholden to no one.
*That the Republicans didn't do what they said they would in 1994 and therefore a third party is needed. Only someone who hasn't really paid attention could say this. The House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, passed every single item in their Contract With America except for term limits. Most of it passed the more-moderate Senate as well, although the balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution missed a required two-thirds majority by just one vote - that of Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon.
What happened was not that the GOP didn't do what it said it would. It enacted most of its programs. But President Clinton vetoed them. We have no quarrel with a president using his constitutional powers to influence legislation as he sees fit. That's how the system works. In many cases - welfare reform, Medicaid reform - we disagreed with those vetoes. In other cases - protecting the environment - we supported them.
But don't blame the GOP for the stalemate. If you supported the Contract With America, blame the president and vote for Bob Dole in November. If you opposed the Contract With America, be grateful that Bill Clinton decided to hold his ground and vote for him and your Democratic congressional candidates. If you think both are wrong, then go find a third party and vote for its candidate. If you split your vote between parties, blame yourself for gridlock.
*That the Washington establishment is out of touch with real Americans. Well, of course it is, to some extent. Does Los Angeles represent all America? Do New York, Chicago, or Miami? This is a huge, diverse country with varying political, economic, regional, racial, and religious interests. A garment worker in New York City sees the world a lot differently than a software programmer in Palo Alto, Calif. The worldviews of South Boston and Salt Lake City are miles apart. The economic interests of Kansas City and Detroit are not the same.
What unites Americans is the Constitution, the rules we agree to live by. All those separate and conflicting interests come together in the House, the Senate, and the president, who try to hash out programs and policies that are in the best interests of all of us. That takes a lot of doing: Compromise is a requirement and someone is always unhappy with the result. Often circumstances are beyond the control of the federal government, which reacts as best it can, sometimes poorly.
Does Congress pass bad laws and reject good ones? Yes. Does a president sometimes do dumb things? Yes. But our system is a carefully crafted set of checks and balances that is purposely meant to make the process of change a slow and deliberate one. (The Senate rules exacerbate this, but that's a discussion for another day.)
The presence of a third party won't change this. What would change it would be putting an end to the idea that Washington can solve all our problems and to the knee-jerk passage of a federal law in reaction to every hot media story. State and local governments are about people taking responsibility for themselves. The more effort put in that direction, the better off we all would be, third parties or no.