Despite the dysfunction no new party is likely in Washington

NEW YORK — On Tuesday conservative activist and commentator Steve Baldwin penned an article for the right-leaning website Barbwire calling for the emergence of a third political party in the US, one made up of religious and fiscal conservatives that could supplant the Republican Party. Baldwin even proposed a leader for this new political coalition – Sarah Palin, erstwhile governor of Alaska and, memorably, the vice-presidential Republican nominee in 2008.

According to the activist, the thrust of this new political force would be to eliminate “all federal abortion funding, reversing Roe vs. Wade [the Supreme Court decision to legalise abortion], and prohibiting the Federal government from granting special rights to people based upon sexual behavior (laws that almost always infringe on our religious, property, and freedom of association rights).”

Of course, the notion of Palin leading an alliance of the faithful and the frugal all the way to the White House is fanciful. However the US does have a history of intermittent dalliances with third parties, while the current dysfunction in Washington, a deadlock that peaked with the government shutdown late last year – a period in which Gallup revealed 60% of Americans thought it was time for a third party to emerge – has led to rumblings once again.

Palin herself floated the idea of a third party in a recent interview with Fox News, asking, “If Republicans are gonna act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung ho about getting more Republicans in there?”

But if Washington is broke, allied to widespread dissatisfaction with both main political parties, why has an alternative not emerged? After all in Britain, a country in which divergent political opinions are far more cramped in the middle, a genuine third party has still found room to manifest in the form of the Liberal Democrats (four parties if Nigel Farage is to be believed).

Speaking from a conservative standpoint, Baldwin suggests the main impediment to a third party in the US is the fear that it will “weaken the GOP, thus allowing more Democrats to win”. It’s certainly a legitimate concern with Tory strategists in the UK currently wracked by similar speculations as to what extent Ukip will split the Tory vote in 2015.

“Although many Americans say they want a strong third party, there are a lot of reasons to doubt that one will establish itself as a long-term presence in American politics,” Andrew E. Busch, a Crown professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College, tells HuffPost. “For one thing, Americans can’t agree on what sort of third party they want.”

For Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, the prospect of a third party emerging is hampered by the existing parties’ grip on power.

“The two major parties do not do many things very well, but they are tremendously skilled at maintaining their duopoly over the American political system,” he tells HuffPost. “When a new issue or movement does emerge on the landscape, one party or the other invariably manages to co-opt it.”

The emergence of the Tea Party, a movement created in response to the 2008 financial crashes and galvanized by the election of the first African American president in US history, is a case in point.

Likewise the Libertarian movement, once an outlier in the GOP, which in recent years has been brought into the Republican mainstream, so much so that Rand Paul, the movement’s de facto leader, is expected to run for President in 2016. “That doesn’t leave a lot of creating room for a third party to emerge,” says Schnur.

According to Peter Levine, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service of Tufts University, the existing system is rigged in favour of a two-party system. He tells HuffPost, “as long as legislators are elected in single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes gets the seat, two-party systems are inevitable”. As such, Levine argues, a vote for a third party invariably looks wasted.

Busch agrees that the entire electoral system favors big and broad parties, and unlike in proportional representation systems, “you get nothing for coming in second, let alone third with 15 percent of the vote”. He adds: “The most successful third parties in American history fill a space and address issues that are neglected by the major parties, make a splash for a short time, draw one or both of the big parties in their direction, then collapse.”

However, Levine suggests there are exceptions, such as when strong regional parties come to prominence: the rise of the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland is an obvious example. Another exception would be during what the academic calls “moments of disequilibrium,” such as when the old Whig Party collapsed and then the Republicans arose to fill the gap.

It’s a parallel not lost on Baldwin, whose wishful Palin-led collation, he suggests, should “do to the GOP what the GOP did to the Whig Party 150 years ago”. However, without these moments of disequilibrium, Levine argues, “systems like ours produce duopolies”.

Yet if the odds are stacked against a national third party emerging, the prospect of an independent candidate being elected to the state legislature may be more likely. Earlier this year Schnur ran as an independent candidate in California for Secretary of State, a bid he ultimately lost in the state’s June primary election.

Yet despite that defeat, the academic says he believes “even more strongly” than a year ago that “an independent candidate can be elected to statewide office”. He does, however, concede it will take a candidate with “much more time and much more money than the usual campaign” in order to “convince voters to cast their ballot in a fundamentally different way than they’ve become accustomed”.

Schnur concludes: “While the political space probably doesn’t exist for a full-fledged third party, a candidate who was better prepared and better funded than I can certainly occupy the political center that’s been vacated by the two major parties.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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Nick Broomfield reveals Sarah Palin to be a woman ‘with no conscience’

Filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary, a portrait of former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, received its UK premiered on Friday as part of the BFI London Film Festival.

Speaking to a packed crowd after the screening, the 63-year-old BAFTA winner said that Sarah Palin You Betcha! was one of his most difficult documentaries to date as he was forced to make a film about his subject “from afar”.

Broomfield spends the first part of the film cosying up to Palin’s family and former friends. He even meets the subject at a book signing. His request for an interview is met with a “you betcha!”

Dressed like a lumberjack and forever slipping on the Alaskan ice, Broomfield cuts an eccentric figure, but one that seems to be making headway towards his subject.

Yet this makes the second half all the more sinister as the small Wasilla community shuts down, becoming increasingly reluctant to take part.

“There was group of people who did agree to talk to us, but anyone that went to school with her, or who had grown up with her, or whose friends were friends with her kids, they had to carry on living in Wasilla so they were reluctant,” he said.

“The people who did talk did so because they thought they ought to. They thought she was a menace, but I’m sure these people will have a hard time in Wasilla when the film comes out.”

The film, which begins with Palin’s acceptance speech after being selected as McCain’s running-mate for the 2008 election, is shot almost entirely on location in Palin’s home town, a place where there are “8,000 people, 27 churches and a lot of superstores”.

It charts her life from teenage basketball player through school to mayor, governor and finally national politician, concluding that there is in fact two people – the public Palin and the private one.

Even according to the interviewees who, with the exception of Palin’s parents, were near-universally critical, the public Palin is a “charismatic” woman who “could make you feel like you were the only person in the room”.

Yet the real vitriol was reserved for the private Palin, who at best was painted as an uneducated, small-minded, small town, text-message addict who struck it lucky in politics.

At worst, she comes across as a “dangerous and frightening” sociopath; a woman, as one Wasilla resident describes her, who “wouldn’t think twice about killing you if you got in her way”.

Readers of the recent biography by Geoffrey Dunn, the hugely critical The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power, will find scant new revelations in the film. However, by spending time in Wasilla and speaking to residents on camera, Broomfield manages to create a convincing illustration of the forces – family, religion, upbringing – that went into Palin’s makeup, pulling in footage from his subject’s early years, trying her hand as a newscaster and participating in a beauty contest.

In one archive clip, the former mayor is seen pardoning a Christmas turkey only to give an interview to local TV minutes later in which the bird is visible in the background having its head removed.

Despite several moments of levity, usually provided by Broomfield, the tone of the piece remains earnest. This is, after all, the woman who placed crosshairs targeting Democratic states just weeks before the Tucson shootings.

This is also the woman that, according to the film, campaigned for mayor as a “Christian” whilst suggesting that the incumbent, her former mentor John Stein, was Jewish.

Palin’s apocalyptic faith is a theme throughout. As one of her former friends says: “She would have no conscience about triggering a nuclear war. She believes she is God’s anointed one. If you don’t know that, you don’t know anything about Sarah Palin.”

For Broomfield, Palin’s recent refusal to run for president in 2012 probably means the end of her political career. “She’s done,” he said to an audience member after the screening.

However, the popularity she still enjoys with great swathes of the American electorate has opened the door for the more extreme elements currently vying for Republican endorsement.

“The evangelical right are a massive force in the Republican Party and they’ve become more so,” said Broomfield.

“No one is really in control of them and they [the evangelical right] have had a massive effect on politics, especially when you see people like Palin and Michele Bachmann, who are a manifestation of that movement.

“They’ve moved the whole thing to the right. Until the union between Wall Street and the evangelicals is broken, I think US politics is going to be quite grim and depressing. It’s a bad time in American history and I think she [Palin], more than anything, embodies that.”

Broomfield admitted that the more he learned about Palin, the more he found her “disquieting”,

“I felt like there was always another secret about her, or another way of explaining her. She changed her positions politically very often. She would always just go where the power is… so she’s ended up in the extreme right with the Koch brothers and Murdoch by supporting lower taxation a deregulation… arguing that not taxing the corporations would bring about higher employment, which is just crazy stuff.

“But at another time in her career, such as when she was governor of Alaska, she put a massive tax on the oil companies, which is entirely contrary to what the Republicans believe in… and she did that with Democrat support. So she’s been wherever she can wrestle power. It’s just very hard to pin her down.”

The most remarkable scenes from the film remain the interviews from her 2008 run. Played in montage, it seems incomprehensible that the McCain team picked a candidate so clearly inappropriate for the job of vice president. Yet they did and against a lesser campaigner than Obama, they may well have won.

It would be easy to write Palin off as a quirk or a foible of history. But the fact that she made it so close to the White House should give everyone genuine pause, and particularly those looking on at the current race for the Republican nomination.

What many will take from the film is that in American politics anything is possible. Does that mean Perry, Bachmann and the rest of their ilk have a genuine shot at the top job? If the experience of Mama Grizzly has taught us anything, the answer has to be “you betcha!”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Dispatches from the red planet

Cheers echoed around the huge conference hall as the name was finally announced. For the second year running, Texas Republican Ron Paul had won the straw poll for the Presidential nomination at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). For most in attendance, particularly the 1100 or so supporters of the Texas Governor who had made the trip to Washington, the result was never in doubt.

Yet despite their enthusiasm, Paul remains at best an outsider within the Republican Party thanks to his fixation with the Federal Reserve and his advocacy of complete isolationism in regards to US foreign policy. Earlier in the conference, Donald Trump, a fellow potential nominee, had draw jeers from the crowd by stating that Paul had “no chance”. Most serious political opinion agrees with Trump, though these are strange times for a Republican Party whose shape is being shifted by the gravitational pull of different groups, factions and figures from within its own broad ranks.

Speaking after the event, Tony Fabrizio, the Republic pollster in charge of collating the results, offered some perspective: “In the same poll in 2007, Rudi Giuliani and Mitt Romney finished a close first and second. Guess who came in fifth? John McCain.” A year later McCain won the Florida primary en route to his ultimately unsuccessful run for President. Sarah Palin, then a little-known Governor of a peripheral state, was not even on the ballot card. In short, the poll means nothing; anything can happen.

Every year, CPAC offers those affiliated with the right of American politics the opportunity to come together, debate the direction of the movement and, in the years preceding an election, cast an eye over prospective candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. Organised by the American Conservative Union Foundation, the event started in the early seventies, growing through the decades to become an annual point of focus not only for the thousands of attendees, but the many millions throughout America for whom conservatism is not only a political leaning but a way of life.

Yet recent yeas has seen a schism develop in American conservatism with the Tea Party, a grass roots movement born from the ruins of Republican defeat in 2008, outflanking the GOP to secure huge swathes of populist support throughout much of America’s heartland. Theirs is a message of fiscal and moral conservatism, anchored in the twin pillars of Christian teaching and Reaganomics.

Much of their ire is directed at President Obama, with oft-quoted accusations ranging from genuine concerns about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, to the downright conspiratorial, in which the President is a Kenyan-born fifth columnist planted in the White House as part of a communist/Muslim plot.

Despite the movement’s willingness to propound outlandish beliefs, their political power has grown spectacularly during the past three years, so much so that many in the GOP have been forced to shift further from the centre in order to ally themselves with the Tea Party’s more conservative agenda.

Last year’s mid-term elections, in which the Republican Party secured the House of Representatives, including the election of a number of Tea Party-backed candidates, served to emphasise the growing re-alignment of the GOP, moving rightwards as to remain connected to the vocal Tea Party base. Only recently, John Boehner, the new leader of the house, refused to denounce those that question Obama’s constitutional eligibility, arguing that “it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Although Boehner has a strong conservative voting record, he is certainly no crackpot and has stated on record that he believes Obama is a US citizen. Yet his refusal to denounce the “Birthers” (those who question Obama’s citizenship), a sop to the Tea Party faithful, indicates how much their support is now prized within the GOP.

The emergence of the Tea Party has certainly energised the American Right, breathing new life into a Republican Party that less than three years ago looked old, ponderous and frail next to the Democrats and their newly-elected talisman. Since then, the fallout of the global economic crisis, the healthcare debate and the ongoing issue of immigration have eaten away at Obama’s popularity, hindered further by a Tea Party whose concern about shifting demographics, particularly the influx from the southern border, has galvanised their opposition. “Take Back Our Country” is a crude yet all-encompassing emblem for the Tea Partiers, whether their concerns are economic, demographic or, in the case of those convinced of an Islamic/communist coup, fanciful bordering on sinister.

So where does this leave the 2012 election? The emergence of the Tea Party may well skewer the field for the next election not only pushing new candidates to the fore, but also influencing the campaign message of the established candidates. One of the Tea Party’s central messages is cuts in spending. As such, expect to find that issue high on every Republican candidate’s agenda. As a Muriel Coleman, a board member of the American Conservative Union told me on the second day of the conference, “the winner will be the person who takes the core principles of Reagan and moves them into 2012”.

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts who was also a candidate for the 2008 election, looks a certainty to run, alongside former Arkansas Governor turned Fox News host Mike Huckabee. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty also looks a likely candidate, along with Haley Barbour, the current governor of Mississippi’s and Indiana’s governor Mitch Daniels.

Outside the main field, Ron Paul has plenty of support among young Republicans and Libertarians. One man that has already said he will stand is Fred Karger, an openly-gay Republican strategist who served in the Reagan Administration and will run as an independent. Then there’s Donald Trump. All of the above attended CPAC with the exception of Huckabee.

Speaking to Karger, it seems his candidacy is more about offering publicity for gay civil rights than a genuine tilt at the White House, though running as a centrist (“a fiscal conservative and a social moderate” as he puts it) does offer an alternative to the very polarised nature of current domestic politics in the US. And perhaps the most polarising figure in US politics remains the big unknown for 2012.

“I think Sarah Palin is going to get in to this,” says Karger. “If she does it’ll throw a money wrench into everyone else’s plans”. Like Huckabee, Palin also failed to appear at CPAC, yet her shadow loomed large over the three-day event. The 2008 Vice Presidential nominee has yet to rule herself out, however despite her undoubted popularity in the heartland, many attendees in Washington, especially the younger conservatives, were unconvinced by Palin’s credentials. “I can see why she resonates with a lot of people in this country,” Eric Chester, President of the Libertarian Club at the University of Delaware, tells me on the third day. “But I certainly wouldn’t vote for her.”

Likewise Ashlee Filkins, a student at the West Virginia University: “Palin is a good cheerleader and very good at voter-initiative but I don’t think she’s a viable candidate for 2012.”

Speaking to other attendees, Palin’s no show, along with her recent foray into reality TV hasn’t proved endearing. Another factor that could diminish her popularity is the emergence of Michelle Bachmann, a representative for Minnesota’s 6th congressional district who in recent months has been hailed as the new darling of the Tea Party, Similar to Palin, Bachmann is a staunch conservative who believes in the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools, the phasing out of social welfare programmes and a ban on same-sex marriages. Whether she can have an impact on the race for 2012 is debatable, especially after she gave her own Tea Party-backed response to Obama’s recent State of the Union address, much to the chagrin of many within the GOP. Then again, she opened the conference at CPAC.

Karger remained diplomatic on his potential fellow nominees. “I’m an advocate of the big tent,” he says. “It’s the more the merrier.” More there certainly will be, but with no front runner and prospective Republican candidates faced with the almost impossible task of appealing to both the moderate and extreme wings of the party, come November 2012 the merriment may well belong to the Democrats and Barack Obama.

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.