It’s time to break the power of the political parties

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It’s come to this: Hunter S. Thompson is in The Wall Street Journal.

Reviewing Thompson’s latest posthumous omnibus, Matt Labash invites the 53% to rediscover his fiercely American prose — and look past the anarchic hi-jinks that might have made him, in another life, the King of Zuccotti Park.

To do Thompson a real service, however, Labash would have to emphasize — not gloss over — the connection between his personal freakshow and his Freak Power politics. It’s a link that speaks volumes about the outsize influence of the tea party and Occupy Wall Street— and the painful limits both movements are sure to encounter unless they break the power of the political parties by turning away from centralized protests and national policy.

Hunter Thompson’s real legacy is in “The Battle of Aspen,” as he called it — the apocalypse of local politics unleashed in 1969 and 1970 when Thompson spearheaded a slate of candidates running for sheriff, coroner, county commissioner, and mayor. “We forced a coalition of the two political parties,” Thompson wrote. “The local Democrats & Republicans only beat us by collapsing into a last-minute desperation coalition (with each party agreeing to sacrifice a main candidate) that avoided the three-way vote split we were counting on.” Thompson was sure he had a message with “far-reaching national ramifications”:

A lot of people are beginning to understand that to be a freak is an honorable way to go. This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all […] the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition — but nothing changes. So now […] a handful of “freaks” are running a final, perhaps atavistic experiment with the idea of forcing change by voting.

As I first suggested in April of last year, and explained this September, it’s a message that rings like a gong today. The line between anti-establishment people right and left is blurred badly enough in key places that we can think seriously about an emerging coalition that Thompson might have dubbed “Freak Power/Rube Power ’12.”

Though tea partiers and Occupiers alike can be excused for nursing national pretensions — if it doesn’t happen where the elites run the country, all our prejudices tell us, it ain’t happenin’ — they’d both be better off, as Thompson’s crushing political disappointment shows, going local. Thompson beclowned himself not only because going national meant party politics — and party politics meant failure, win (Carter) or lose (McGovern) — but because he took that experience to mean that local politics, too, was a useless enterprise for hopeless fools.

Today, The Battle of Aspen seems to prove the opposite point. Across the country, our popular opinion of national institutions — and the national parties — is at low ebb. The consensus political counterculture is nowhere near as radical and unhinged as Thompson’s Freak Power campaign promised (no paved streets, no mescaline — on duty). The two major parties work locally very unlike the strong patronage systems of yore, where ground-level loyalties were bought (however corruptly) with the provision of real benefits. The major parties work locally as farm leagues for career functionaries and reverse ATMs for the grassroots.

It seems ridiculous that the most famous utterance in living memory by a speaker of the House is that all politics is local. Those days are over.

But they don’t have to be. All that our legions of disgruntled Americans have to do is reject the animating principle of the parties: that if you’re searching for meaning, the only way you can find it through politics is to struggle for national power.

That fearsome proposition is the key to the parties’ power. It’s why, no matter how much money they raise, how much money they spend, or how much they fail in the process, voters keep coming back. And it’s why both parties work so relentlessly to co-opt the movements at their margins, laying claim to their causes to the precise extent that they don’t threaten their power.

Nick Gillespie of Reason once described Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally (remember that?) as “flush with the notion that whatever else is going on in the world, you can control some portion of your own life.” Whatever their stark differences, tea partiers and Occupiers share a similar susceptibility to act as if that notion requires them to mimic the national abstraction of the two parties — even while claiming to reject their terms of political practice.

All too swiftly, our protests fall in line with the hallmarks of party machines — the symbolism and the slogan-mongering, the clotting around established power centers, the divorce of political action from the places we call home. It’s not just that the targets of today’s national protects so quickly become abstractions, as Conor Friedersdorf observes at The Atlantic. That’s a symptom of the deeper problem. Even anti-establishment politics is being abstracted from real life because people are convinced at some gut level that this is the only way they can compete with the parties for attention and passion.

Our elites love this, of course. The poignant spectacle of Occupiers finding virtual unity through artificial community summons forth rhapsodies of moral kitsch. “That the message of the Zuccotti Park occupiers is fuzzy somewhat misses the point,” writes The New York Times’s architecture critic (!). “The encampment itself has become the point.” Such an advanced case of polis envy suggests that, in the fundamental way, politics has already failed.

And fail it will, unless the mastery of our two parties over our political imaginations is broken — and along with it, the obsession with national policy that they cultivate to perpetuate control. If there’s really to be a revolution, the next act in today’s American protests will have to be going home — not just to a job (or a job search), but to the places where we really can govern ourselves again.

James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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