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

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.