Hold the telegraph wire thingies, there’s been a split in the Democratic Party. Small split, not many culled. One in fact. Former primary contender Mike Gravel has announced that he’ll be running for the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party, when their convention meets in May.

That this has failed to rock the mainstream is scarcely surprising. Gravel was a less than invisible candidate in the race, regularly hitting an asterisk in the polling. A two term Senator for Alaska in the 1970s, his eclectic positions were a mixture of fairly hard leftism – on foreign policy and the “imperialism” of the American “military-industrial complex” – and a mix of direct democracy and individual rights themes. He managed to get into more of the earlier televised debates than he otherwise would have in tribute not only to his Senate terms, but to his role in being an early and lonely opponent of the Vietnam war, putting up a dogged effort to abolish the draft, and reading 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.

Alas for the Alaskan, today’s grizzly is tomorrow’s rug, and Gravel never managed to attract even a smidgeon of the support that his opposite number Ron Paul scored on the GOP side. Indeed most libertarian Democrats with a mood to mix it up crossed over to support Paul, despite his anti-abortion views, and the noxious racist bilge that went out under his name in the “Ron Paul newsletters” for years. Why did Gravel never become the spoiler candidate for those who felt that Obama, Clinton and Edwards were simply the three stooges after a couple of affirmative action hirings?

In part it was because of Gravel’s complexity. His position on complex issues like wilderness development and the like was that multiple goods had to be balanced and the end would always be a messy compromise – he pretty much shot himself in the foot Senate-wise by arguing that it was ridiculous for the US not to sign the UN Law of the Sea treaty (which it still hasn’t). That would have cut Alaska out of some fishing rights it’s unilaterally claimed. His Inuit constituents, constituiniuits as they’re known, saw that as a snow job, although they didn’t call it that.

Paul meanwhile, on issues like that could just stick to a libertarian mantra. Law of the sea? Free-for-all! Let ships sink each other, etc, etc. Paul’s positions had the virtues of great simplicity, and an exciting sense of unreality which people could support, safe in the knowledge they would never come to anything. Plus Paul could be a little funky for an old dude. One of the most bizarre moments of recent pop cultural history was him shaking hands with Johnny Rotten when the Sex Pistols appeared on Leno a few months back – while Gravel quickly gained a rep as a grouchy uncle/neighbour/etc figure.

Gravel (hilariously enough it’s pronounced “Grav-elle”) said he made the run to publicise his pet cause of direct democracy, but he gave the sense that he was running to remind others that he still existed and, through them, himself.

So it was kinda inevitable that he’d go to the Libertarian Party (from whence Paul had come) the place from where Reason (the magazine) issues, and where reason itself goes to die. The Libertarians were founded in ’72, and they’ve been building ever since. Though nothing like a real third party, they’ve got seats on city councils, mayoraltys etc etc, and the dual membership of a few Republican congresspeople. Some of them even have an “ark” project going – an attempt to move 10,000 or so libertarians to one state (they chose New Hampshire because of its libertarian-ish laws, i.e. no state income taxes, small population, and its pivotal political role) to hit above their weight politically.

Because libertarian encompasses everything from a species of anarchism, to a sort of fascism with free-market economics, its politics are always more interesting than most of the rest of the spectrum put together. The party tends to become a focus for anyone who wants a vehicle that will boost them out of the stratosphere – thus Paul’s 1988 candidacy was only secured after a bitter fight against native American activist Russell Means, whose political polestar was probably Guevara. Domestic, or neo-libertarians, less concerned about what the US does abroad than lowering taxes etc, have split with paleo-libertarians who have hitherto thrown their support behind ultra-conservative Pat Buchanan because of his anti-war stance.

The fact that politics get more interesting the further you get from actual power is not confined to the US, but it does seem to indicate the dilemma of a system like the primaries in a period when the major parties do not have within them, different forces offering substantially different programmes. That energy has to go somewhere, and it either goes into the furious personality war between Obama and Hillary – or it goes to the fringes, where a fantasy America persists, one of homestead, frontiers and small government. Any resemblance between that and the hi-tech military behemoth called the USA is purely coincidental.

As in the famous Kramer-Newman game of Risk from Seinfeld, what we are watching here are “two people who can’t manage their own lives trying to rule the world”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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