Patrick Buchanan’s Reform Party Begins to Unravel

As the reform party unravels in the wake of a disastrous run for office, right-wing extremists scramble to pick up the pieces

When Patrick Buchanan, a conservative commentator and former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, bolted from the GOP to become the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000, white nationalists enthusiastically backed him.

For once, they felt, there was a candidate of national stature who represented their interests, a tough-talking contender they could rally around.

Right-wing extremist organizations promoted his candidacy on their Web sites and in their publications. Their members sponsored fundraisers for Buchanan and collected petitions to help get him on the ballot in all 50 states. They endorsed him both in their own groups and at state Reform Party meetings.

The support he received from far-right activists was particularly important to Buchanan as he battled a rival, relatively moderate Reform Party faction for $12.6 million in federal campaign financing that went to the party's nominee.

But Buchanan's take-no-prisoners stance on "culture war" issues — in particular, his bombastic opposition to non-white immigration, affirmative action, abortion, gun control, homosexuality and anything that smacked of "internationalism" — proved divisive.

Disillusioned members left in droves, resulting in a leaner and much meaner Reform Party. Political schisms and personality conflicts continued to undermine the party, and the Buchanan campaign never really got off the ground.

In the wake of a lackluster electoral effort that garnered less than half of 1% of the vote, Buchanan reneged on his promise to stay with the party for at least five years and help build it into a national force.

H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire and two-time independent presidential candidate who founded the Reform Party after the 1996 elections, had already quit the scene. So had Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, at one time the Reform Party's rising star. Elected on the Reform Party ticket in 1998, Ventura left after feuding with Perot loyalists.

Buchanan may have delivered the coup de grace when he bid good riddance to the Reform Party. Bereft of strong leadership and a coherent political vision, the party has splintered into several far-right factions.

Some antigovernment radicals have chosen to stay with the rump, or remaining, Reform Party. They include one man who has spoken at neofascist gatherings in Virginia and another, who serves on the rump party's 11-member national executive committee, who is a felon and a pastor of the anti-Semitic Christian Identity religion in West Virginia.

Others have joined competing extremist groups such as the breakaway America First Party and the theocratic Constitution Party. A number of far-right activists have reluctantly returned to the Republican fold.

And some Reform Party holdovers are still trying to figure out what to do as a gaggle of white supremacists, Christian "Patriots" and other fringe fanatics fight over the scraps of a faltering third-party apparatus that had once shown remarkable promise.

Nativist stirrings
Public opinion surveys have long indicated a high level of dissatisfaction with the two-party system that has dominated American political life for more than a century. Between half and two-thirds of the U.S. electorate say they would welcome a major third party competing with Republicans and Democrats.

This hunger for new choices animated Perot's quixotic presidential bid in 1992. The checkbook populist from Texas won nearly 20 million votes (19% of the total) as an independent that year by appealing to the so-called "radical middle," the large group of disaffected Americans who are anxious about rapid economic and cultural changes in the post-Cold-War era and who are angry at the U.S. government for ignoring their concerns.

In 1993, Perot launched United We Stand America (UWSA), which subsequently evolved into the Reform party. The ostensible purpose of UWSA was to watchdog the two main parties and hold them accountable on trade and economic issues.

Right from the start, however, Perot's fledgling organization was tainted by racist and nativist elements that would gain significant influence within the Reform Party in the years ahead.

Two UWSA chapters in Southern California, for instance, hosted speeches by Jim Townsend, editor and publisher of the Liberty Lobby's Spotlight, one of the most stridently anti-Semitic newspapers in the country until its demise in July 2001.

In his 2002 book on recent third-party initiatives, Spoiling for a Fight, Micah Sifry cited other evidence of growing right-wing populist tendencies within the early Perot movement.

A UWSA chapter in West Hills, Calif., featured anti-immigrant tirades in its monthly newsletter, which warned that America's purity was being polluted by pro-Soviet "cosmopolitans," a word that is typically right-wing code for Jews.

UWSA chapters throughout California were instrumental in gathering petition signatures to put Proposition 187, which called for denying schooling and most medical services to undocumented immigrants, on the state ballot in 1994.

The petition drive was backed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), along with several organized hate groups. (Proposition 187 passed by a large margin, but key provisions were later declared unconstitutional.)

K.C. McAlpin, FAIR's deputy director and a UWSA convention delegate in the mid-1990s, was active in the Perot campaign and went on to become treasurer of the Reform Party of Virginia.

"I felt that neither of the two major parties were representative of a lot of things I believed in," said McAlpin, who is particularly concerned about "the language issue.".

English is under assault in the United States, according to McAlpin, and America's way of life is in jeopardy because of a huge influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Today he heads ProEnglish, a sister organization of FAIR, which is dedicated to "preserving English as our common language and trying to make it our official language."