It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon on the Capitol steps, and 20 political activists with the Free and Equal Foundation are holding a rally, standing behind a sign, and speaking into a bullhorn at — well, they’re talking to me, basically, and more importantly to one TV news cameraman, along with one onlooker who hangs around for the first half of the event and some cyclers who peddle past without stopping.
They’re starting small, in other words. But they have big goals: to reform elections, break the two-party monopoly, and make it easier for independent-minded candidates to get on the ballot.
The special occasion is that Christina Tobin, 31, the national founder and chair of the Free and Equal Foundation, is in town to announce that the Verizon Arena in North Little Rock will host the United We Stand Festival June 22.
The foundation is trying to create a movement to support independent-minded candidates, and the festival is one of its big events for the year. Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler and governor of Minnesota who was elected as an independent, will speak. Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and presidential candidate, will appear by television.
Tobin, who organized a presidential debate for four third party candidates in 2012 that was hosted by Larry King, selected Little Rock as the festival site after visiting the city in November for an End the Fed rally. She was impressed with the nucleus of people she met.
The organizer of the foundation’s Arkansas branch is Mark Bryant, a former medical practice manager turned full-time political activist. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat until he decided that his party wasn’t much different from the Republicans. He said one night he got on YouTube, started researching, and "went down the proverbial rabbit hole, and I never came back up."
The rest are a collection of activists – Libertarian and Green Party members, independents, etc. Lawyer and investment banker Dugan King has created a plan for an alternate currency in Arkansas called the ArBuck. David Chiodo organized the End the Fed rally that brought Tobin to Arkansas.
They don’t agree on everything, and in some ways they are far apart, but they are united by their desire for electoral reform and easier ballot access for independent-minded candidates. They say the two-party system has been corrupted by money and corporate influence and become unresponsive to the people’s needs.
OK, there were only 20 people participating in the rally, with about 100 who have volunteered their services statewide. But is there anyone not being enriched by the current system who could dispute that last point?
Here are two specific examples of what they oppose. The Commission on Presidential Debates is made up only of Democrats and Republicans, so guess which parties were awarded that free 90 minutes of air time across all major networks four times last year? Closer to home, under Arkansas law, a party that doesn’t get three percent of the vote in the presidential or gubernatorial race must collect 10,000 valid signatures of registered voters just to appear on the ballot in the next statewide election. That’s a lot of work for a small group of people who aren’t supported by big-money interests.
The idea that partisanship has corrupted the system has roots from the earliest days of the republic, when George Washington in his Farewell Address practically begged his fellow Founding Fathers to reject parties and instead serve only the general public. The spirit of party, he said, "serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions."
Of course, those Founding Fathers promptly formed parties. So now a small group of activists is trying to reverse what George Washington couldn’t stop. They believe the timing is right, that Americans are tiring of partisanship, and that young people are ready to flex their muscles by using social media tools that Washington never had.
Changing the world through Facebook, a festival and an idea? Lots of movements like this have fizzled, and Free and Equal is going to need a lot more people. On the other hand, this is America.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.