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Where’s Perot When We Need Him?

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Michael Kazin's latest book, with Maurice Isserman, is "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s." He teaches history at Georgetown University

Let’s speak plainly, for the hour’s growing late: millions of Americans cringe at the prospect of either Al Gore or George W. Bush becoming their next president. On Nov. 7, most who cast their ballots will be voting against the other guy instead of for whichever cautious, centrist figure they will make the most powerful man in the world. This depressing fact ought to be a boon for third-party candidates. After all, alternative parties stand for principles, not compromise. Their activists exude the passion of the crusader, eager to work long hours with no reward other than convincing voters that their cause is just. Whatever one thinks of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, they and their supporters certainly don’t lack for fire and vision. Pollsters consistently report that a majority of voters welcome the presence of third parties and hope that they thrive.

So why is the combined popular vote for all third-party candidates for president this year likely to total less than 10%? Barring a miraculous shift in the race, neither the Greens behind Nader nor the Reformers behind Buchanan (not to speak of super-marginal parties like the Libertarians and Socialist Workers) will gain a single electoral vote, although Nader’s support in several states is large enough to give Bush a chance where he wouldn’t normally enjoy one. All the alternative ballots together will probably not equal the 8 million that Ross Perot won in 1996, all by his gabby self.

Third-party stalwarts blame their plight on the usual suspects: the major contenders who diligently conspire to keep them out of the ring. State laws endorsed by Democrats and Republicans force alternative tickets to jump through arcane and expensive legal hoops just to get listed on the ballot. Major-party candidates receive federal matching funds during their campaigns, but a third party that struggles to gain 5% of the vote doesn’t get its cash until the next election cycle. And the presidential debate commission, headed by two former chairmen of the major parties, barred everyone but Bush and Gore from their big events. In recent years, only Perot managed to surmount these barriers, and he was a billionaire who didn’t have to worry about paying for television ads and signature gatherers.

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But alternative-party activists neglect a key lesson of American political history. Some third parties were significant players in presidential elections long before there were any matching funds to be won or TV debates to get excluded from.

In 1892, James B. Weaver established the People’s Party as a major force in the South and West. His 22 electoral votes and close to 9% of the popular vote, mostly drawn from small farmers and miners, shocked political professionals and helped inspire populist-minded Democrats like William Jennings Bryan to take over and transform what had been the more conservative of the major parties.

In 1924, Progressive Robert LaFollette’s 16.6% of the popular vote signaled the strength of anti-corporate, pro-labor sentiments that neither old party was addressing. When the Great Depression hit, most LaFollette voters became New Deal Democrats.

In 1968, George Wallace carried five Southern states and almost 10 million ballots with a blunt appeal to working and lower middle-class whites angered by black and student protests and the rising rate of crime. The message of his American Independent Party helped teach Republicans how to attract what Richard M. Nixon called “middle Americans,” and the GOP dominated the White House for the next two decades.

Common to all three alternative candidacies was an ability to woo voters who, like that famous anchorman in the movie “Network,” felt like shouting “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Weaver and LaFollette were reformers on the left who fulminated against “monopolies” and “the money power.” Wallace, from the right, said he’d prefer being governed by a steel worker “with about a 10th-grade education” than by “genteel” officeholders who let the cities burn. But all were authentic voices of important constituencies who felt ignored or disrespected by the major parties.

This year, no third-party standard-bearer can seriously make that claim. Buchanan represents only a fringe of the far right, people who believe that immigration is a mortal threat to the nation and who equate Roe v. Wade with the Final Solution. Nader is popular on college campuses and among older leftists disgusted by the poll-driven moderation of President Bill Clinton and Gore. But the veteran crusader’s attacks on “corporate child molesters” haven’t yet translated into widespread moral outrage, as did similar ones in the heyday of the Populists and Progressives.

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To escape from the margins, a third party has to do more than capture headlines every four years. It has to galvanize a social movement or bring an existing one to its side. Populism was already a grass-roots force before Weaver was nominated for president. LaFollette won the backing of the American Federation of Labor and many of the middle-class reformers who had earlier battled the trusts and urban corruption. Wallace’s candidacy was fueled by a grass-roots right that took advantage of the “backlash” against liberalism.

Nader has won over some union activists who dislike the Democrats’ cheerleading for free trade. But the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney remains committed to a party that has a chance to govern in labor’s favor. And anti-globalization protests haven’t yet produced an organized youth movement large enough to alter the political landscape. As for Buchanan, a recent interview in which he mused that this may be his last campaign only underlined the futility of his efforts. The Reform Party has $12.5 million to spend but nothing to offer but fear itself.

Potent third parties will rise again in American politics, whenever the Democrats and Republicans are unable or unwilling to empathize convincingly with mass discontent. But until that occurs, many voters will be left to choose between almost equally unpalatable alternatives. They will continue to ponder why our national campaigns, which ought to be exciting and meaningful contests between serious people who care about ideas and helping people, instead dwindle into risible competitions between two men in dark suits and red ties who keep their fingers in the air and their brains on automatic pilot.

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