With New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing his resignation from the Republican party, political pundits believe they can see the writing on the wall: Bloomberg is gearing up to make a bid for the White House as an independent candidate. If Bloomberg decides to enter the '08 fray as an independent, he will be joining a long tradition of candidates—from Ralph Nader to Ross Perot and beyond—who have found that they could not effectively run for president within the confines of the American two-party system.
To add a bit of perspective, here's a look at what contributors to The Atlantic Monthly have had to say about three of the independent or third-party candidates of the past century.
In "La Follette and La Follettism" (October 1924), F. E. Haynes, writing in the year of Senator Robert La Follette's independent candidacy, described the political, social, economic, and historical circumstances that contributed to La Follette's rise. As a presidential candidate, Haynes explained, La Follette (a "pioneer" of the Progressive Movement), was fighting against big business and monopoly control of the government, which seemed to have flourished under the administrations of the two major parties. La Follette's candidacy, Haynes suggested, highlighted the ineffectiveness of the two-party system.
He is an individualist, a progressive, and a liberal democrat in a period in which the socialization of our politics is the great issue before the country. Undoubtedly, Senator La Follette's stand for a new alignment in American politics is the next step in any constructive approach to our problems. The need of readjustment has been recognized for many years by thoughtful observers. The inherent difficulty in our rigid two-party system of expressing intelligent and consistent judgments has been made hopeless by the divisions between the parties themselves. Somehow conservatives and progressives and radicals must be organized separately before there can be even an approximation to satisfactory results in our quadrennial electoral contests.
In 1948 Franklin Delano Roosevelt's former Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, formed an independent "New Party" and launched a campaign for President. Gardner Jackson, a political activist who had once worked under Wallace in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, gave a highly unfavorable critique of Wallace's New Party campaign. In "Henry Wallace: A Divided Mind" (August 1948), Jackson attacked what he called Wallace's Communist politics, his deceptive political strategies, and the messianic tone of his "Wallace-seeking-his-destiny" campaign. He described it as a quixotic quest for self-aggrandizement by a man who, according to Jackson, took on "the aspect of a crusading Galahad," falsely presented himself as a martyr for the people, and frequently revealed himself to be a hypocrite. It was only the distress of people in the face of Cold War-era fears, Jackson suggested, that allowed a candidate such as Wallace to garner as much support as he did.
Three decades later, in "John Anderson: The Nice Guy Syndrome" (February 1980), Walter Shapiro profiled the soon-to-be independent candidate, who, at the time of the article, was seeking the Republican nomination for President. Anderson, Shapiro explained, was trying to offer a liberal platform to a Republican Party that was becoming increasingly conservative. He took liberal positions on defense and energy, supported President Carter's bid to tax the oil industry, and supported the feminist movement and abortion rights. Because of his not-typical-Republican views, Anderson's battle for the Republican nomination was an uphill one. "Anderson," Shapiro wrote, "is as close as the politics of 1980 come to a sure thing: he will lose his race for the Republican nomination -- and he will probably lose badly." But Shapiro commended Anderson's persistence and suggested that his was a noble, if futile, quest.
Ultimately, what is most enigmatic about Anderson is why he is putting himself through this ordeal. There are some reasons -- his isolation within Congress, the urgings of his wife, the gamble that he can transmit to the voters those qualities that Washington finds so admirable. Perhaps the best explanation is also the simplest. John Anderson is running for President, and is willing to risk looking foolish in the process, because he is convinced, with some justice, that he can do a better job than anyone else in the race.
When Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination that spring, Anderson launched himself as an independent candidate rather than abandoning his mission. His campaign gave him a high-profile platform from which to promote his centrist political viewpoint. Though Reagan ultimately won the election by a landslide, Anderson received more than 6 percent of the popular vote.
In some respects, the story of John Anderson foreshadowed the scenario that would play out at the end of the century, when Republican hopeful Patrick Buchanan parted ways with his party. A 1996 Atlantic article, "Right Wing Populist," captured the moment when Buchanan's brand of populism began to clash with GOP interests. Author Steven Sark hinted at what was to come when he observed that the bulk of Buchanan's potential supporters were not Republicans but independents.
That's why some of his admirers, among them Howard Phillips, the conservative chairman of the U.S. Taxpayers Alliance, say that Buchanan can maximize his impact only by running as an independent candidate in the general election. They argue, somewhat persuasively, that "outsiders" rarely fare well in political parties, which are, after all, establishment institutions.
In the 2000 election, Buchanan opted to run on the Reform Party ticket, although his impact dwindled to almost nothing after the Reform Party split into warring factions. Instead, it was Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, who made headlines when Democrats accused him of siphoning votes from Al Gore and contributing to a Republican win.
In the run up to 2008, pundits now have their eyes on the Unity Party, the latest alternative to the two-party system. The founders of Unity08, former political strategists for Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, hope to lure candidates from both parties to run together on joint tickets. In his January 2007 article, "Surprise Party," Atlantic senior editor Joshua Green considered various scenarios in which the Unity Party might prove successful. Bloomberg's potential candidacy was high on the list:
If Michael Bloomberg really is considering a self-financed run as an independent he couldn’t possibly prevail in a four-way race against the Democratic, Republican, and Unity contenders—and he’s already been a Democrat and a Republican, so why not pursue the Unity nomination?
For now, it is unclear whether Bloomberg will run for president as an independent, a Unity Party candidate, or on any ticket at all. But from any perspective, his resignation from the Republican Party is a bold statement, a reminder that there will always be powerful leaders who cannot fit within the bounds of a two-party system.