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Outsider Politics

November 1, 2000

The Green Party's Ralph Nader and the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan are part of a long tradition of candidates who have found that they could not effectively run for President within the confines of the American two-party system. As recently as 1992, Ross Perot presented a serious challege to Republican George Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, garnering 19 percent of the popular vote. This year, in the tightest presidential race in a generation, Ralph Nader's single-digit support poses a serious threat to the Democratic candidate, Al Gore. (Meanwhile, Buchanan's poll numbers have dwindled nearly to the vanishing point, following the Reform Party's split into warring factions.) Political analysts will no doubt ponder the significance of Nader's 2000 campaign for years to come. Meanwhile, 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.


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