David Duke announced this week that he may run for president next year. ''I've authorized and permitted a committee to be formed to explore the possibility of entering a number of [Republican] primaries,'' he said.
He doesn't expect to be nominated, of course, but he and some analysts believe he might have an impact. He says, ''That could make [President Bush] stop drifting to the left.''
Maybe, but I doubt it. The president may stop drifting to the left, but it won't be because of David Duke. To believe racial extremists can have such an effect is to ignore modern American history and the workings of the two-party system. Racial extremists of the Duke sort never do well in primaries, either for themselves or their causes.
In the 1960s, George Wallace was the best known national symbol of opposition to civil-rights laws and progress, like David Duke today. Unlike David Duke, George Wallace was a successful politician. He had legitimacy conferred on him by the voters of his state. He won high office.
In 1964, when he first decided to enter Democratic presidential primaries to protest his party's support of the Civil Rights Act and the leadership of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson on that issue, he was Governor Wallace of Alabama. He had won that office in 1962. He entered Democratic presidential primaries in three non-Southern states, Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland. His opponent in each case was a high-ranking state officeholder running as a stand-in for the president.
Governor Wallace did fairly well. He won no state's delegates, but he did better than expected, which is usually regarded as a success in politics. He got 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana and 43 percent in Maryland.
This, he and his supporters contended, demonstrated strong opposition within the party to the president's civil-rights agenda. Governor Wallace was winning by losing, some argued at the time, because his large minority support would modify the party's leftward movement.
In fact, the civil-rights bill passed undiluted (with the strong support of the delegations from those three states). That summer Democrats renominated Lyndon Johnson. They adopted a platform plank that said, ''The Civil Rights Act deserves and requires full observance by every American and fair, effective enforcement.''
Not only that, but the Republicans, though nominating Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act, endorsed it in its platform.
Both parties responded to majority, centrist elements within. The Wallace candidacy had none of the impact he envisioned.
Therefore, in 1968, he formed a third party, hoping that that route would produce the effect he was seeking. Here, too, the workings of the two-party system prevent extremism from infecting the political workings of the nation.
George Wallace became the leader and presidential candidate of the American Independent Party. Its platform denounced not only ''the 'so-called' Civil Rights Act,'' but called for returning to the states sovereignty on a host of matters, and promised a constitutional amendment making federal judgeships, including those of the Supreme Court, elective offices.
The platform and George Wallace's speeches dealt with a range of issues, but it was clear to all that he was running against civil-rights advances purely and simply, just as David Duke is today. Again both major parties endorsed civil-rights legislation and the enforcement of it. The Wallace candidacy fared poorly. He got 13.5 percent of the vote. He carried only five deep South states.
David Duke has also indicated he might run as a third-party candidate in 1992 if his assessment of a Republican primary contest is non-promising. Give that he's no George Wallace, it is unlikely that he would be able to do even that well.
Another race-based third-party movement occurred in 1948. Strom Thurmond walked out of the Democratic Party in protest to its civil-rights attitudes. Like George Wallace later (and unlike David Duke), Thurmond had political legitimacy. He had been elected governor of South Carolina in 1946. Also like George Wallace, he did poorly as a third-party (Dixiecrats) candidate, carrying only four Southern states and getting only 2.4 percent of the popular vote.
One more word about George Wallace. In 1972 and 1976, he ran again in the Democratic primaries. There was no incumbent Democratic president either time. In 1972 Governor Wallace won in five states, came in second or third in six. That was the year he was shot in a shopping center at Laurel. This generated enormous sympathy for him. Nevertheless, he was not considered a realistic candidate for the nomination, and the 1972 Democratic platform endorsed busing for desegregation of schools -- opposition to which was a major element in the Wallace campaign that year. In 1976 he fared poorly, losing to Jimmy Carter, his fellow Southerner and former ally, who ran on a pro-civil rights platform.