Let's get real about third parties and...

WAITING FOR PEROT,

October 01, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WAITING FOR PEROT, let's get real about third parties and independent presidential candidates in America.

They never amount to anything.

What, never? Well, hardly ever.

In the whole history of truly partisan voting, starting with the Whigs-Democrats clash in 1836 and on through the Republicans-Democrats contests since 1856, the only third parties to win a percentage of the popular vote in even the low double-digits were the Free Soilers in 1848, the Republicans in 1856 (they began as a third party), the Southern Democrats and the Constitutional Unionists in 1860, the Progressives in 1912 and 1924 and the American Independents in 1968.

And in only one of those cases did a third party have a lasting effect. That was in 1856, when the new Republicans came in second to the Democrats, effectively killing the Whig Party.

Some historians say third parties have a lasting effect even as they die or fade out. They are like bees, the saying goes. They sting and die, popularizing new ideas by injecting them like bee venom into later platforms of the major parties.

That's true, sort of, but the most interesting thing about third parties is how few of their new ideas are accepted. Some are -- progressive income tax, direct election of senators and going off the gold standard originated with third parties. But most aren't. Most are kooky.

For example, I recently re-read the 1968 American Independent Party platform (George Wallace, 1968, 13.5 percent of the vote). Like all platforms, much of it was just boiler-plate that all parties and candidates embrace.

But it had its defining, distinguishing planks. Here they are: no federal involvement with public schools; no federal oversight of apportionment, or of state voting laws and procedures, or of housing.

The AIP proposed changing the Constitution to make sure this happened -- and to be doubly safe, to require that federal judges be elected locally. It opposed any and all laws and regulations involving firearms. And it proposed forcible return from the cities of citizens "unfitted" for urban life to the areas "whence they came."

That venom didn't take. The history of party politics and government since 1968 is the complete repudiation of those ideas and the attitudes that produced them.

The most recent third party effort was that of John Anderson (7 percent of the vote in 1980). Technically he referred to himself as an "independent" candidate rather than the head of a party. Same difference. I have his platform here before me as I write. I have not read it all. It's 486 pages long, counting the index (!). I love my Readers, but there's only so far I'll go for you.

I have leafed through the book. It's main new idea was -- a 5a gallon gasoline tax! John didn't sting the major parties! He stung Ross Perot! Which is why they say in Texas that Ross is just another John Anderson, without an accent.

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