By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
In the American experiment with democracy we understand through the traditional civics lessons that our vote has the power to reward. It’s often a straightforward exchange: candidates for public office make promises, offer programs or propose bullet-point agendas on issues ranging from taxes to spending to security, and, in return, based on the resonance of those messages, citizens choose to reward certain candidates with a vote.
In times of prosperity and peace, the rewards for incumbents can be substantial—as was the case with Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Ronald Reagan in 1984, and Bill Clinton in 1996. For non-incumbents and for challengers, the benefits of a timely theme and strong message—even a simple one—can also be great, as was the case with Jimmy Carter in 1976 when his chief pledge was to merely be honest as President. Other times it’s enough for a candidate to communicate to Americans his desire to stay the course, as George Herbert Walker Bush did in 1988 after eight relatively prosperous, peaceful years of Reagan.
Conversely, a failure to deliver on promises—or the inability to mold mass opinion through the development of a trustworthy, resonate message—can result in punishment, in many ways the more powerful of the two tools of the electorate. And though we obsess and anguish over the current state-of-affairs as billions are spent on mostly negative ads—and though many see Washington as a broken or corruptible mechanism for lobbyists and mega-money—individual votes in sufficient numbers still have the power to retire politicians.
Jimmy Carter again serves as a useful example: thrust from office not for a failure of morality, but for four years of economic stagnation and foreign policy failure, conditions which many voters found intolerable. Even popular Presidents can face a harsh judgment: having once attained one of the highest approval ratings in American history after the success of the Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, George H. W. Bush was nevertheless turned out of office largely based on his inadequate handling of a changing economy and a broken promise on taxes. Bush’s missteps on these issues enabled Clinton to find his theme music, and opened the door to Ross Perot’s external challenge.
Politicians both Republican and Democratic seek to align their messages to extract the reward of votes, especially in a political environment where measurable improvements are hard to find. President Obama would prefer to define the narrative as one of endangered social progress—retention and expansion of hard-gained rights to medical care, birth control, marriage rights for same sex partnerships, flexibility for immigrants—as well as differences between the rich and the middle class and the poor, which is a not-so-subtle way to highlight Mitt Romney’s wealth and his inability to connect with voters. Candidate Romney wants to sidestep these issues, and make the economy the central issue instead—i.e., the failure of the President to bring about substantial improvement in the creation of new businesses and new jobs, and the administration’s inability to stave the flow of middle class constituents into the ranks of the poor.
Obama, in other words, seeks votes as a reward for liberal social change (an agenda late arriving in his first term, much to the consternation of many liberals), and seeks to mold opinion against Romney, the rich guy.
Romney, conversely, says it’s all about jobs, and he will quote Ronald Reagan: are you better off today than you were four years ago? For many Americans the answer comes back no. Labor Department figures released Friday show unemployment rose again, this time to 8.2 percent. July saw the creation of 163,000 new jobs, the best results in five months, but still so anemic as to have little overall effect when there are millions unemployed or underemployed. Romney wants voters to punish Obama at the ballot box, just as voters punished Jimmy Carter in November of 1980.
Between reward and punishment, the power to turn a politician out of office is the more potent.
But what options do we possess as an electorate—collectively, or as individuals—if we wish to punish both of the major political parties? Do frustrated voters have options when the candidacies and messages of the two megalithic parties fail to produce confidence?
One of the great conundrums for liberalism in the recent past was the third party candidacy of Ralph Nader, a movement which drove a bitter wedge between hard leftists and mainstream liberals. Vice-President Al Gore’s 2000 candidacy was the product—as many recent Democratic nominees have been—of centrist alignments and pragmatic compromise with the forces of moderation and demography. The Al Gore and Joe Lieberman partnership reflected little in the way of red meat for the left-of-center (despite the George W. Bush campaign’s protestations of radicalism). Gore, like predecessors Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis and others, reflected a long-standing policy by Democratic strategists to avoid risk and downplay the more radical Old Left/New Left priorities, the adaptation of which had brought crushing defeats to Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern and Walter Mondale, as well as the marginalization of potential Presidential candidacies by various popular Democrats (Ted Kennedy, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Tom Harkin, Mario Cuomo).
In short, top Democrats sought to bypass or ignore sharply left-of-center initiatives, counseling the members of these movements to show automatic loyalty to the Democratic Party and defer substantial progressive change for another day. Ralph Nader and his followers saw this as a patent fraud and a form of institutional disenfranchisement. Nader mounted an assault upon the two-party system—suggesting famously, but perhaps not in these exact words, that there was barely “a dime’s worth of difference” between the parties.
Nader’s millennium year candidacy has since been held in low esteem by mainstream liberals who use it as a common scapegoat for the 2000 election debacle, when Florida’s vote was infamously deadlocked. The argument is that Nader deprived Gore of thousands of Sunshine State votes (in fact Nader’s final tally in Florida was 97,488, according to the Federal Election Commission), since Nader votes were not likely to flow in large numbers to other candidates at the time (George W. Bush; Patrick Buchanan, Reform; Harry Browne, Libertarian).
The fallacy of such an argument was obvious then, just as it is now: no major party should require blind loyalty from—or silent partnership with—a significant constituent group. At that same time Buchanan and his Reform Party followers were making much the same case to a mostly Republican audience—don’t throw your vote away out of a mindless adherence to the GOP label.
Such movements arise most commonly from widespread frustration with the two major parties. Indeed, the two most successful third party challenges in contemporary times—George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992—were each the product of voter angst. The Libertarian Party, the most consistent and reliable of the modern third party movements, was created in 1971 as a rejection of the two-party template and has remained steadfast in that task ever since, running candidates not only for President (this year’s candidate is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, once a GOP Presidential contender) but also often in most Congressional Districts. Still, the Libertarians have had less overall impact than the occasional surges of temporal third party enthusiasm.
George Wallace, tapping into the veins of resentment and fear, challenged what he commonly chastised as the elites of both parties. His populist rhetoric in 1968—however much it was laced with overt racism—was aimed squarely at frustrated and angry base constituents of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Though he was denounced by mainstream politicians of both parties and the press as a dangerous demagogue, his true threat was not so much to the system itself as to the intense strategic tectonics of the two major candidates: Wallace would pull working class and labor votes away from Humphrey in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and he would deprive Nixon of his endgame of solidifying the conversion of the South and border states into the GOP column. On Election Day in 1968 Wallace would walk away with close to ten million votes, or 14% of the total votes cast, and he would take 45 Electoral votes, making him only the fourth candidate outside of the two major parties in the Twentieth Century to take votes in the electoral math.
But were Wallace voters punishing the two major candidates and their parties in 1968? Or were they channeling more general frustrations about Washington and its elite cadre of meddlers, intellectuals and policy wonks? In the end it may have been some of both, but the punishment factor resonated within the strategic high commands of both parties, though clearly the GOP was more effective at making course corrections in the decades that followed.
Other, smaller movements followed. Conservatives in the mid-70s, riled by what they viewed as the me-too behavior of moderate Republicans (which included President Gerald Ford and vice-President Nelson Rockefeller) threatened to bolt the GOP altogether in favor of the creation of a doctrinaire conservative party. But there was little consensus: even the top staff of the National Review were divided on the issue, with publisher William Rusher agitating for secession from the GOP and editor William F. Buckley proposing a take-over of the party’s organizational and philosophical mechanisms. A few years later Reagan would bring the Right together under one big tent in the new orthodoxy of Republican conservatism.
By that time maverick Congressman John Anderson, who was completing his own political conversion (and who once, briefly, shone brightly as the media pin-up-of-the-month in the 1980 GOP Presidential contest), bolted from the increasingly conservative party and ran as an independent, though in the end he was unable to channel sufficient voter energy to have a significant impact. Though his insurrection against the two major parties remains a footnote in the larger story of Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter that year, Anderson may have been the victim of bad timing, for 1980 was also a high-water mark for Libertarians: candidate Ed Clark pulled in significant fourth-place numbers in many of the same states where Anderson might have had a fighting chance at scoring double-digits.
A dozen years later businessman Ross Perot’s candidacy sprang to life as a direct result of the negative pressures of globalization, a lagging economy, and sense among some voters that the two major parties had become synonymous with gridlock and ineffectiveness. To the shock of the majors, Perot’s candidacy struck a nerve within the larger electorate, and the Reform Party was born. Though ostensibly drawing support from both Democrats and Republicans, his campaign’s message ultimately resonated more with traditionally GOP-inclined voters. This, coupled with Perot’s prickly personal dislike of George H.W. Bush, meant that his candidacy drew heavily from the Republican column, a fact that has led some political historians to suggest Perot inner motivations were to act as a spoiler. Still, Perot had tapped into an energetic vein of frustration which flowed through the electorate. Washington partisanship and ineffectiveness gave rise to a desire by many voters to punish both major parties, and for a brief and exhilarating moment it looked like a viable alternative to the majors had been created. Perot would take home over 19 million votes, more than the combined votes of all the significant third party challengers since 1948, including Strom Thurmond, Henry Wallace, George Wallace and John Anderson—though he failed to win any states or collect a single Electoral vote.
Then, eight years later, Ralph Nader sought to capture and channel the energy of mass frustration into a national presidential quest, in this case his mission to shine a light on corporate power and greed, the disproportionate influence of mega-lobbyists, and a green-friendly rearrangement of our domestic priorities. Nader’s candidacy drew heavily from the always-fractious left-of-center constituencies, taking bold advantage of the homogenized, non-combative message of Gore-Lieberman and the largely centrist drift of the Democratic Party. His argument was simple: both the major parties by that time had become too deeply beholden to big business and corporate interests to be able to operate free of undue influence. In Nader’s view Washington had gone beyond the point of corruption, and had in fact been co-opted and synthesized into the world of business.
Nader drew in many young, first-time voters, and, like other anti-elite candidacies such as George Wallace, mobilized thousands of people eligible to vote but generally disinclined to actually go to the polls. Nader ran a national campaign, but concentrated much of his efforts in those states where he was likely to have the greatest impact in the popular vote—New York, California, the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains. Still, the highly progressive nature of his candidacy meant that he attracted left-leaning followers in all fifty states, including those states which in 2000 had close outcomes—New Mexico, New Hampshire, and, most famously, Florida.
Some have argued (and I am one of them) that the contentious complaints about Nader’s millennium candidacy revealed not so much that he was a spoiler out to deprive Al Gore of a victory, but rather that Nader’s campaign illuminated an unhealed fracture which already existed between American liberals and American leftists. Radical and left-of-center groups were essentially being asked to fold themselves into the Democratic Party’s larger fabric, while leaving the controversial components of their agenda behind. Nader’s point remained unchallenged in any serious way, even by his harshest critics: was there in fact a significant difference between the two major parties? If there had been that measurable difference, votes for Nader in key states might have been votes for Gore instead.
And that brings us back to the topic of message (and the molding of opinion), perhaps the most telling of the toxic elements from the 2000 election. Had the Gore-Lieberman team been more forceful in defining itself, events may have been dramatically different. In Florida, at least 249,000 registered Democrats voted for Bush in 2000, far greater than Nader’s 97,488 total. And though the numbers would surely have been smaller, Nader also took some votes away from the GOP column in the Sunshine State. Were both parties punished for their sins? Or was one party punished more harshly for its milquetoast, ineffective message?
Though there are still many months to go, Republicans and Democrats are squaring off in what looks to be a close election. Candidate Romney—freshly returned from his brief trip to Europe—has already shown signs that his tire tread has worn thin, raising the specter predicted by some GOP curmudgeons and insurrectionists that the former Massachusetts governor has the potential to implode between now and November.
But assuming Romney regains a proactive mien, will voter frustration with a weak economy translate into votes against Obama? Lacking a potent Third Party option this year, will the increasingly negative tone of both campaigns drive some voters to stay home? Or will voters hold their noses and cast their votes anyway?
When the power to punish the major parties is not available, what tools do voters possess? Americans have four months to make their decision—whether to offer rewards to one or the other of the candidates. And despite all the money being spent, all those single votes still count mightily.
 The others were: Teddy Roosevelt, Progressive (Bull-Moose) in 1912; Robert M. LaFollette, Progressive, 1924; Strom Thurmond, States Rights, 1948. John Hospers, Libertarian candidate, would receive one electoral vote in 1972. Source: Federal Election Commission
 Source: Nomination and Election of the President and Vice President of the United States, 2008; U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington: 2010.