For a few moments during last year’s presidential election, it appeared that the American two-party system was headed for a meltdown. As the ineffectual Bush campaign drew to its merciful close, the resurgence of support for Ross Perot defied every principle of professional political punditry. In 1992, disaffected Middle Americans were key to the 19 percent of the popular vote garnered by the maverick independent candidate.
Whether or not the self-styled “billionaire populist” consciously sought the role, he has inherited the mantle of leadership for disaffected Middle Americans. They had first appeared as a powerful force on the nation’s political landscape with the 1968 presidential candidacy of George Wallace, who managed, without any formal organizational structure, to attain 13.5 percent of the total national vote.
In 1992, Middle Americans reappeared on the center stage of American politics. Their role both in 1994 and 1996 may prove to be a critical one. As an autonomous force whose allegiance to both major political parties is weak or nonexistent, their destiny may be to act as the catalyst for the major restructuring or even the abolition of our present party system.
Two decades ago Wallace supporters were described as being irrational working-class authoritarians whose rejection of the Establishment candidates (in that instance George McGovern and Richard Nixon) was greeted with derision by virtually all of the mainstream political analysts. When Michigan’s primary saw Wallace triumph over the opposition of UAW leaders and liberal Democrats, the development was viewed as a political anomaly, when it was in fact the beginning of a major political realignment across the nation.
In the wake of these events of 20 years ago, I coined the term “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. The peculiar volatility of MARs, their adherence to elements of leftist and rightist ideology, led Establishment politicians to define their politics as a passing expression of protest or “irrational” frustration and fear. As a dangerous “other,” they have been regarded as an alien presence within the normal body politic.
Yet my research has developed a description of MAR ideology that suggests a quite rational belief system: MARs view the very rich and the very poor as simultaneously responsible for their problems. On some issues, they are likely to take a liberal stand, and on others a conservative one. Their behavior may therefore appear irrational to anyone assuming that only the liberal-conservative distinction is rational.
A MAR, then, is essentially anyone who views his own well-being as threatened by a combination of economic elites on the one hand and governmental favoritism directed toward ethnic minorities on the other. While the Democratic Party is the embodiment of the latter syndrome. Republicans are seen as reflecting the former commitment. Given this “double squeeze,” MARs become a highly volatile political group, which, when aroused, may provide a critical swing-vote in national elections.
There is strong and consistent evidence that, in the past two decades, and especially since 1987, a growing proportion of the American electorate holds exactly the beliefs enumerated above. The Times-Mirror election surveys, which employ a typology of voters that most closely resembles MARs, reflect the growth in this constituency: from 7 percent in the fall of 1987 to 15 percent on the eve of the November 1992 election. This segment of the public, which the T-M organization describes as “economically pressured,” indicates they feel unrepresented and do not trust political officials. Nearly half of this group expressed a preference for Ross Perot when he first entered the presidential race in May of last year. Five months later, when the Texan had withdrawn from active campaigning, 15 percent remained supporters. This figure climbed to just under one in three when Perot reentered the political fray.
Ross Perot blasted a path through the demographic center of American society. His candidacy was nothing short of a political revolution. Among the largest and fastest-growing segments of the electorate—young independent-minded voters—Perot’s support often equaled or exceeded that of the sitting President. What has become clear from exit-poll information and pre-election surveys was that Ross Perot, not Bill Clinton, held center-stage for most of the electorate. Perot may have lost enormous support with the Samurai-like stroke of removing himself from active campaigning, but his reentry focused the attention of millions of citizens on the campaign and eventually prodded them to cast their votes.
Following Perot’s prodigal return four weeks prior to the November election, and up until the last day of polling, there was a tendency to underestimate his strength with the electorate. Yet, a perusal of the campaign numbers from today’s vantage point shows that what occurred last fall was nothing short of a political disaster for both major political parties. The 42nd President of the United States gained his office by obtaining the support of barely one-fourth of the potential electorate of the nation!
Perhaps most significant was the impact of the Perot candidacy on the nonvoter. While overall voting rose only a modest 4 percent, the evidence gleaned from state-by-state comparisons shows that of those 25 states where voting was significantly above the national average (59 percent or higher), in 22 instances the Perot vote was also markedly above his overall percentage. In those states with average or below-average voting levels, the Perot total was also average or lower. In the state of Maine, which showed the sharpest rise in voting compared to 1988 (an 11 percent increase), Perot had his highest level of support: 30 percent. In the highly populous states of California, New York, and Texas, voting was not much higher than in 1988. Perot’s figures in these states (21, 16, and 22 percent, respectively) prevented what might have indeed been a dismal turnout.
Media attacks on both the entrance and exit of Perot from the presidential race were highly consistent, stressing his lack of sophistication, failure to “play by the rules,” and general unpredictability. Initially, Bush and Clinton forces offered resounding criticism of the antidemocratic aspects of the billionaire’s campaign as well as of his allegedly misguided followers. Yet with Perot’s departure, they had nothing but praise for his volunteers, as the very vanguard of their own more timid and conventional efforts to mobilize citizens.
As an “undeclared” candidate, Ross Perot’s standing in national polls peaked in early June at 36 percent, compared to Bush’s 31 and Clinton’s 27 percent. More importantly, Perot’s support was garnered from precisely the two groups that had formed the core of the nonvoters of the past two decades. Of the “disaffected”—as they are referred to by Times-Mirror and who are comparable to our definition of MARs—49 percent reported they were supporters of Ross Perot, as well as 39 percent of “bystanders” (persons who have a history of sitting out elections). Not only was this a higher level than that found among the other sample groupings, but when queried on a two-way race of Bush and Clinton, 26 percent of the “disaffected” and 19 percent of the “bystanders” reported having no choice for President—far more than among the other types of persons defined by Times-Mirror.
When the Perot campaign peaked in late spring of last year, it seemed indeed to have moved nonvoters out of a quiescent state of disaffection. While protest voters have on occasion punctuated presidential races (evidenced by their lukewarm support for Jimmy Carter and certainly for George Bush), they then appeared on the verge of being formed into a massive social movement involving new levels of direct media impact and organizational sophistication.
Perot, having learned well the lessons of David Duke and Pat Buchanan (even employing the pollster of that candidate during the first phase of his breakthrough run), seemed poised by June to decimate the arrayed armies of the two major parties. Yet, somewhat akin to the merciful action displayed by the Germans at Dunkirk, he allowed the retreating forces to escape to fight him once again.
This pullout led to an endless parade of “I told you so” editorials and opinion columns in the nation’s mainstream press. That former Perot supporters were seen as less than rational, less than knowledgeable, or even less than motivated to act politically now appears the most obvious type of distorted reality. Yet, with few exceptions the conventional media, along with academic political scientists, offered a most cautionary tale: beware the outsider.
Late last June the New York Times editorialized that Ross Perot, “the candidate of no political party . . . might conceivably have defeated an incumbent President in the Republican primary and be the front runner in the Democratic primary.” Describing such a future possibility as “scarey,” the newspaper went on to ask why it is that Americans “so hate politics.” Ascribing it partly to the recession, the savings and loan scandal, and the Los Angeles riots, it concluded that Perot was the personification of the popular “None of the Above” mentality and would not sustain a serious campaign for November.
Ironically, when Perot withdrew in mid-July he had already begun to lose support, his image as a Washington outsider having been eroded by the media. Whatever the reason that prompted the pull-out (and it may have been a calculated one, but was more likely due to personal considerations of the candidate himself) Perot’s carefully timed reentry was greeted by the mainstream media as a rather ineffectual step that was but another indication of the irrational politics he represented.
Back in 1972, “Nixon Democrats” turned to George Wallace before emerging as “Reagan Democrats.” Thus, a third-party movement in Middle America can hold both major parties at bay, but must be careful not to sacrifice its own existence to achieve meaningful political power. If the Democrats, under the leadership of the “baby-boomer twins,” can capture the heart of Middle America, they will have insured the destruction of the “hard right”/”soft right” or neo-versus-paleo split that dogs the conservative movement in America today. If there is any shred of ideological or value consistency left among conservatives, it must rest on winning the allegiance of Middle America. If the policies and ideals of Ronald Reagan or those thinkers identified with antistatist beliefs can claim a role in American polities, they must do so, not as mere intellectual or administrative interest groups, but as articulators of the best interests of the Middle American majority.
What can be asserted is that the volunteers who formed the cadre of Perot’s campaign were by far the most formidable army of Middle Americans yet to confront the political Establishment. Moreover, these millions have escaped the fate of seeing their movement destroyed or co-opted like earlier grassroots “people’s lobbies,” such as the National Union for Social Justice built in 1935 by Father Charles Coughlin to challenge FDR’s New Deal or George Wallace’s “States Rights Party” of 1968. Both efforts have been recorded in the history books as failures, yet each managed to mobilize several million citizens, regardless of religious or party identity.
Has Perot’s campaign helped radicalize Middle America? Perot’s mid-course withdrawal, while viewed by many (including large numbers of his volunteers) as a betrayal, proved highly instructive. Despite what he claimed not to be, Perot was the most media-dependent candidate of them all—one created and later buoyed by television appearances. His “return” in early October was to produce a greatly increased base of support among young potential voters, a fact validated by his subsequent voter-support pattern.
With nearly half of all voters under age 30 calling themselves “independents,” both major parties now appear to hold minority’ status. With the sharp decline in party identity, cross-pressure factors may be virtually absent from the lexicon of political scientists. Rather than realignment of party loyalty, we may now simply sec the majority defining itself as free from the strictures of any partisan commitment.
Ross Perot’s campaign has demonstrated in remarkable fashion that if he chose to, he could lead a Middle American “revolt.” No longer will any conservative be able to undertake a major national campaign without also articulating what some call the “populist” yearnings and agenda of Middle America: a more directly responsive national government. Thus what Perot has done by generating his remarkable, albeit short-lived, insurgency is to destroy effectively the dichotomy of liberal and conservative movements as the defining reality of American politics. He has created a unifying theme for a new political alignment: one centered on the populist yearnings of Middle America.
Ross Perot has demonstrated the power of Middle America. Perhaps the Texan himself did not comprehend the significance of his own campaign until he was well caught up in its potential. Like Pat Buchanan, he did not have the so-called “street smarts” to follow its dictates. Political campaigns are felt the strongest not necessarily by the voters, so much as by the candidates. Comprehension follows conversion, not the other way around. Perhaps Mr. Perot has yet to digest what he hath wrought.
Even if we or they didn’t really believe in it, the reality of Middle American anger became apparent to all in 1992. During the lengthy presidential campaign, “middle-class anger” and “populism” were catch-phrases used by all the parties and candidates. The problem with any kind of elite, including those claiming credentials to speak for the nonelite, is that it too often means a clubby peer group distant from the world it claims to know (or even to speak for).
As usual, the people lead us to the truth. Whether Mr. Perot knew during his campaign or now understands that he is the voice of MARs, history appears to have asked him to play this role for now. Are there other bidders?