The political world is rife with portents of the imminent appearance of a third party. Alienation from the two parties is peaking. Polarization has created an issues vacuum in the center. New Web-based organizational tools have made creating a party a simpler DIY project. In fact, for a third party to spring into action, just one sign is missing: a heartbeat.
The last vestiges of the Reform Party were stamped out in 2000. Ralph Nader rode the national Green Party into the ground. Jesse Ventura has exited the political stage. All the high-profile characters who flirted publicly with a third-party run in the past decade decided against it. Colin Powell, the great hope of 1996, passed up his chance. The maverick pols who dubbed themselves the Gang of Seven, including Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, and Lowell Weicker, never moved beyond discussing a third party via speakerphone. Howard Dean decided to take over the Democratic Party rather than start his own. The final patch of dirt seemed to have been thrown on the coffin this year when John McCain, the great hope for third-party dreamers, started sucking up to Jerry Falwell.
The constellation of third-party fantasists seems depressed. I called John Anderson, the man who won 6.6 percent as an independent in 1980. Now 84, he thinks the moment is right but doesn’t detect much action. “There is no clear clarion voice that I can point you to,” he told me. “I think we’re pretty much inured in the throes of the iron grip of the two-party system at the moment.” He wondered what became of the last third-party insurgent. “I don’t know what happened to Ross Perot,” he asked quizzically. “He just completely went underground. He’s still alive, but you don’t hear anything from him.”
Clay Mulford, Perot’s son-in-law, longtime adviser, and 1992 campaign manager, confirmed for me that Perot is indeed still alive. But Mulford sounded similarly discouraged. “What we have lost in America,” he says, “is the ability for things to bubble up from the body politic and give voice to things that aren’t being voiced by the major parties.”
The closest thing I could find to an effort to launch a new third force was a semi-regular meeting in Washington of a few burned-out consultants from the Ford and Carter campaigns. They are led by ex–Ford adviser Doug Bailey and are trying to think through the mechanics of how a new party could be launched. Bailey declined to discuss the venture with me, but one person familiar with it says it is tentatively called the Unity Party. “It’s a group of old Republican and Democratic consultants, none of whom are in the business anymore, people who are locked out or chose to opt out,” says the source. “To be honest, it’s like a bunch of old guys sitting around drinking beer.”
But the old guys drinking beer are onto something. They understand why third parties emerge. In the nineteenth century, third parties were single-issue creatures that grew up around great causes that the major parties were ignoring. Abolition, women’s suffrage, and the direct election of senators all started as third-party movements. The twentieth century was different. It has almost always taken a splashy candidate to light the fire of a third-party movement in the past hundred years—from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 to George Wallace in 1968 to Ross Perot in 1992. But even as third parties have changed from bottom-up to top-down endeavors—tracking the same candidate-centric trend as the major parties—they have thrived most often when the two parties allowed hot issues to be exploited. Political scientists call this “major-party failure,” moments in history when the Democrats and Republicans “neglect the concerns of significant blocs of voters, mismanage the economy, or nominate unqualified candidates,” according to the single best study on the subject, Third Parties in America.
Is there any doubt we are in the midst of major-party failure today? Whether it’s the once-again-relevant centrist issues championed by Perot (the exploding deficits, political reform), the great issues on the left waiting for a champion (universal health care, global warming), or the always festering anxieties of the nationalist right (immigration, isolationism), there is no shortage of ideas for a third-party candidate to seize.
But as important as issues have always been to starting a third party, there is another essential ingredient: political alienation. Americans today are as alienated from the major parties as they have ever been. Independents and third-party registrants are the fastest-growing bloc of voters. They made up 22 percent of the electorate in 2004—a new high. It seems obvious that Perot’s 1992 campaign—stoked by frustration with congressional scandals and a recession—coincided with a low point in political alienation. It didn’t. Political allegiance to the two parties, disaffection with Bush and Clinton, and anxiety over the economy were actually no worse in 1992 than they were in 1980 when John Anderson ran. But Perot won 19 percent of the vote, while Anderson won just 6.6 percent. What this comparison, laid out in detail by the authors of Third Parties in America, suggests is that, rather than a pendulum that swings back and forth, political alienation has become a permanent fixture of our politics. Third-party voters, at least the kind that Anderson and Perot stirred, exist as a lode ready to be mined.