IN MOMENTS of blue- smoke speculation, I can even imagine a misty scenario in which John B. Anderson is elected president this fall. I will not bore you with the details because the smoke usually blows away when I see Anderson on television.
He is, one would say, too hot for the cool medium.Too tight, too dull, as exciting as Saturday night in Rockford, Ill. Anderson's face is easily caricatured a a silver-haired Howdy Doody, and his speaking manner reminds me of the "Prince of Peace" oratorical contests of my youth, when high school debaters delivered velvet speeches on the significance of Jesus Chris
John Anderson would be a nautral winner in the "Prince of Peace" contest, but somehow I am not sure his starch-collar personality will travel well in this modern land of electronic liberation and naked bathing in hot tubs. Still, I think Anderson's independent candidacy is the most exciting development of 1980, an act of creative disobedience by a politician of the regular middle.
A friend of mine, who has an antic appreciation for democracy's possibilities, suggests this: John Anderson is the General Fremont of our video age, paving the way for an unknown Abraham Lincoln in the future.
Lest you have forgotten, Gen. John C. Fremont, the Pathfinder, was the first presidential candidate of the Republican Party. Fremont lost the election of 1856 but his campaign made Lincoln possible. In a quite different way, Anderson's independent campaign will not create a new party, voters collected by shared ideas, but he may shatter the remnant presumptions of two-party politics.
If John Anderson runs strong, without a party behind him, without the blessing of either primary elections or party bosses, he will prove that presidential politics is genuinely open to rank outsiders -- movie stars, business leaders, generals and prophets, preachers and even unsung politicians. b
In Washington, D.C., the capital of status quo, this possibility is regarded lightly or scornfully. Anything which threatens the hoary, hallowed tradition of the two-party system is taken to be a "bad thing." But, if John Anderson does well in 1980, you will see the Democratic and Republican legislatiors scurrying to enact new laws -- under the fake banner of electoral reform -- to make sure it doesn't happen again. The last thing the two major parties want is a video Lincoln in our future, a leader coming out of nowhere and winning the hearts of his countrymen -- or her countrymen -- with a modern living room campaign.
The nation is ready for this, even if the politicians aren't. Nothin in our Constitution say there shall be two great parities, Republican and Democrat, who will funnel and select the presidential nominees and stack the odds against anyone else who lacks the party label. To borrow another television expression, both political parties are now in afternoon reruns. Familiar and mildly entertaining, the two parties still draw many loyal viewers, but if the Great Programmer were to cancel on of their shows, only a segment of the mass audience would be deeply distressed.
The two major parties are not going to disappear. Their own members have made certain of that by creating a system of preferential government subsidies -- the so-called reform of public campaign financing -- which insure that a bundle of tax dollars will go to both parites, no matter how feeble, while it is simultaneously quite difficult for new political forces, an independent candidate or a third party, to claim their fair share. By its nature, government regulation of the marketplace tends to protect the status quo and government regulation of the political marketplace has the same effect.
How could America run itself without the two parties? We are in the process of inventing the answer. I don't claim that democracy will necessarily work better without the two dominant parties, but those who bemoan their decline tend to forget the generations of hacks selected for high office as rewards for obsequious loyalty or the webs of special interest influence which still cling to the soiled party robes. The enduring American genius is adaptability -- grafting old principles onto new inventions and making the future work.
In any case, the two parties continue to lose their meaning for average citizens. When Dr. Gallup asks voters how they identify themselves, the results look like this: (TABLE) (COLUMN)1960(COLUMN)1970(COLUMN)1980 Republican(COLUMN)30%(COLUMN)29%(COLUMN)21% Democratic(COLUMN)47%(COLUMN)45%(COLUMN)47% Independent(COLUMN)23%(COLUMN)26%(COLUMN)32%(END TABLE)
Independents have replaced Republicans as the competition that tries harder, but even those number understate the trend.
If you ask whether voters strongly identify themselves as Republicans or Democratic, the ranks of true believers are much smaller still. Most Americans, regardless of class and family background and region, are prepared to vote for either party -- or for neither -- without feeling any loss of identity.
Without feeling guilty.
Guilt has always been a vital element in the strength of two-party politics, though politicians and their fellow travelers, the political scientists, rarely acknowledge it. Faith of our fathers, glorious faith. Do not offend thy father and mother. In the past, political affiliations contained a spiritual content which is nearly gone -- a social labeling, a sense of family loyalty, a protective binding against alien forces. To vote against that faith, the party of your father or your class or your religion or your ethnic background, was to risk stern judgment. Every hack politician appeals to that guilt in the closing days of his campaign, imploring us not to vote against our ancestors. come home to the Democratic Party. come home to the Republican ticket.
The politician's sermons used to be supported by other potent forces -- the union label, the country club, the parish priest, the Grange meeting, the Ku Klux Klan rally, the political talk at every family dinner table. All of these reinforced the bindings of party loyalty, and all of these social influences have lost strength in the last generation. This is why the periodic prescription for "party reform," changing the party rules to be more fair or more open, will not really cure the ailment and make the two parties strong again.
Because it is not an ailment at all -- it is an extraordinary liberation of individual citizens, which all small-d democrats ought to celebrate. Most Americans, though not all, now feel sufficiedntly free of the social and economic boxes of the past to make political choices their fathers or grandfathers would never have dared to entertain.
The grandson of an Italian immigrant does not feel guilty about voting Republican. The well educated professional who calls himself a Democrat is not denounced as a traitor to his class. Jews can swallow their skeptician and vote for a Southern Baptist. Southern Baptists no longer flog the papal connections of Roman Catholic candidates.
The regional hostilities which once required party loyalty have also dissipated. In the South, one used to hear a voter proudly proclaim himself to be a "yaller dog Democrat," which meant he would vote for a "yaller dog" if it were running on the Democratic ticket. No more. These days, a southerner is more likely to boast that he "votes the man," regardless of party label.
Of all the major voter groups, only black Americans remain in their same predictable box -- the Democratic column -- which is another indication or how little their social and economic identity has been changed by the last generation or prosperity. Perhaps when blacks begin to vote Republican in significant numbers, we may declare victory for civil rights movement, for it will mean they are truly as free as other Americans in this respect.
Meanwhile, many other people do still use party labels to express their own identity -- often a new identity different for their parents' -- but these are usually shallow gestures, not connected to personal survival. We make fun of the stereotype. The bleeding-heart liberal who contributes his Daddy's fortune to Democratic campaign coffers in order to identify with the common folk. Or the hard-driving arriviste, who grew up poor and made it big and wants nothing more in life than to prove that he is a genuine country-club Republican.
Which brings us back to John B. Anderson. If he is successfully packaged for television, Anderson will offer a different sort of identity to voters. Independent. It sounds bland at first, but it's a fashionable label to wear. Open-minded. Thinks for himself. Not afraid to change his mind or offend established interests. Free of stale prejudices. Is America ready for that? I would guess that the majority of Americans already see themselves in those terms, which does not, of course, guarantee that they will see themselves in Anderson.
Independence -- is that all there is to Anderson? Barry Commoner, the environmentalist who has been nominated by the infant Citizens Party, calls Anderson the "false alternative" because the content of Anderson's program is so centrist, so little different from President Carter's. His ideas are neither original nor radical, nor do they cluster around a new sense of the nation, the way Fremont's and Lincoln's did.
It's true, of course. This is a handicap if voters are going to choose a candidate on the basis of hard issues or ideology. But it may be an asset if voters are choosing on questions or character or if they wish merely to express a social identity, a feeling about themselves. Anderson is different from other third candidates -- George Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, Henry Wallace, Strom Thurmond -- because he's so much in the mainstream.
Independence? It is a virtuous claim to make for oneself. Anderson, when you sift through all of his positions, turns out to be one of those virtuous losers -- a moderate Republican -- the type everyone admires as disinterested, serious, prudent, mildly reformist. This is not a type, alas, the people often choose to run the country.
But Anderson does not have to win the election to become an important asterisk in the history books. He only has to demonstrate that an ambitious leader, equipped with the modern political tools of directmail fund raising and an entertaining presence on TV, can go right around the two major parties and make a serious run at the White House. In a tight three-way race, after all, the winner can finish with less than 40 percent of the vote. Anderson now has about 20 percent in the latest polls, so the true test will be whether he builds on that support in the next six months, or like past third candidates, declines.
If Anderson flourishes as an independent candidates of the middle, it opens new vistas for 1984 and beyond. Others will correct his mistakes. Or elaborate on his inventions. Or ignore the party primaries altogether and create their own "public events" to become well known. Anyone can run who has the wit and flavor, a good mailing list and a good studio producer.
An independent president? The idea scares political Washington, but when you think about it, that is approximately what Jimmy Carter promised the voters in 1976 and what they most liked about him. Something different.