Vital Signs

Ross Perot and Middle American Radicalism

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...

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