The radical middle: Perot, Schwarzenegger, the class of 1994, and looking ahead to 2006

I was drafting a rather lengthy comment in response to a comment left at my post on the 2004 election. But it makes sense to bring it to the front page, because while the comment by “B” is directed at a point I had made about the 1992 presidential election, the general point is relevant to current California politics as well as to next year’s congressional midterm election.

The thread that ties all these issues together is the unrepresentativeness of the two-party system and the electoral rules that maintain it. That is, absent proportional representation and multiparty politics, our policy-making process lacks a means to institutionalize reformist sentiment arising from the nonpartisan segment of the electorate. What happens instead is periodic explosions of “radical middle” or “populist” sentiment against the usual way of doing political business. Usually this happens in executive elections, but the 1994 midterm showed it can happen in legislative elections, too. It could happen in 2006. But every time it happens, the existing institutions normalize the situation, and the responsiveness to centrist reformist impulses whithers.

We have sporadic breakthroughs by third-party candidates (e.g. Perot with his 20% showing in 1992, or the election of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota). Other times we have unusual circumstances that bring about a nominee of one of the major parties who has nonpartisan appeal (as when the distinctive rules of the California recall alllowed Schwarzenegger to bypass the normal partisan nomination process). And in 1994, we had the extraodinary Contract with America, in which Republicans seized upon the seething resentment at politics as usual and took control of the House for the first time in 50 years.

The problem is that there is no good vehicle for institutionalizing this sentiment. Our winner-take-all institutions for both executive and legislative posts mean that coalition-building and expression of alternative views is almost entirely a pre-election affair. There is no good mechanism to continue the expression of alternative views post-election, because the two parties have every incentive to co-opt what they can to avoid defeat at the next election, but, more importantly, to ignore what they can get away with ignoring to protect their and their core constituencies’ prerogatives. Thus between periodic eruptions of reform sentiment, things return more or less to normal until they erput again at some later point.

The normalization of the two-party system, rather than the institutionalization of a more responsive alternative, is reflected well in the J.C. Watts quote that I referred to before:

Republicans in just 10 years have developed the arrogance it took the Democrats 30 years to develop

The normalization of the two-party system, rather than the institutionalization of a more responsive alternative, is reflected in the stunning way in which Schwarzenegger, two years since being elected on a wave of cross-party support for shaking up California politics, is now seen (corretly, in my view) as just another Republican—just as out of touch with his state’s electorate as was Gray Davis before him and as were and are the Democratic majorities in the state legisalture.

But the first of these episodic bursts of non-Democratic, non-Republican radical-middle sentiments in recent times was Perot. So, let’s go back to the Perot example.

In my post about the 2004 election, I reflected back on the Clinton presidency:

…it was the Clintons (and Al “Dialing for Dollars” Gore) who so squandered the opportunity presented by the 1992 election to build a new constituency for a modern center-left (which would have meant co-opting the Perot constituency, rather than ignoring it and defaulting it to the right).

B’s comment says, in part:

I have a hard time seeing a unified “Perot constituency” that could have been co-opted. You had your usual pox-on-both-their-houses types and others who just didn’t feel inspired by either candidate, probably more for personal reasons than ideological ones [exactly what I am talking about–MS.]


Clinton (with much fanfare, I might add) brought the budget back into balance and essentially dismantled welfare. If Perot voters couldn’t warm to Clinton after that, they either weren’t paying much attention or were simply never going to warm to Clinton no matter what he did.

Of course, only the budget balancing bill was pre-1994; the welfare overhaul took place only after Republicans were in charge of Congress, notwithstanding that it was something Clinton had promised in his campaign to tackle early in his presidency and was an issue that probably kept the Perot vote from eating farther into Clinton’s own vote in 1992.

My response to B’s main point would be that this is not a matter of “warming to Clinton.” It is a matter of building coalitions. And, in the specific case of the Perot constituency, the Republicans proved more adept at it (again, temporarily) than did Clinton and the Democrats.

The Perot constituency thus ended up going pretty decisively to the Republicans in 1994. I think there were ways for Clinton and the Democrats to prevent that. Clinton had campaigned in a way that emphasized how different he was from a mainstream Democrat. He was clearly speaking to a segment of the electorate that was ready to swing away from G.H.W. Bush, and was deciding between Perot and the Democratic challenger. It was an opportunity for a center-left reformist agenda, yet in office, it was squandered.

Clinton mostly governed initially at the behest of congressional Democrats. The few cases where he did not do so were on issues that were sure to alienate the Perot constituency (the gun bill, which the House leadership wanted to avoid, and which passed only because some northern Republicans favored it).

It would have been hard for Clinton to reach out to this constituency more systematically in the context of entrenched Democratic majorities in Congress and in the absence of an institutionalized voice for the Perot voters. That is precisely my point. But by failing to make a serious effort at doing so, it opened the way for another pre-election coalition between an established party and a reformist constituency—in this case, by the Republicans under the nimble leadership of Newt Gingrich.

So, it is clear that the underlying problem with forging post-election coalitions is an institutional context in which it is possible for the third force to have 20% of the presidential vote yet ZERO representation in congress. (In virtually no other democracy could something like this happen!) This demonstrates the problem with the absence of institutionalization of alternatives to the normal way of doing politics. These sentiments can be expressed in elections (usually executive elections, 1994 notwithstanding), but do not obtain direct representation with which to hold the established parties accountable for what they do after elections.

Things in 1992-94 would have been very different–by necessity–if congressional elections were proportional and thus Perot voters had been represented BETWEEN elections. Perot did talk about political reform, but it was term limits, not PR. And term limits was something Republicans picked up on in 1994 (and then proceded to do little about).

Term limits are what I call JUNK REFORM, not the real thing, but they are inspired by the same radical middle sentiment against politics as usual for which PR would be a far more meaningful fix. Republicans used term limits as one of several ways to woo the Perot vote, and they have controlled Congress ever since, even while long since having abandoned most of their “we’re different” credibility that Perot’s movement once gave them.

In 2006, there could be an opportunity for Democrats to mobilize a reformist constiutuency. I have doubts that they are capable of doing it, but the kindling is there if they can find the right match to light it. But I am quite certain that, even if they do, they will squander the opportunity once back in power, much as the Republicans before them and Clinton–Gore before that. And very much also like Schwarzenegger today in California. There simply is no means, absent proportional representation and multipartism, to put meaningful checks on the natural tendency of either party to revert to form once a seemingly critical election is over.

5 thoughts on “The radical middle: Perot, Schwarzenegger, the class of 1994, and looking ahead to 2006

  1. This is very well-written and mostly clear. You have done very well at taking a complex topic and presenting your views simply and coherently.

    I find that I agree with you entirely bout the problem. The current US two-party system is inadequate for our current needs.

    I’m not clear though that PR is the only possible solution. I think it would be good to find multiple solutions. After all, it would be very hard to make a change that both parties oppose. Ideally a proposal ought to look to a majority party as if it would improve their competitive standing. Not just hurt them less than it hurts the competitor, but help them. What would get them to encourage third parties and PR? It would obviously weaken them.

    I have the idea that Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) might be a workable alternative. It would let people vote for their preferred candidate without thinking they’re throwing their vote away. They could vote for their major-party candidate as a backup. That wouldn’t look as threatening — a third-party candidate would still have to come in first to win — but it would *allow* third parties a meaningful chance, which the present system does not do.

    It could weaken parties generally. What if two candidates from the same party run for the same place? You can vote for both of them, in your preferred order. When a single wedge issue is important, a party can straddle by running two candidates who disagree. One of them might win.

    There’s the problem that the Congress can have rules that tend to freeze out independents and members of third parties, even when third parties are possible. I don’t see a good short-term solution to that, just as I don’t see one for PR.

  2. …You might feel that the US two-party system is inadequate to your current needs but will tinkering and tweaking electoral systems produce desired outcomes? Doubtful, judging by yesterday’s electoral outcomes in Italy where the electorate split almost exactly in half between left and right – not unlike the deadlock of the Nov 2000 American presidential election.

    Sure, in Italy, each side is made up of complex multiparty coalitions. But in Italy, different proportional electoral systems (pre-1994 and April 2006) and mixed-member electoral system (with strong SMP component) in between, have not really changed party politics fundamentally. The party system has not bi-polarized in the Anglo-American fashion as was expected. Sure, there are moderate and reformist parties for centrist & radical voters to express their preferences but does that change anything?

    In the old days in Italy, the dominant Christian Democrats (DC) were the main recipient of centrist votes and (initially at least) ideological factions inside the DC offered a variety of choices for such voters. Problem is: factions became institutionalised, embedded and self-serving, mainly because party rules and procedures allowed this to happen.

    However, this is not inevitable. Intra-party factions (and even bi-partisan factions) can play a positive role in articulating and expressing reformist sentiment from the non-partisan segment of the electorate especially in political systems such as the US (and UK) which lack proportional representation and multiparty systems. But rather than two candidates from the same party running for the same place under the Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) as suggested by J. Thomas, the radical voter in the middle ground could vote for the party containing the faction (however small) which is closest to her preferences. Hence, the presence of factions which articulate reformist policies and express reformist sentiment offer potential solutions to this problem . Of course, this assumes that voters identify with and vote for parties (as in Europe) rather than for candidates (as in the US). Ultimately, the trick is first, to change voters perceptions when casting their votes and second, to overcome negative public perceptions of factionalism (a big hurdle in the UK!). Third, parties need to design suitable incentives to align factions with overall party interests. But such conditions prevailing, non-institutionalised factionalism has the potential to enable parties to retain their core electorate while broadening their appeal to catch reformist-oriented voters. Factions can also offer a way of creating ‘open-source’ political parties. But that’s another story!

  3. Françoise, this is the first time I have seen anyone use Italy as an example of why PR would not break up an existing two-party/bipolar system!

    However, the Italian 2006 result is hardly relevant because that electoral system was not proportional! Under PR, one surely would not have seen nearly all the parties aggregate into one of two large blocs (as indeed they did not in the (in)famous days of actual PR in Italy before 1994).

    All Italian elections since 1994 have been held under a partially majoritarian format. The 2006 election is actually more so than the previous ones, with the largest pre-election bloc guaranteed 55% of the seats in the chamber and in any given regional senate district.

    It is beyond me how one could fail to see the aggregation of parties into pre-election blocs, producing periodic voter-driven alternation, as less than a “fundamental” change from the previous governance pattern of one dominant (but factionalized) party with shifting coalition partners.

    “The party system has not bi-polarized in the Anglo-American fashion as was expected.” True, Italy since 1994 is much more bipolarized than the UK, and has had alternation in government far more frequently!

  4. Matthew, the point I was making (obviously not clearly enough) was that tinkering with electoral systems for strategic reasons can backfire (as Berlusconi found out three weeks ago & Mitterrand in France in 1986). True, and as was hoped, the post-94 MMP system with a strong majoritarian element has bipolarised the party system, changed patterns of competition, facilitated alternation in office and produced more stable governments. And the aggregation of parties into pre-election blocs has clarified the choice for voters. So these are indeed ‘fundamental’ (and positive) changes.

    However, (and in the spirit in which I planted my seed), by the time of the April 2006 election, had these changes reshaped the political landscape fundamentally and produced better governance in Italy? The evidence suggests otherwise. The reductive effect on the number of parties was limited and parties had coalesced into multiparty cartels for strategic reasons: through mutual endorsements and withdrawals which were not always transparent to voters. Today, the two broad coalitions remain fractious and not ideologically coherent since each has to carry awkward passengers at the extremes. More importantly (and sadly for Italian voters), the benefits of stable government have been wasted. Berlusconi, the first post-war Italian prime minister to serve out an entire 5-year term, has delivered bad government and a deterioration in the quality of democracy in Italy.

    I agree that the electoral system of ‘reinforced majority’ which Berlusconi rammed through parliament last year is more majoritarian than the previous one. I would be the last person to support it and the manner in which the electoral system can be changed by government fiat in Italy. Moreover, Italy has a history of autocratic prime ministers/party leaders manipulating the electoral system to award their own party and their own faction large bonuses (eg. Fanfani in the 1950s). Fortunately, voters and inter-party and intra-party rivals tend to be wiser. So, good luck to Prodi in forming a government and in changing the electoral system once again!

    I agree, the UK party system is now a dominant party system, no doubt about it! [And about time, electoral reform was taken seriously over here.] But that wasn’t apparent when people such as Mario Segni started mobilising support for electoral reform in Italy in the late 1980s and succeeded in eliminating the multi-preference voting system for the 1992 general election.

    Not sure where all this offshoot leaves the radical middle in US democracy. Nowhere – like the Liberals in Italy? However, I am a reluctant gardener when it comes to snipping suckers off my rose bushes!

  5. Pingback: PR-USA: We still need it | Fruits and Votes

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