There are many lamentations, not least audibly from me, about the gridlock and general current futility of the U.S. political system, as well as the comparative mediocrity of most high officeholders, a trans-partisan problem. I was bemoaning to a contemporary, recently, that when I first became interested in American politics, the president, vice president, Senate leader, and House speaker were Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Sam Rayburn, and all were generally respected in those roles. And all are still deemed with historical perspective to have been distinguished occupants of them, whatever controversy enshrouds some of them in other posts they held. The same is unlikely to be the case for all the current incumbents in those roles — President Obama, Vice President Biden, Senator Reid, and Speaker Boehner.
But Americans can at least be grateful that the political-party system has not fragmented. No durable national party has been founded since the Republicans in the 1850s, who united the Northern Whigs with many anti-slavery Democrats and elements of what was known as the American party — called “Know-Nothings” because of the password at their clubhouses, but an apt description in other ways. The American party was militantly anti-immigration and especially anti–Roman Catholic, and without it, the first Republican presidential nominee, Colonel John C. Frémont, an eccentric explorer and son-in-law of a leading Democrat (Thomas Hart Benton), might have run the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, a very close race.
In the last century, the disgruntled ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, running in 1912 against his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, and Ross Perot in 1992, running against the incumbent, Republican George H. W. Bush, have been the only independent candidates who influenced the outcome of the presidential election. TR threw the 1912 election to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, and Perot threw the election of 1992 to Bill Clinton. Roosevelt and Taft had a personality and policy dispute, but Perot’s appearance was inexplicable. He ran in favor of an unspecifically balanced budget, abortion on demand, tightened gun control, an even more severe war on drugs, trade protectionism, militant environmentalism, and transfer of much authority to electronic referenda: a hodgepodge of causes of Right and Left. He abruptly withdrew from the race, but was back two months later, claiming he had been forced out by the Republicans who had threatened to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. He was, politically, an implausible charlatan, but he won nearly 20 million votes, almost 19 percent of the total, against 44.9 million for Clinton and 39.1 million for Bush.
The Progressives carried the single state of Wisconsin with Robert La Follette in 1924, running against Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis, and southern states’-rights parties won some states in 1948, 1960, and 1968, but did not influence the results of those elections. (In 1960, if the Alabama votes cast for Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia had been counted as independent, rather than for the official Democrat, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon would have won the popular vote, though the election result itself would not have been affected.)