Is it time to bring back Ross Perot? Not the big-eared, chart-crazed egomaniac and his Texas cigar boat, but a nascent movement like his among independents that can transform today’s stale and essentially self-destructive debate between two equally bankrupt parties.
Independent politics outside the established main parties has been on the upswing around the world, from Europe to the Tea Parties here at home. Perhaps the most stunning case has occurred in the United Kingdom, where Nick Clegg, leader of the perennial also-rans, the Liberal Democrats, was widely judged as the winner of the second in three debates with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative challenger David Cameron.
Helped by good looks and an affable manner, Clegg is emerging as a real threat to the long-established Labour and Conservative parties. He has risen in the polls since early April from below 20 percent to above 30 percent. As my London-based colleague at the Legatum Institute, Ryan Streeter, observes, Clegg may himself be an Establishment figure—educated at elite schools and married to a Spanish lawyer—but his rise is based largely on “anti-government, anti-political sentiment.” His appeal is particularly strong among 18- to 34-year-old voters.
This revolt of the independent middle is not unique to the U.K. Last year Japanese voters threw out the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party for a newly cobbled together Democratic Party. French voters this year also bolted away from established parties to support independent, smaller groupings on both left and right.
Independents matter even if they fail to take power. Clegg may not make it all the way to 10 Downing Street, but his stronger showing could transform British politics, forcing both Tories and Labourites to find ways to counter his appeal.
This occurred here with the Perot movement in the early 1990s. Looking back, one can almost say it was Perot who ultimately shaped the times. Challenging both Bill Clinton and George the First, Perot gave voice to a deep-seated national concern—particularly among the older adult middle class—about out-of-control spending, a rising deficit, and declining national competitiveness. By focusing on these issues, he made George Bush and his cynical deal with the religious right seem both diversionary and divisive.
The Perotista base, not wildly dissimilar from today’s Tea Parties, helped drive the first Bush from the White House by splitting the center-right vote. Two years later, upset with perceived Clintonian overreaching, particularly on health care, these same middle-class independents handed the Congress to the Republicans. In the end, we got the best of both worlds: a fiscally responsible government without the moralistic clatter and reflexive militarism of the GOP right.
Over the next few years, we could use a Perot-like person who would challenge both the slavishly pro-greed Republicans and the crony capitalism of our Chicago machine government. The time seems right: Both Democrats and Republicans are losing support and, more important, respect from an increasingly alienated mainstream middle.
The rise of new political forms across both Europe and America reflects some of the new realities of contemporary media. With the rise of the Internet, the ability of large parties to use the press as their obedient propaganda corps has been greatly diminished. Similarly, establishment consensus on issues—for example, on climate change—is no longer easy to enforce. The Internet is too protean and easy to penetrate to be corralled by either the power of money or lobbyist influence-peddling.
The current political unrest also reflects a growing sense among the middle class in advanced countries, particularly those employed in the private sector, that the dominant parties are simply not interested in their fate. In the U.S., this view has been reinforced around the two biggest issues facing Congress this year, health-care and financial reform.
On health care, the Republicans, ever subservient to their corporate donors, refused to address the fundamental issues—such as eliminating exclusions for pre-existing conditions, portability of coverage, or provisions allowing small businesses and sole proprietors to buy reasonably priced coverage—that matter to middle-class voters. Their inability to do something significant when in control of Congress and the White House opened the door to Obamacare.
That said, the Democratic alternative, as Rodney Dangerfield would put it, proved no bargain either. Their plan ended up suiting insurance companies, Big Pharma, and those, mostly union members, holding “Cadillac” health plans. The losers were, as usual, members of the entrepreneurial middle classes who will now be subject to ever higher taxes in exchange for what could prove even worse coverage.
The bankruptcy of the existing parties is, if anything, even more evident in the financial-reform debate. Desperate to win back their wayward constituency on Wall Street, most Republicans oppose regulation of even the dodgiest practices. At the same time, they are correct to call out the Democrats’ embrace of “too big to fail” institutions, which in essence would allow big banks to operate with the patina of guaranteed federal support.
So in the end, we have something akin to a shouting match in a whorehouse over who gets to cavort with the best-endowed john. The Democrats may play a populist tune, but they take in far more money from the likes of Goldman Sachs—the firm was the largest corporate donor to the 2008 Obama campaign—than the more obviously craven GOP. A former Obama White House counsel, Gregory Craig, even serves on the pirate firm’s legal defense team.
All this suggests the Democrats stand largely for the expansion of crony capitalism, the melding of corporate power and state. The Dodd bill, as Representative Brad Sherman, an independently minded California Democrat, has suggested, will give the kind of “unlimited executive bailout authority” that the Wall Street interests “desperately want but doesn’t dare ask for.”
The Republicans, for their part, talk of adherence to conservative principles but, with a sly wink, are engaged in a giant “come-on” to the financial elite. Instead of too big to fail, they embrace the unfettered right to cheat and dissemble. In the end, the losers are the smaller banks and the middle class, who are forced to choose between corporate vultures and an ever more arrogant, clubby government-business alliance.
Ultimately, the only way to rein in these awful people is to develop new independent political movements outside the Beltway. This category can include the Tea Partiers but also can extend to budget-conscious, grassroots Democrats like Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. Although we could conceivably see the emergence of a new Perot-like figure, the independents may flex their muscle this time in a more grassroots, multifaceted manner.
Something certainly needs to arise to force the parties to abandon policies that will lead to the destruction of the middle class—one party by unbridled corporations, the other by over-expansive government. In this respect, for all his goofiness, Ross Perot and his movement are looking better all the time.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.