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The Nader candidacy is a real threat to those who want a progressive government.

The Factor of Three


Twenty years ago, as a young journalist in Washington, I saw many of my progressive friends swept up in the imagined excitement of a movement for clean elections, good government, and an end to special interest politics. Their crusade ended in tears — a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan and the beginning of 12 years of right-wing rule in the nation's capital.

Now, a generation later, many idealistic people seem to have forgotten the lesson of 1980. Their enthusiasm for the Green Party and its nominee, Ralph Nader, is as dangerous an illusion as was the American Party of 1980.

For those who don't remember the American Party, its nominee was Rep. John Anderson. Anderson was a plainspoken, moderate Republican, a 10-term congressman from the heartland of Illinois. He was widely admired for his principles and his sense of fairness — sort of like Sen. John McCain today.

It's hard to remember the disgust many progressives felt that year for the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. A hostile Congress and a worsening international climate (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis dominated his last 12 months in office) had forced the populist peanut farmer to the right. Activists for causes as diverse as women's rights and drug-law reform felt betrayed; Carter had given some of them half a loaf, and some of them barely a slice. They saw in Anderson a way of sending a message to Democrats that their support could not be taken for granted. Reagan welcomed Anderson into the race. Republican supporters funneled money to help the challenger get on the ballot; Reagan even insisted that Anderson be included in the first debate.

On Election Night, the third-party challenger drew 7 percent of the vote. Reagan defeated Carter by nearly 10 percent. Anderson's vote, even had it all gone to Carter, would not have changed the result. But Anderson changed history nonetheless.

We all remember 1980 as the year of the "Reagan Landslide" that changed American politics. For the next eight years, Reagan and the GOP intimidated Congress by boasting of the public support that had humiliated an incumbent president, winning 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49. But 1980 was not a landslide at all. In fact, Reagan won with 50.7 percent — a slim majority, and almost exactly the same percentage of votes that Carter had won four years before. And in 14 states, with about 200 electoral votes, the Anderson vote was larger than Reagan's margin. Had Anderson not been in the race, Reagan would probably have eked out a slim victory both in the popular vote and in the Electoral College.

Liberals who had flocked to Anderson sent a message all right. But it was Reagan's message they sent, and our country is still recovering from it.

As I watch the local excitement build over Nader, I don't fear a repeat of this history. I fear something worse. The Green ticket may - despite the recent endorsements of Gore by environmental parties — actually succeed in swinging the election this year. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman make a far stronger ticket than did Carter and Walter Mondale in 1980. But every sane political pundit expects the race to be razor-close. If Nader's vote affects the result in even one or two states, the progressive community may once again have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

My progressive friends say that it doesn't matter — that the two major parties are the same and that a progressive agenda can flourish under Republican rule. I heard that before, in 1980. Ask yourself then whether the GOP that seized power then was really no different from Carter and the Democrats. In every area we care about - environmental protection, economic justice, civil liberties, reproductive freedom, human rights — the Reagan-Bush years were a lasting disaster.

I also hear my friends explaining that the Nader campaign will build a strong third-party movement. I heard that one too 20 years ago.

But the American Party sank without a trace after November 1980. Four years later, when Anderson endorsed Fritz Mondale, the Reagan campaign ungratefully responded, "John Anderson is a nobody."

Poor, decent John Anderson — he built nothing and left no legacy. But I hope progressive voters don't forget him this year.

©Garrett Epps is an associate professor at the University of Oregon Law School.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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