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Reform: The Long-Term Winner in Close Elections

by Frank Towers on Dec 11, 2000

         When the Electoral College picks a president who lost the popular
vote, as it soon might, it casts doubt on the legitimacy of the winner and
the way that he was chosen. The last time the Electoral College's action
undermined an election's legitimacy, in 1888, voters forced established
politicians to address political and social reforms advocated by third
parties.  Given that precedent, we may find, surprisingly, that Ralph
Nader, this year's distant third-place finisher, will have the most impact
on the near future of American politics.

         It's worth looking for guideposts to our current uncharted
political course in the reform movement that emerged after 1888, an
election that bears striking similarities to this year's and the last time
an Electoral College decision differed from the popular vote.

         In 1888 and 2000, major party candidates quietly endorsed the main
economic change of their time. In the late 1800s, it was the shift in power
from small entrepreneurs to large corporations.  In our time, it is free
trade and globalization, or the opening of world markets to facilitate
competition across national boundaries.

         Record campaign spending occurred in both eras. This year, "soft
money" (contributions to parties, unrestricted by candidate fundraising
laws, that parties funnel to individual campaigns) topped $400 million. In
1888 business gave more money than ever before to Republican, Benjamin
Harrison, who became president, and Democrat Grover Cleveland, the popular
vote winner.

         In both elections, third parties criticized Republicans and
Democrats for ignoring larger issues. In 1888, disparate third parties of
workers, farmers and moral reformers attacked Harrison and Cleveland for
disregarding low wages, farm foreclosures and alcohol abuse. Despite their
differences, this year's Green party and Reform party have criticized Bush
and Gore for their frenzied spending and inattention to free trade's
abuses. In 1888 and 2000, third parties won few votes but their message
that major parties had made government unresponsive to popular will aimed
to shake up the status quo.

         By inaugurating a president who got fewer votes than his opponent,
the 1888 election amplified the message that politics-as-usual could thwart
majority rule in the same way that the 2000 election has provoked criticism
of the Electoral College and increased suspicion of political institutions.

         After 1888, the newly created People's party, or Populists,
exploited distrust of major parties by attacking political corruption,
courting black voters despite Jim Crow racism, and urging workers and
farmers to recognize their common interest in fighting business
consolidation. Because of these efforts, in 1892 the People's party won 22
Electoral College votes and several congressional and gubernatorial races.
Should the same thing happen now, the headline of 2004 is likely to be a
strong third-party showing, reminiscent of the Populists, that would force
Democrats and Republicans to take reformers seriously.

         At least that's what happened after 1892. Progressivism, the name
for the third-party reform agenda, began to find major party advocates who
in the succeeding two decades passed anti-trust laws, sought to ban child
labor, protected food quality, conserved land and created the Federal
Reserve banking system. Politicians who this year said little about big
problems like international child labor or global warming may, pressed by
third-party forces, soon be falling over each other to offer responses to
these challenges.

         But today's progressives will need to prioritize the two concerns
that created support for Ralph Nader if they want to influence the major
parties. Nader polled best with unskilled workers threatened by free
trade's downward pressure on wages and with registered independents seeking
to change the way politics operates. Building broad support for changing
the complex global economy will be harder than convincing people to reform
politics, especially after the post-election contest, which has increased
calls to review election procedures.

         Turn-of-the-century reformers enacted the direct primary,
initiative and referendum, secret ballot and popular election of U.S.
senators before passing most social and economic legislation. The
popularity of Minnesota's Reform party governor, Jesse Ventura, and Sen.
John McCain, a campaign finance critic who sought the Republican
nomination, suggests that a movement to clean up lobbying and campaign
funding could succeed now even if a movement to abolish the World Trade
Organization will have to wait.

         Harrison's tarnished win in 1888 gave foes of the two-party system
the momentum needed to launch a generation of reform that addressed
political corruption and later tackled broad social problems. In the wake
of our recent close election, a new era of popular reform is poised to
begin. As they did a century ago, progressives have a unique historical
role to play in initiating this process and in doing so they stand to gain
the most from the election of 2000.

Frank Towers is an assistant professor of history at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo., and a writer for the History News Service.