The Third Man

Okay, you people. Here's a riddle: When do academics otherwise preoccupied with problems of politics and culture -- who pounce on each new development in the mass media to analyze its every nuance -- completely ignore a public figure who uses television to mobilize anti-Establishment sentiment? Answer: When that figure seems incapable of irony and untouched by grace. When his populist rage is delivered in cracker-barrel homilies instead of rapped couplets. And when he is prone to saying -- as no intellectual ever would -- "It's just that simple." When, in other words, he's H. Ross Perot. Since the 1992 election, only a handful of scholars have followed the jug-eared billionaire's lead and "looked under the hood" of the Perot phenomenon. Sure, Perot's 19 percent share of the popular vote -- and his unique contribution to what turned out to be a campaign as peculiar as any in American history -- would seem to merit a bit of scholarly scrutiny. But what does political science do with a guy who ignored traditional electioneering in favor of talk shows and infomercials and proposed the 800 number as a policy-making instrument? (The man who made "Crazy" the theme song of his campaign seems unlikely to win the hearts of political science's countless rational-choice theorists.) As for the cultural studies crowd, forget it. With his transgressively tacky charts explaining the economy, his appearances on the Phil Donahue and Larry King shows, and his utopian blueprint for mass-media plebiscites, Perot belongs squarely to the field of popular (even oppositional!) culture. But his interventions in the public discourse have as yet received only some infinitesimal fraction of the critical energies lavished upon Sex, Madonna's venture into coffee table porn--that other decisive national event of 1992.After three years of haphazard investigation, political scientists remain paradigmless, if not speechless, before the Perot phenomenon. The candidate ran, of course, without the endorsement of a party. His platform flummoxed the left/right divide, combining elements of fiscal conservatism and protectionism with a conspicuous silence regarding the right's social and cultural agenda. (And where does the slogan "You're the boss and I'm Ross" fit in the ideological spectrum?) Finally, United We Stand America is, so to speak, a peculiar institution. It defies categorization. A lobbying group? A political party? A splinter group? None of the above. Of course, Perot's campaign did yield one thing political scientists handle well: statistics. And that is where they've trained their scrutiny. But the numbers tell different tales, depending on who's crunching them. For Martin Wattenberg of the University of California at Irvine, the Perot campaign confirms the thesis contained in the title of his book, The Decline of American Political Parties, 1952Ð1992 (Harvard, 1994). Survey results from the decades leading up to the '92 election, he argues, show a growing skepticism about the idea that "parties can make a difference when it comes to solving problems." Those most disaffected were most likely to support Perot. Even more interesting is that the disaffected, according to Wattenberg, show up all across the spectrum. That's why Perot drew roughly the same range of support (between 17 percent and 21 percent) from voters identifying themselves as "liberals," "moderates," and "conservatives." And his level of support among voters from different income levels was pretty much the same, as well. (By contrast, support for George Bush rose steadily with income, while support for Bill Clinton fell.) Walter Stone of the University of Colorado and Ronald Rapoport of William and Mary take a somewhat different view. In a survey of people who had contacted the Perot organization in 1992, they found that early Perot supporters were significantly more likely than the rest of the voting public to have attended college and to have annual incomes of $50,000 or more. Similar to Wattenberg, they found that 95 percent of their subjects described both political parties as "average," "below average," or "poor." But whereas Wattenberg argues that this general disillusionment with party politics was the key factor uniting the Perotistas, Stone and Rapoport maintain that what brought the supporters together were the issues they agreed on. Some three-quarters were opposed to a constitutional amendment on abortion, in favor of a balanced budget amendment; in favor of increased environmental protection; in favor of term limitations for members of Congress; and supportive of increased taxes on higher income social security recipients. The authors plan to study the same crowd longitudinally, having sent out another set of questions in 1994, with one more survey in the works for next year. But was the Perot phenomenon really so earth-shaking after all? UCLA's John Zaller and Mark Hunt think not. In their two-part paper "The Rise and Fall of Candidate Perot," recently published in the jounal Political Communication, they argue that Perot's bid actually followed the usual pattern for traditional party-driven political campaigns. Even though Perot tried to spread his message via relatively "unmediated" forms like talk shows and half-hour commercials, when the results were counted that November, it scarcely mattered. Seeking correlations between media activity and polling results, Zaller and Hunt reviewed Perot's campaign step-by-step. Early on, Perot's use of unmediated outlets such as Larry King Live was at its all-time high. But that's not an adequate explantion for his popularity, say Zaller and Hunt: Regular viewers of talk shows were only 6 percent more likely to support Perot than were people who never watched them. And by the time the Perot groundswell was underway, polls indicated Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had the support of 29 percent of registered voters--though he'd never given any hint that he wanted the presidency. Why? "The most parsimonious explanation," say Zaller and Hunt, "is that, quite simply, 15 to 30 percent [was] the baseline level that any nationally known political figure would have been able to attract in a three-way race with Bush and Clinton at that point in the campaign." In other words, Perot became merely the incarnation of "none of the above." However disruptive in intent, Perot's campaign was quickly absorbed into the electoral spectacle. By late spring 1992, Perot began receiving the same kind of press coverage given to the major party candidates -- a development not altogether to his liking, for it meant he no longer controlled the flow of information and ideas about him. Indeed, the press eventually got quite tough on Perot, pressing him on his answers, and -- in Zaller and Hunt's nicely odd phrase -- "inducing him to appear angry." The voting public, these researchers found, "responded as it normally does to press coverage, moving toward more support for Perot when [coverage] was favorable and then away when the press turned sour." Then things took a turn for the strange -- or in Perot's case, perhaps we should say, for the stranger: Running ahead of Clinton and Bush in the polls, Perot withdrew. When he later returned to the fray, it was, as far as the media was concerned, as a full player. During the final weeks of the campaign, Perot received between 18 percent and 21 percent of TV and newspaper coverage devoted to the candidates -- which turned out to be, in a triumph of Zaller and Hunt's method, very close to the 19 percent share of the vote he won in the general election. Yet their statistics sometimes turn peculiar. At one point, their analysis yields the conclusion that an appearance by Perot on 60 Minutes won over some 180 percent of its viewers to his cause. "We regard this astounding estimate as an embarrassment to our method," they dutifully note, "and report it as such. It shows the fragility of the type of analysis we are undertaking." Or, alternatively, it's proof of what many have long suspected: that television has the power to warp the pubic mind.So where are we? Either Perot's success came from his truculent independence, in an atmosphere where party politics are increasingly suspect, or his failure confirms that even an independent candidate will still find himself subject to the same electoral forces that bind any ordinary candidate. Either our institutions will be with us forever, or they are rapidly falling apart. Yawn. If the field of Perot studies yielded only results this uncertain, it would deserve the fate of last week's editorial page: oblivion. In fact, the cranky Texan's minor yet continuing role as a national figure -- first in the NAFTA debate, now in the tentative steps towards creation of a third party -- raises questions that go well beyond the 1992 election. Political science's stock-in-trade (isolating out "dependent" and "independent" variables to try to explain human behavior in a more or less empirically verifiable way) may well explain Perot's rise and fall in the polls. But it's less able to convey how he has become a force in metapolitics: the domain of public attitudes toward the electoral process itself. As Zaller and Hunt acknowledge, "the quantitative study of public opinion is, we believe, nearing the limits of what it can accomplish without finding ways to incorporate aspects of reality that cannot (so far anyway) be fully quantified and modeled." Perhaps the life of the movement registers less at the polls than at a cultural level. How, one might ask, did those people drawn to Perot project on (and through) him their own hopes and fears? To answer this question requires a different sort of analysis. For American University historian Michael Kazin, writing in The Populist Persuasion (Basic, 1995), Perot represents an ironic, even paradoxical, culmination of a long political tradition. As used in public discourse, "populist" means both "folksy" and "angry." Perot is both, unmistakably and in equal measure. But the term has a more precise use, Kazin explains, that goes back to the formation of the People's Party in 1892. The wrath of the populist movement of the 1890s was directed toward big business and high finance; it called on government to protect the interests of hard-working producers (farmers and manual laborers) against the manipulative and decadent ruling classes. Over the past century, however, those images have been "captured" (in Kazin's term) by the right, which identifies the government as the elite. For a billionaire to emerge as a populist hero is, for Kazin, the ultimate co-option of the movement's rhetoric. But how did Perot pull it off? He could become such a hero, Kazin explains, only because he was able to embody an exemplary American political "type," the explainer. Perot's "presentations of his own lucid, if facile, explanations of the [nation's] economic troubles," Kazin writes, made him resemble a "secular Father Coughlin armed with four-color charts and graphs." The analogy with Coughlin -- whose popular radio program during the 1930s moved from support for Roosevelt's New Deal to anti-Semitic tirades -- adumbrates what political science research tends to efface: how Perot's particular style and media presence engendered the intense emotional attachments of his followers. To study this more fully would require something like anthropological field work. No academic seems to be doing this so far. But Nation-editorÐturned-cottage-publisher Micah L. Sifrey has created the closest thing so far to a "thick description" of the movement: an "unauthorized quarterly" called The Perot Periodical. Launched in 1993, The Perot Periodical (P.O. Box 435, Riverdale, NY, 10471) began as a muckraking journal with a satirical edge, much like The Quayle Quarterly before it. Now, disaffected Perot supporters have taken up the newsletter as a forum for critical discussion of the movement. There is simply no better source for information on United We Stand America -- which, as it turns out, Perot runs as a highly centralized organization, the staff disproportionately filled with military veterans. Despite the movement's top-down discipline, the picture that emerges from the The Perot Periodical is one of bewildering ideological heterogeneity. Once-and-former Perot supporters range from a self-described political Darwinist to a guy who hopes the AFL-CIO and the Rainbow Coalition will join forces with United We Stand to support Gen. Colin Powell for president. It's almost enough to remind one of the People's Party's founding convention in 1892, where, as Michael Kazin describes it, Prohibitionists, currency reformers, and Marxists ceased "pitching their panaceas long enough to unite behind the same third-party ticket."Which is not to say that Perotbots will be able to do the same; the vagaries of public sentiment may well send Perot back to private life for good. Even so, the movement requires more than the episodic scrutiny scholars have given it so far. In a recent poll of 1,000 people who voted in the 1994 congressional election, 15 percent said that the positions of United We Stand represent their own opinions "all of the time" -- which compares respectably with the figures for the Democrats (22 percent) and Republicans (23 percent). And all of the Republican presidential candidates, and Democratic senator Christopher Dodd to boot, plan to put in appearances at the United We Stand America convention in Dallas this August.Who can say what historical currents run through that marginal but well-financed group? In the absence of detailed studies, we'll never know. But a word of warning to smirking members of the cognitive elite who would reduce the Perot movement to TV tent shows and dopey economic quick fixes: It just isn't that simple.

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