WASHINGTON — On the night he conceded defeat in 1992 after the most successful independent presidential campaign of the last century, Ross Perot made it clear that he was not done shaking up the established order. “Believe me,” he declared, “the system needs some shocks.”
So perhaps it was only fitting that on the same week that Perot died nearly 27 years later, both of the two major political parties were being rattled by the aftershocks of the earthquake that his campaign represented. President Trump was busy quarreling with former speaker Paul Ryan while the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, was bickering with first-year House Democrats.
In both cases, those who represented the institutional order — Ryan and Pelosi — found themselves at odds with rabble-rousers within their own parties agitating for change from outside the traditional system through the power of social media. This was not a week that showcased the competition between the parties but within them. The stress fractures that Perot identified a generation ago are tearing at the foundations of the Republican and Democratic parties.
“Usually fights are Democrats versus Republicans, one end of Pennsylvania Avenue versus the other, or the left versus the right,” said Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic former Chicago mayor, congressman, and White House chief of staff. “Today’s squabbles are internal between the establishment versus the people that are storming the barricades.”
Emanuel saw up close Perot’s campaign in 1992 (and then again in 1996) as an aide to Bill Clinton, and today he identifies that moment as “the beginning point of the crack-up of the parties.” In the years since, the Bushes and Clintons have given way to Twitter-armed outsiders such as Trump and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and “the squad” of her fellow Democratic insurgents in Congress.
The difference is that Trump successfully staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 and has since brought much of its old establishment to heel, driving the likes of Ryan out the door or into hiding. Ocasio-Cortez and her compatriots have not taken over the Democratic Party, but they are driving the conversation within it to a degree that few first-year House members have ever done, thanks to their online armies of like-minded disrupters tired of what they see as the corrupt status quo
There is, of course, no little irony that Pelosi and Ryan are now the beleaguered defenders of the old order, given that both of them were once seen as champions of the ideological extremes of their parties — she as a radical San Francisco leftist, he as a Medicare-destroying right winger.
But they both came up within the system that is now under pressure from impatient newcomers who see no virtue in spending years in the backbenches waiting for their turn when they can be empowered by Twitter to wield influence in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past.
“Because of social media and because people can be their own stars, they don’t need to work through leadership or through hierarchy,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, a leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group seeking to find consensus in a House where that is a dirty word. “They work outside in. That is a huge challenge because technology allows it.”
The outsiders are, in their own ways, tapping into the same disenchantment with the two-party system that Perot did. When he attracted 19 percent of the vote in 1992 against Clinton and President George H.W. Bush, it was the most any independent presidential candidate had generated since Theodore Roosevelt’s unsuccessful comeback bid in 1912 and the most any independent candidate who had not previously served as president had received since the advent of the two current parties just before the Civil War.
Since then, even more Americans have chosen to dissociate from the two parties. As recently as July 2004, only 27 percent of Americans called themselves independent in Gallup Polling; today, 15 years later, 46 percent do.
But Perot’s experience offers a cautionary tale. For all his money and easy access to television — “Larry King Live” was his Twitter — he still could not crack the duopoly. By the time he ran in 1996, again targeting the two-party system, his share of the popular vote fell to 8 percent. The Reform Party he created was ultimately taken over by marginal figures — Trump ran for that party’s 2000 nomination before dropping out — and faded from the scene.
What Trump took from Perot’s experience was that breaking the two-party system from the outside did not work; instead, he had to take over one of the parties from the inside.
“The two-party system has been bankrupt for at least a decade,” said former representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican. But “the barriers to entry in this space are extremely high,” and only Trump has figured out how to harness Americans’ frustration. “If the two-party system remains incapable of addressing our nation’s greatest challenges and most controversial issues, younger generations of Americans will find a third way,” he said.