Anderson got my first presidential vote (because you had to be 21 to vote in 1976, and my 21st birthday fell a week too late). In my defense, those were more innocent days; I was outraged at Jimmy Carter’s cynically abandoning women to court “heartland” anti-choice voters, and besides, my individual vote didn’t mean much in then-dependably-Democratic Michigan.
What happened next convinced me (and should have convinced younger voters, IMO) that there are only two possible choices in American presidential elections, and the Democratic one is always preferable. The ensuing, increasingly suicidal, embrace of Ralph Nader by “progressives” only reinforced my conviction that too many leftists are less interested in actual political progress than in performative virtue-signalling.
We may not have fully appreciated it in 1980, but John Anderson marked the last bastion of Liberal Republicanism. Per Ed Kilgore, at NYMag
John B. Anderson of Illinois, who died today at the age of 95, served in Congress for 20 years. But what gave him national fame was a briefly sensational independent candidacy for president in 1980, running against President Jimmy Carter and soon-to-be-president Ronald Reagan. By doing so, Anderson represented two milestones in modern political history: He was the most conspicuous of early conscientious objectors to the conservative movement’s takeover of the Republican Party, and he was the prototype for the kind of centrist third-party presidential candidate that so many pundits and billionaires long for in today’s era of partisan polarization.
Anderson was not, of course, the first moderate-to-liberal Republican to oppose the rightward drift of his party. But he was the first to take an unsuccessful presidential primary candidacy right out of the GOP and into an independent ballot line. He took that fateful step in part because of the low regard he had for Ronald Reagan, his vanquisher in the primaries. But he also realized his brand of socially liberal, fiscally conservative politics had a stronger constituency outside his own party…
For a while, Anderson’s campaign was quite the phenomenon. In June his National Unity Party ticket (with running mate Pat Lucey, a Democratic former governor of Wisconsin) was polling at 24 percent according to Gallup. But as is typically the case, voters returned to the two major parties as the election approached. And in fact, Anderson largely abandoned his centrist positioning in order to poach liberals from Jimmy Carter, whose Evangelical background, fiscal conservatism, and cool relationship with Israel alienated a lot of usually Democratic voters. I recall seeing Anderson speak in San Francisco in the fall of 1980, by which time he was emphasizing his progressive social views, including what was then an unusual attitude of support for gay rights.
In the end, Anderson won only 7 percent of the vote, and his National Unity Party vanished without a trace. By 1984, Anderson was endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale. And so he was the prototype for millions of other relatively liberal Republicans who trended Democratic as even larger numbers of conservative Democrats joined the GOP. He had a distinguished later career as chairman of the electoral-reform group FairVote, which promotes a national popular vote and ranked-choice voting…