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I shared a taxi with Rex Tugwell that warm night in July 1948, out to Shibe Park in Philadelphia, to hear Henry Wallace launch the Progressive Party at a spectacular outdoor mass meeting. I thought about it last week as Rep. John Anderson stood behind the lectern at the National Press Club to declare in a firm, confident voice that he is going to make it a three-man race against President Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Will Mr. Anderson get enough votes to throw the 1980 election into the House of Representatives? That's the question we ask today, and that's what we asked in 1948 in the race between President Harry Truman and New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. Truman was assailed on the right by Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats and on the left by Wallace and his "Gideon's army" of dedicated followers.

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There was constraint in our taxi as we drove along. Did Wallace know the way the Communists were using him, or trying to use him? It was not the kind of question to bring up easily in a ride with his former New Deal colleague. Yet reporters were beginning to bring it up at every press conference with Wallace.

There in the taxi I mused on a singular fact that is one of the most remarkable in Democratic politics: No body of social or ideological protest has ever found lodgment in the American political system. In Englan, France, Germany? -- yes. In the United States? -- no.

Third parties have never got far in America. No third party has ever played kingmaker in the electoral college, or forced a contingent election in the House (which decides the winner if no candidate gets a majority in the electoral college). If a protest party appears in America, the two older parties (so far, anyway) absorb it. The Progressive Parties, respectively, of Teddy Roosevelt ( 1912) and Bob La Follette (1924) disappeared. As far back as the Free Soil Party (1848) and the Anti-mason (1832), other coalitions soon swallowed them. The two major parties offer sufficiently contrasting positions so that a third party isn't needed.

American politics is not an all-out war over fundamentals but a low-key scuffle over limited and short-run advantages. John Anderson, in the latest example, does not even propose a third party. As he stood there behind the lectern the other day with his wiglike shock of white hair, and with his family seated behind him, he said he wasn't attacking the two-party system. But he was by inference attacking the choices the two-party primary nominating system had produced: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. This was a matter of personalities, he implied, as much as issues.

How important have third parties been in American politics? For handy reference, political scientists have averaged the share of the popular vote that respective third parties have received in their various attempts over 150 years. It comes to 5.6 percent. Then they have arbitrarily ruled that a third party that got above this percentage was "significant" and below it, "insignificant." That strange Anti-Mason Party of 1832 rated "significant," because it got 8 percent of all the votes cast. Henry Wallace in 1948 did not, because his 1,157 ,057 popular-vote total was a shade under Thurmond's 1,169,021 and because he, thurmond, and all the minor parties together that year got only 5.4 percent.

Percentagem of totalm Yearm Partym votes castm 1832 Anti-Mason 8.0 1848 Free Soil 10.1 1856 American 21.4 1860 Breckinridge Democratic 18.2 Constitutional Union 12.6 1892 Populist 8.5 1912 Theodore Roosevelt Progressive 27.4 Socialist 6.0 1924 La Follette Progressive 16.6 1968 American Independent 13.5 1980 Rep. John Anderson ?

Four factors seem necessary for a movement to gain significance in American politics while operating outside the conventional two-party framework:

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* An atmosphere of national strain or crisis.

* An intense and estranged minority seeking expression.

* Avoidance of this minority by both major parties.

* A leader willing to exploit the crisis.

For the curious, semireligious drive of the Anti- Mason party in 1832 and for the most successful of all third-party attempts, by Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, these four conditions obtained. There have been dozens and scores of other attempts. None has elected a president and only a few have affected national politics materially.

Do the four conditions exist for Mr. Anderson this year?

The Anti-Mason group was a fervent, single-issue party overflowing into politics from evangelical Protestantism. It thought it had discovered a conspiracy by the aristocratic class. It held the first national political convention ever -- in Baltimore, in 1831. Its leader was William Wirt of Maryland. The party's fervor brought it 8 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election and a plurality (41 percent) in one state -- Vermont. Then it collapsed.

The story continued. Efforts to avoid the issue of slavery brought a proliferation of sectional third parties before the Civil War: the Free Soil, American, Constitutional Union, and an early Democratic Party under John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. It was a time of fragmentation: Republicans replaced the Whigs as the second major party in 1856. Then there was a long hiatus of third parties in the war and Reconstruction period. . . .

Political innovation began again in 1870s, with social unrest and conflict between agrarian and corporate interests affecting primarily the South and West. In 1892 Republicans were identified with tight money and Eastern business. Democrats failed to placate agriculture with Grover Cleveland. Angry farmers flocked to the Populist Party and James B. Weaver. They got 8.5 percent of the popular vote and brought "populist" into the political vocabulary. Also came the American Socialist Party, subscribing to the theory of continuing class conflict. Five times Eugene V. Debs was Socialist standard-bearer, followed by Norman Thomas. Many of the party's proposals were adopted and made respectable by the New Deal.

The most important third party in history came in 1912. Theodore Roosevelt, whose presidency, from 1901 to 1909, embodied the self-confident, nationalistic, but fair-minded American spirit of the period, associated the Republican Party with trustbusting, conservation, and direct-democracy programs. He yielded office in 1909 to his protege, William Howard Taft, the portly secretary of war. The genial Taft was no reformer. He became identified with political bossism and split with Teddy. In the 1912 GOP race in 13 state preferential primaries, 36 delegates went to La Follette, 48 to Taft, and 278 to Roosevelt; but many were contested. The Taft-controlled national committee allotted 235 out of 256 contested delegates to Taft. Roosevelt bolted. He said that he felt "fit as a bull moose" -- thus giving his splinter party its unofficial name, the Bull Moose Party -- and announced the "we stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord." he was the greatest natural phrase-dropper in American politics.

But what Mr. Anderson may note today of the 1912 contest is that it did not elect Roosevelt: it ensured the election of Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt got 27 percent of the popular vote. Taft 23 percent, the Socialists 6 percent, and Wilson the balance.

Roosevelt's Progressive Party didn't last. Democrats adopted reform programs , and Roosevelt returned to the Republicans in 1916.

In 1924 another estranged minority looked vainly for a conventional political outlet: Unemployed city workers and restless farmers found little hope in Republican Calvin Coolidge or Democrat Jhn W. Davis, a New York corporation lawyer. Sen. Robert La Follette Sr. ("Fighting Bob") of Wisconsin formed a new Progressive Party. Would it throw the election into the house, commentators asked? No, La Follette's 17 percent of the vote left Coolidge with a clear majority. The two-party system was again inviolate.

So it was again in 1948 with Henry A. Wallace, and also in 1968 with George C. Wallace, former Alabama governor and creator of the American Independence Party. Governor Wallace thought he could ride racial divisiveness into a third-party bargaining position between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, always a political possibility under the American system. Wallace actually got 46 electoral votes, enough to tip the balance for purposes of potential bargaining if neither of the two others got a majority. Nixon, however, won a majority plus some 31 electoral votes -- a close call, but adequate.

Personal ambition an reputation are not enough for an effective third-party or independent presidential bid; there must also be political crisis, a seeming indifference of the two major parties, and the emergence of an intense minority.

Does this apply to 1980 and to John Anderson? Most agree he is an effective spokesman. There is a growing multiple crisis of economic and foreign affairs. There is also an angry electorate. So far the conditions seem fulfilled.

But the two older parties are aware of the public unrest and are frantically seeking to meet it. The protest that has brought Mr. Anderson into the fray appears to be triggered as much as anything by the seemingly inevitable nomination of President Carter and Mr. Reagan. It is a matter of their adequacy and their personalities. Mr. Anderson specifically says he is not seeking a third party. How far he can mobilize a protest vote, rather than a party vote, remains to be seen.

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