Washington — It was a watershed year in American politics. Voter disenchantment was rampant. New parties were springing up, one of them destined to elect 13 future presidents. That was 1856, the year the Republican Party was born.
Today, presidential candidate Barry Commoner hopes the historic scenario may be repeating itself. He views his infant Citizens Party much like the fledgling Republicans of 124 years ago, born of voter frustration at the failure of the two leading parties to confront a major issue of the times.
Just as the rallying issues for the Republicans was slavery, the issue for the Citizens Party is public control of the economy.
"We're going through a sea change in American politics," the environmental scientist-turned-politician told reporters over breakfast June 26.
The two major parties, he says, "have lost half the voters because they are not talking about the real issues," such as the role of profit-oriented corporate decisionmaking in precipitating the oil crisis and the troubles of the auto industry.
The strong independent presidential candidacy of Rep. John B. Anderson (R) of Illinois, Dr. Coomoner says, is "a signal" that voters are turning their backs on the major parties.
The initial goal of the Citizens Party -- formed last year as one of several "third" parties competing in this year's presidential campaign -- is to gain 5 percent of the 1980 popular vote.
This electoral toehold, says its presidential standard bearer, would serve as "a political base for the development of the party over the next decade as the majority political party."
So far, it has met the requirements for appearing on the November presidential ballots in nine of its target of 30 states.
Conceding that "I do not expect to be elected president," Dr. Commoner points out that the upstart Republican Party also lost its first presidential race in 1856 -- only to win the next six.