Remember Barry Commoner’s presidential campaign in 1980 on the Citizens’ Party ticket? I thought not. There’s a long tradition of high-minded progressives making principled but hopeless runs for the White House. Sometimes they aim for the Democratic Party nomination (Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, the pseudoprogressive Bill Bradley); sometimes they go the third-party route (John Anderson, Dr. Spock, Commoner, Ralph Nader). Either way, progressives nationwide gallantly rally round; if they have doubts about the man, or the program (remember Jackson and Hymietown? Brown and the flat tax? Bradley and the contras?), they suppress them, along with whatever intimations of futility they may feel about the whole project. For months, or even, in the case of Jackson, years, activists work their tails off. The primary or the election comes along, rank and filers troop to the polling booths and vote their conscience–and that’s it for another four years.

Left-liberals may think they are building a movement by focusing on the highly visible presidential election. But are they? In the Democratic Party, the progressive who had the closest thing to a real organization and a popular constituency was Jesse Jackson. But where is the Rainbow Coalition now? As critics charged and supporters hotly denied, it turned out to be all about Jesse Jackson himself and faded away when his candidacy did; today Jackson is a devoted Clintonite whose main preoccupation is getting Wall Street firms to hire more black stockbrokers. And what about the third parties? The most successful third-party candidate in living memory, Ross Perot, is a conservative lunatic; he got twenty-eight times as many votes in 1992 as Ralph Nader got in 1996. Despite the generally right-wing orientation and white-suburbanite membership of Perot’s Reform Party, many progressives saw great potential in it and in its one success, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. Today the Reform Party is a national joke, and Jesse Ventura, despite his macho swagger and gift for colorful soundbites, is becoming a mainstream politician faster than you can say bodyslam: As I write, he just came out in favor of permanent most-favored-nation status and WTO membership for China, which must sorely disappoint those who saw him as a standard-bearer for the “anticorporate populism” that is supposed to replace the supposedly outmoded left.

My column about Ralph Nader evoked a mini-cascade of furious mail. But if something hasn’t worked the last ten times you tried it–the last third-party presidential candidate from the left to get enough votes to actually make a dent in national politics was Bob La Follette in 1924, with 16 percent–doesn’t it make sense to wonder whether going back to the drawing board with the same box of chalk is really such a good idea? Maybe there are reasons why challengers from the left–even a widely admired, universally recognized figure like Nader–don’t get very far as presidential candidates and don’t leave much behind, and it would be useful to think about them.

Personality is part of the story–of the candidates I’ve mentioned, only Jesse Jackson was a natural politician who enjoyed connecting with voters. If a run is purely symbolic, like Dr. Spock’s, it may not matter that the candidate always looks like he wishes he were somewhere else. But to come from the outside and get anywhere in politics today, you have to be a vivid extrovert or, as the Last Marxist puts it, “a full-of-life psychopath”–someone like Bill Clinton or Jesse Ventura or John McCain. The left doesn’t produce many people like that, because that kind of person wants to be on the winning side, where the action and the money and the girls are.

More important than the candidate’s personality, though, is the nature of electoral politics itself. Robert Kuttner recently quoted Tammany leader George Washington Plunkitt, who observed way back in 1905 that “politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business.” It’s about arranging national affairs to suit the (sometimes) competing agendas of organized interests: corporations, banks, Wall Street, small business, unions, homeowners and so on, all the way down the list–way down–to the Christian Coalition, the National Organization for Women and the Audubon Society. At the local level, third parties can sometimes take on this job, usually by performing a complicated dance with one of the two major parties; that’s what the Liberal, Conservative and Right to Life parties do in New York State, where fusion tickets are permitted, and what the Working Families Party hopes to do. But at the national level, third parties have no chips to get into the game: That’s why the AFL-CIO is not keen on the Labor Party, and why Bernie Sanders, nominally a socialist, votes like a Clinton Democrat. And that’s also why ordinary citizens do not flock to third-party standards, although they may throw caution to the winds and vote–once–for a man-of-the-minute like Perot.

Intuitively, people understand what electoral politics is really about, what it can and can’t do, so when the two-party system offers them nothing, they just stop voting. The people who remain at the polls are the ones for whom the system works at least some of the time. It’s all very well to say that the two parties are Tweedledum and Tweedledee: Both serve corporate interests, favor free trade and so on. But if you’re a public school teacher, the anti­school voucher Democratic Party really will protect your job better than the Republican Party; if you’re a white small-businessman, the tax-cutting anti­affirmative action Republicans really will do more for your bottom line than the Democrats. The differences between the parties may be small, but they’re quite concrete. There are reasons why most black voters are Democrats.

To detach voters from the current setup would take a lot more than a candidate, however charismatic. It would take a huge political movement that could credibly promise voters that it would fulfill the needs currently supplied, however imperfectly, by the existing parties. Focusing on the White House has never created such a movement before. Has anything changed that would enable it to do so now?