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Friday, April 20, 2012

Americans Elect Whom?

by David Atkins

It looks like third party organization Americans Elect is having trouble finding candidates:

Last July, a well-funded nonprofit group called Americans Elect announced it had found a new and more honorable path to the White House. It would bypass the primaries, the founders said, via the Internet.

By empowering Web-izens, the group would skip early-state hucksterism and favor-seeking donors. Using viral marketing savvy, the organizers would advance a third-party “unity” ticket without the usual cynicism, circus acts and, it turns out, scrutiny. They aimed, in short, to take the politics out of politics....

Last week was supposed to be the first week of online voting on the Americans Elect site, when anyone anywhere could click to endorse practiced politicians or to draft neophytes. But the candidate choices have remained decidedly low-profile, and traffic is meager on the site, which cost $9 million to construct. Scrambling to avert failure, Americans Elect has postponed online voting for a month.

Third-party groups often form around a personality or a set of ideas. Ross Perot inspired independents by talking about debt reform in 1992. There was the Green Party crusade of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Unity08’s effort to transform New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg into an independent. Americans Elect, by contrast, offers an organizational framework to a possible presidential candidate who doesn’t need to tap private funds or enlist single-issue radicals.

The group is still on the lookout for a Goliath-toppling personality. “There’s a short ­list,” said chief executive Kahlil Byrd, without sharing names. How many? “Negative eight,” he said, and his spokeswoman repeated the cryptic tally. As in less than zero? Byrd would only clarify: “More than four.”

Without a candidate’s strengths to promote, Americans Elect’s weaknesses have become more apparent.
And therein lies part of the big problem. Voters with memories will recall that this sort of idea isn't inherently new: Ross Perot tried to do the same thing with the Reform Party.

As it turns out, if you want to engage in presidential politics, you have to do one of two things: 1) have an ideological basis for existence, or 2) be a rich vanity candidate.

Having an ideological basis for existence leads mostly to irrelevance or spoiler status in a winner-takes-all system, with Greens and Peace & Freedoms kneecapping Dems at times, and Libertarians and Constitution Party types kneecapping Republicans at times. Instant runoff voting might help that problem to a certain degree, but it's unlikely to change much absent a massive parliamentary sort of reform. Also, the nice thing about having an ideological basis for existence is that it brings third parties back to the table of politics, where it turns out that achieving consensus is pretty damn difficult because it turns out that Americans have very significant disagreements with each other.

But the most laughable third party approaches are the process-oriented ones that don't have an ideological core. That's what the Reform Party became, and that's what Americans Elect is. They're the people who believe (or pretend to believe) that what ails the country isn't that we the wrong policies, so much as that we just have spoiled children in our government who won't "work together to find solutions," as if the "right" solutions were just there for the taking if only the partisans would get out of the way. They ignore the fact that the worst policies tend to be the ones with broad bipartisan support. Or they're the people like Thomas Friedman who have a socially liberally, economically conservative worldview that they just know is the right approach and would have a lot of support if only those stupid voters would get out of the way and let the technocrats implement it. They know they're a small constituency who couldn't get elected as dogcatchers, but they can't say that, so they pretend the only reason they don't succeed is because the process is broken. Yes, the process may be broken, but it's not broken by partisanship. Rather, anyone who pays attention knows that the process isn't broken by fealty to party interests, but rather by fealty to the interests of the wealthy.

Which is exactly why process-oriented third parties embarrass themselves by turning to wealthy vanity candidates. They've got nowhere else to go.