Americans Elect to the rescue!

Americans Elect to the rescue!
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If I had to summarize the US partisan system to a person unfamiliar with the country, I’d probably tell him that there are two main American parties; one with a firm philosophy stemming from a set of consistent principles and coherent worldview, while the other is called “the Democrats.”

Nothing against Democrats, of course, it’s just obvious than in an era of stricter and stricter right-wing dogmatism on the part of the GOP, it’s their party that has chosen to define itself mostly as “the alternative.” If you love tax cuts, spending cuts, war, guns, and Israel, the GOP is ready to take you. If you don’t, well, there’s always the other guys.

There are lefties in the Democrats, certainly (Canadians in particular should recall that on taxes, President Obama is actually more left-wing than Brian Topp, the supposedly most leftist NDP leadership candidate), but their appeal does not rely disproportionately on a pitch to ideology in quite the same way as the Republicans, who seem to have have no marketing strategy whatsoever beyond throwing out conservatism and hoping that it sticks. This actually makes the Democrats the true reactionary party, in my view, since a lot of Americans seem to vote Democrat these days simply out of revulsion for some aspect of the GOP — their support of the rich, their ostentatious Christianity, their warmongering, etc — rather than any clear alternative vision. The Republicans are the party of ideas, which you can certainly take or leave, and the Democrats are the party that thinks those ideas are nuts.

It’s for this reason that 2012 seems like exactly the wrong time for a third party movement in the States, especially a third party movement as self-righteously centrist as Americans Elect, the fashionable “online primary” thing run by a handful of pompous millionaires. For anyone who hasn’t already seen AE profiled in dozens of mainstream media venues (I envy you), their basic gist is that American politics is “too polarized” between “only two” options, with the assumption being that the people are crying out for a handful of eccentric rich folks to give them a third, sensible, moderate option in the next presidential election.

There’s an enormous amount of faux-populism one has to hack through to understand how the whole AE system works; they very much like to push the idea that their presidential candidate will be chosen entirely by voters via an “online primary,” but the reality is a fair bit more complicated. According to their by-laws, one has to register with AE before gaining any power to nominate and suggest candidates (which I guess is a fair enough way to prevent fraud) but final approval of the official nominee rests with a special “certification committee” and the AE board of directors, who, by using various vague standards, are supposed to sort through the suggestions and come up with a guy suitable of being their standard-bearer. As my colleague Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post noted, these rules seem to be in place mostly to ensure AE does not become a joke, thus allowing all the rich AE organizers to preserve their standing as principled moderates in a world of crazy.

Of course, this obsession with respectable centrism is precisely what makes Americans Elect so useless in the first place. If you think Obama is as far-left as the Republicans are far-right, you’re probably a Republican already, since only Republicans believe that. If you think the Republicans are too far-right, you’re probably a Democrat, because they don’t really expect you to think much more. The two parties have purposely moulded themselves in such a way as to minimize the amount of available middle ground.

A truly viable American third party, in this context, would almost certainly have to be an extremist of some sort, or, in other words, exactly the opposite of what AE thinks the country wants. The Americans Elect leaderboard actually reflects this pretty well; two out of their top three candidates (Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders) are extremists, and easily outnumber good ol’ Jon Huntsman in the middle.

Ron Paul is really a very good case study in this regard, since he’s already the closest thing America has to a third party presidential candidate at the moment, yet his increased viability is almost entirely the product of a voter phenomenon AE is not interested in addressing. Paul’s support does not come from some disenfranchised “sensible centre” of American life, after all, but rather the most frazzled edges of it. His appeal does not stem from an ability to offer common-sense solutions to technocratic problems like the economy and the environment, but rather a mix of radical and conspiratorial views on existential topics like war and the state.

If they continue along their present path, it’s hard to see how AE could even rise to the status of a spoiler. If they nominate Jon Huntsman or Michael Bloomberg (which is what I assume they will do), whose support will be at risk? Not the Republicans, who are going to be uppity enough with the “moderate” they have on their own ticket, and certainly not Democrats, who are going to see an Obama second term as the only thing standing between them and a four-year Tea Party hellscape. Mushy middle independents can throw their votes to AE, I guess, but that will merely force both parties to pander more actively to their own ideological bases — thus exacerbating, rather than solving the intended problem.

If AE was truly serious about recalibrating American politics in a more moderate direction, their best choice would probably be to nominate two extremists, one on the left and one on the right, in order to allow both the Dems and the GOP to write-off their most problematic fringe. That would allow both parties to run even more centrist campaigns than they already do in all presidential elections, and turn the AE candidates into a sort of flypaper for the kook brigade.

But who wants to put that on a resume?


  1. Jon Bennett

    Is Americans Elect the newest branding of the No Labels jokers?

  2. SES

    I don't think they're formally tied, but there's definitely some crossover. One of the co-founders of No Labels is on the board of Americans Elect.

  3. drs

    Never heard of these jokers. — an American

  4. Colin

    Wow if AE really has to throw weight in favor of Ron Paul, there really isn't a decent third choice left to stand. D:

  5. Svan

    This was the most jilted thing I've seen out of you in recent weeks. Those were some cheap burns. This does successfully illustrate the sort of problems that arise when you to restrict electoral representation within a democracy. The process really is the product in the end. An online primary policed for politically antiseptic candidates would pre-select an in-group preference to represent their demographically specific needs and, likely, not usher in a new era of political science.

    I see modern distinctions between liberals and conservatives as one a dangerously unstable liberal dream machine and conservative hesitation to not touch anything lest it all go to shit. Though, this could be seriously challenged by the flaccid puttering of the democratic super majority.

  6. ThePsudo

    What was the least jilted, most praiseworthy think you've seen from JJ during that same period?

  7. @Andy928766

    When I first came across Americans Elect, probably through some Internet advertisement several months ago, I was actually kind of intrigued by the idea. It is an interesting concept, so I will give them credit for that at least. But of course, it did not take me long to realize the flaws in the idea, and I was not even aware of this committee approval process until now.

    First of all, the basic assumption of the idea is a little flawed. They set out to give Americans a "third way" (as they call it) in the political process of nominating a Presidential candidate. To give people a louder voice in finding a candidate that will be acceptable to most Americans. And that is where the problem lies. The idea that somewhere in the country is some individual that will please a large majority (or maybe even a simple majority) is utopian nonsense.

    The second problem lies with the use of an "Internet primary." The idea that the Internet could be used as a more representative voice for Americans is bunk. Simply put, we still live in an era where younger people dominate the Internet while there are still tons of older voters out there. The fact that Ron Paul (often popular with 20-somethings and not usually older demographics) is the most popular candidate right now on Americans Elect while he consistently polls last nationally out of the four major Republican candidates is only proof of that.

    And I only figured out all that before I read your article and learned about this approval process.

    I suppose even if they nominated a moderate (like Jon Huntsman), even if Americans Elect somehow played a real part in the election, the candidate would probably end up being a spoiler to no one (like Ross Perot in 1992).

    If Paul got nominated (since he is not going to get the Republican nomination anyway), he would certainly drum up support across the Internet, but little in real life. If someone else got the AE nomination, they will probably play little to no part in the election itself.

  8. billytheskink

    Correct assessments of Ross Perot's effect on the 1992 election should be recognized. They are far too rare.

    Good on you, sir.

  9. David

    And this is different from Mel Hurtig and the National Party how?

    (Do I get bonus points for doing all that from memory and not looking it up?)

    I predict that this AE thing will have exactly the same effect as the National Party of Canada (also started by a pompous millionaire) did back in 1993 – some media interest, a bemused reaction from the Canadian public, dismal showing at the polls, and 19 years later a "Peter who and the what Elect?" (qv. "Mel who and the what Party?")

  10. Daniel

    So anyone who doesn't agree with party dogma is fringe? Really, political perception of a politician is, as you so astutely pointed out, completely relative. If there were a enough Ron Paul/Libertarian republicans, the NeoCon/Israel First! republicans would seem fringe. Likewise, if their were enough, say, communists in the Democrat party, Obama's center/left philosophy would seem fringe. All about perspective.

    However, a radical, or extremist is always, 100% of the time someone you disagree with. You sort of fell prey to that at the end of your essay, where you used those tired old labels on libertarians.

    Speaking (writing) as a libertarian who has followed this site for 3 years, could you do me a favor? You obviously don't see eye-to-eye with the Ron Paul crowd, but could you at least provide some slightly less lazy commentary on that outlook?

  11. ThePsudo

    You say, "a radical, or extremists, is always, 100% of the time someone you diagree with."

    I find that to be disastrously false. I quite like the minarchy of Ayn Rand, but I recognize she is an extremist. I quite like philosophy of full religious expression united with religious plurality and freedom that was a central tenant of Joseph Smith's political experimentation in the 1840s, but I recognize that he was an extremist. I am a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln's personal sacrifice and principled pursuit of the survival of the national character at any cost, but I recognize his methods were extreme beyond anything that has happened in America for 100 years and there's no way he'd have been elected without succession removing most of his strongest opponents from the election. I more often agree with diverse extremists than I do with icons of the center; at least extremists believe in something. I pine for some extremism in modern politics, someone who believes in something worth believing in; but Ron Paul doesn't fit that role any better than Ralph Nader (who, yes, is running yet again).

    You say, "could you at least provide some slightly less lazy commentary on that outlook?"

    Could you provide less lazy commentary on Paul as an example? I can name a few issues on which Ron Paul is an extremist without any research at all:
    1) Ron Paul seeks to end the Federal Reserve; others seek to audit it, or do not think it is a significant issue. This puts Ron Paul in the most extreme position of any Presidential candidate of note. I've never been quite clear on whether he opposes all national banks on principle, and if not what a national bank should do and look like in a Paulian universe.
    2) He believes in an almost complete abandonment of international bureaucracies such as the WTO, NAFTA, the UN, and NATO. Others, especially conservatives, look to selectively exit a few of these based on principled opposition to what the specific institutions specifically do, but Ron Paul opposes any such business-as-usual diplomacy on principle.
    3) He wants to bring home all the troops — not just from from war zones like Afghanistan where they are actively engaged, but from military bases in places like Germany, Australia, and South Korea where they have provided a stabilizing and supportive effect on world affairs for generations. The US Navy's current tagline is "A Global force for good"; this is exactly what Ron Paul opposes.
    4) Many agree that our federal government is financially untenable right now, but Ron Paul seeks to completely end, what, seven different federal departments? In what way is that anything but extreme? How is that anything but the fringes of modern political sentiment?
    Given well-known positions like this, what apart from "it's all relative" suggests Ron Paul is not a relative extremist? What is insulting or derisive or lazy about calling him what he is? The only sense in which it is lazy is the same sense in which the truth is easy to remember but a lie is not.

  12. J.J. McCullough

    What characterization did you disagree with? I don't think it's unfair to say he has radical and conspiratorial views. It is very relative, but I think when you're way outside the mainstream, conspiracies and radicalism will always be a necessary component of your worldview.

    Do you think most Ron Paul supporters look to him as a candidate with "solutions," in the sense of a traditional politician? Even when I try to look at the world from a libertarian perspective, I see Paul as a guy whose most attractive qualities are what he says and believes, rather than what he promises to do.

  13. Les

    I doubt I'm alone, but I personally support Ron Paul not because I believe he will be able to get his agenda pushed through a hostile congress, in fact I'm rather counting on it not being.. rather I'm hoping he'll prove so disruptive to the political machine that it'll jump the rails in such a way as to open up the possibility of putting it on another track.

    It's a rather damning thing in the US that voting for a 'Reasonable' candidate, ANY reasonable candidate, is a vote for 'politics as usual' and thus something to be despised.

  14. robota rozum

    "So anyone who doesn't agree with party dogma is fringe?"

    It seems like you are reading pejorative connotations into the word "fringe". In any normally distributed population there are going to be outliers, fringe cases, whatever you want to call those that are removed from the average. You are right that it could have been the case that Dr. Paul represented the average, but it so happens that he doesn't, so he is described as "fringe". Would it add anything to the commentary to describe him as "fringe, although if everyone else was like him he wouldn't be"?

  15. Nicolasrll

    I'll give you that the GOP's philosophy is "firm". "Consistent" and "coherent", however, are not words I would associate with the current incarnation of the Republican party, not by a long shot. But it does seem true that the Democratic party seems to kind of be the party of "Not Republicans" these days.

  16. garvin anders

    Part of the problem is that most of the folks (myself included) who were tossed out of the GOP when they swung right had no where to go but the Democrats in terms of voting. Whenever one group begins taking harder stances, the other will get musher as defections mount up. I suppose this wouldn't happen in a multi-party system, but alot of the multi-party systems I've seen have two main parties passing back and forth power with a bunch of also rans in coalition with them. I'm not sure how that creates an effective difference…

  17. ThePsudo

    I love extremists. Anyone who actually has a philosophy of their own, who believes what they believe from careful reasoning based on personal principles, will almost inherently be an extremist simply because they refuse to participate in the moderating forces of compromise and social pressure. Being an extremist does not prove such a respectable, principled nature, but it's far more likely for that respectable, principled nature to result in extremism than in reserved moderation.

    In other words, screw the finger-to-the-wind, compromise-ridden, let's-be-everyone unity freaks. Ideas are tested by rational conflict between principled advocates, and principled advocates don't check with popular opinion before advocating their principles. If in the pursuit of kind, polite coexistence we look down on those who express unique opinions, we undermine the greatest benefits of the arena of ideas. Bring on the principled advocates, especially the extremists among them! Or, in other words, bring on the ideas!

  18. guest

    Electoral political mathematics is pretty simple.
    You want a campaign that will secure you at least 50%+1. Generally that will mean that the Republicans will try to cover a base from the right to the centre of the political spectrum and the Dems will cover a base from the Left to the centre – the win then goes to whichever side manages to capture their side of the pendulum most effectively, plus that one extra that lies just over the break even. Now, if your electorate swings to the conservative your left wing party has to shift right, if the voters swing progressive the right wing party swings a bit left. If you can pick up extras – all the better, but this tends to mean that the other side simply haven't calculated where the mid-point is and covered their base well.
    Given most Western democracies have got this dance pretty well sorted I agree completely with JJ that it would probably be more effective for a 'third way' group to try to grab the outside fringes rather than the middle. This would necessarily push both parties more into the middle to grab that necessary 50+1 and the middle is already too heavily staked out for most third-party players to break-in.

  19. OldsVistaCruiser

    Are you aware that the U.S. Constitution once required that the president and vice-president be of opposite parties? That's right – there were no VP candidates in the beginning of U.S. history. What happened was that the vice-president was the person who got the second-highest number of electoral votes for president. Could you imagine John McCain being Obama's vice-president?

    That was changed in 1804 with the ratification of the 12th Amendment, as it was clear that although George Washington and John Adams served well together, Adams and Thomas Jefferson didn't do well together, nor did Jefferson and Aaron Burr (the guy who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804).

  20. Thornus

    That's a gross over simplification. At that time, each elector had two votes. That's why we say Washington was unanimous in the Electoral College despite receiving only 69 of 138 electoral votes; the second 69 were just the first 69 electors casting their second ballot.

    Even as far back as the first election, the factions had their ducks in a row and would just have the vice presidential nominee just receive one less electoral vote than the president. What caused the 12th Amendment was some miscommunication by the Democratic-Republicans which led to all of their electors casting both votes for Jefferson and Burr instead of one of them throwing away his second vote on someone else instead of Burr.

    And even if McCain were Obama's veep, it would not have changed a single thing. The VP's only job is to preside over the Senate and cast a tie breaking vote if necessary. If the Prez had a vice president of the other party, rather than going with the norm of bringing the vice president in and being given a lot of duties, the president would probably just shut out the vice president and make him sit around doing nothing but recognizing the good senator from Wyoming. The last time a vice president of the other party would have made a difference would have been when Dubya had the 50/50 Senate for like two months.

  21. Kadin

    "the president would probably just shut out the vice president and make him sit around doing nothing"

    This isn't even unheard of in recent history. That was why LBJ hated the VP-ship so much.

  22. Les

    "Are you aware that the U.S. Constitution once required that the president and vice-president be of opposite parties?"

    Actually, the U.S. Constitution never required any such thing… simply by virtue that the Constitution never set into position any mechanism for integrating political parties into the system, nor for shutting them out of same. As far as the U.S. Constitution is concerned, political parties don't exist as it makes no indication of acknowledging them.

  23. J.J. McCullough

    Funny that Tea Party people don't mention that.

  24. Gray

    If you look at how the four "no party" elections (1789, 1792, 1796, and 1824) ran, the Electoral College was more or less supposed to work like the first ballot at a contested convention, and Congress was supposed to be able to pick from the five-or-so top candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency. Look at the wild scattering of "second votes" in 1789 and 1796, you've got a couple of "favorite sons" getting those votes. As to 1824…well, that election played out similarly to one of the "machine era" conventions (I actually did a paper comparing 1824 to the Democratic nomination in 1968 back in high school).

    I suspect that the founders might have expected some sort of factionalization in Congress, but at the same time it's easy to see them expecting those caucuses to be very loose and shifting (which indeed they were…the US saw a bunch of parties come and go, some attaining substantial prominence, through 1860) rather than having a small number of locked-in parties.

    As to Americans Elect, I think their leadership board is going to be stuck with a damned if they do/damned if they don't problem: If they veto all of the more extreme candidates (I'm looking at Ron Paul in particular), they can watch all of those extremists' supporters (and with several of them, the number is substantial indeed) blow them a raspberry and walk away. With Paul's people, if they were to reject Paul I think there's a realistic risk of the "delegates" successfully moving to overturn a block on Paul through the 2/3 mechanism they set up.

  25. Kadin

    "self-righteously centrist"

    Yes. This is so common among centrists. I mean, I don't have anything against centrists per se, but it's the smug, self-satisfied attitude that so often accompanies it that infuriates me. So often, they're just convinced that because they're "centrists", their political opinions are inherently more reasonable than everyone else's.

  26. Jake

    AE is on the internet. In other words its just going to be Libertarian candidates. That's why Ron Paul is ahead in their polling. Stupid idea. If American's wanted a third party a la Lieberman, McCain and Bloomberg they would have. Obama was the leftist versus a moderate Republican last time around. Now it will be a farther leftist versus a populist conservative, libertarian, or moderate. If Americans wanted a third option they simply would just vote in the GOP primary this time around. But most just don't care enough to be bothered.

  27. robota rozum

    I'm not sure the Republican party actually has a coherent worldview. I have heard *many* Republicans decry other Republicans for being RINOs, and due to the glorious diversity of human opinion this label has probably been applied at one time or another to every current major Republican. I guess you could say Republicans share a hysterical paranoia, but that hardly seems to count. You're spot on in noting the increased dogmatism, but at the same time if no one's using the same book coherence goes out the window.

    I mean, just look at the current primaries. The only similarities between the various front runners over time is that they are 1) not Mitt Romney and 2) not Ron Paul. On economics, foreign affairs, religion, experience, etc. they could hardly be more dissimilar. In my mind only so much of this can be put down to the hyperactive media-political complex. At least some of the blame has to go to no clear collective vision on the Republican side.

    This should not be read to suggest that the Democrats do any better in this area. President Obama seems to positively delight in racing around the ideological landscape, for instance.


    I really enjoyed the discussion of AE's (potential) ability to impact an election by nominating a trojan horse candidate. I doubt very, very much the people behind it are thinking it through to that level, though.

  28. J.J. McCullough

    "On economics, foreign affairs, religion, experience, etc. they could hardly be more dissimilar."

    Yes, very true, but they nevertheless all basically sang from the same book of standard right-wing talking points. Most of the GOP debates to date, in fact, have mostly been exercises in which the candidates try to clarify their own perceived heresies into some manner of "correct" scripted Republican standard.

    I think there is a lot of GOP hypocrisy, but I still think most of their policies are generally coherent, even if you disagree with the logic or the conclusions. Cut taxes and spending to stimulate the economy, stand with Israel no matter what, oppose gay marriage and abortion. I think it's a pretty coherent, simple agenda.

  29. Jon Bennett

    By this criteria, Dick Cheney isn't a Republican due to his support of Gay Marriage, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul aren't b/c they're anti-Israel, and Barry Goldwater wasn't because he was all about the abortions

  30. Dan

    While I think that forcing a third party is silly, this group isn't completely off base. Right now the state of Montana has a Democratic Governor and a Republican Lt. Governor, and they were elected on the same ticket twice (they run on the same ticket in Montana). It can be done.