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?