Democracy Divided By Duopoly Equals Americans Elect
In the course of riffing on Paul Harris's incisive take on the current state of Americans Elect, published this week in the Guardian — if you haven't yet read this, please do — Jason Linkins tried to argue that
while most third parties assemble around a set of core values and then go about seeking like-minded statesmen to run under that banner, Americans Elect decided right off the bat that they weren't really for anything — only that some third party needed to exist to prove that people wanted third parties to exist. All of the stuff about having a belief system and a candidate would come after the organization obtained ballot access. So if you want to imagine Americans Elect's vision of the future, picture a horse, standing behind a cart, forever.
But that's not quite right. As I pointed out to Linkins in
a private email (which, obviously, wasn't that private):
Of course, Americans Elect's leaders and backers do have a set of core values — it's just that they like to pretend that they don't, since, at least on paper, they're supposed to be "opening up the process."
Over the last couple of weeks, however, there have
been signs that Americans Elect is getting a little more honest with the public about what it wants to do with its
core values centrist agenda — and also, perhaps, more honest with itself about the limits of what it can do with its values agenda in 2012.
Forget all the talk of "revolution" and "people power"
and picking "a president, not a party."
What Americans Elect's top leaders and most prominent supporters now are openly admitting is that it's come down to this deep hedging of the Americans Elect bet:
Americans Elect is one group of Establishment Rs and Ds trying to give an ultimatum to another group of slightly less-Establishment Rs and Ds.
:: :: ::
ONE COULD DATE the start of the new glasnost policy at Americans Elect to two weeks ago, when Americans Elect dispatched two of its top leaders — director Christie Todd Whitman, a moderate Republican, and advisory board member David Boren, a conservative Democrat — on a quick media tour of Politico and PBS, in which the leaders framed Americans Elect explicitly as not having anything revolutionary in mind — on PBS Newshour, both Boren and Whitman were careful to declare their fealty to their respective parties — but, rather, as being a more targeted effort simply to reform the existing Democratic and Republican parties along centrist lines.
In the Politico op-ed, the authors (joined by former defense secretary Bill Cohen) wrote that "[t]he
American people should challenge the two parties and their presidential candidates to make three ironclad commitments" — in brief: (1) Simpson-Bowles, (2) a "national unity government" with leaders from "both parties" in the Cabinet, and (3) campaign spending limits, with contributions restricted to eligible voters.
Then came the "or else":
If the party leaders ignore these serious challenges, then it is time for the voters to consider another alternative...Americans Elect.
Americans Elect, they said, would produce "a bipartisan ticket," and they generously suggested two possible choices: either "a Democrat and Republican" or "a Republican and a Democrat."
The point of this effort (emphasis mine):
A victory by this ticket with this approach could be the “shock therapy” needed to get the two-party system working again.
:: :: ::
THAT framing — Americans Elect as "the 'shock therapy' needed to get the two-party system working again" — is very different from anything you'll see in the governing documents of Americans Elect (the corporate Rules and By-Laws).
It's very different from anything on the Americans Elect Web site, which says that "[t]he goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters — not the political system."
It's very different from the message that Americans Elect is selling on Twitter or on Facebook, where two of its top stories today are about how "the two-party system" is "getting old" and about how this system "divides our government" and "stands in the way of progress."
It's very different from anything that Americans Elect leaders like COO Elliot Ackerman and advisory board member Mark McKinnon have been saying in their ubiquitous appearances on MSNBC.
:: :: ::
AND, yet — likely, in part, because Americans Elect really needs the backing of insiders like Whitman and Boren — this seems to be the new, smaller message that Americans Elect is selling: a message that talks tough on ideology but that leaves the two "major" parties firmly in control, even as it tries to nudge them toward the "center."
Americans Elect pulsed this message again, early this week, with a press release highlighting comments by advisory board member John Backus, who put it even more bluntly than did Whitman, Boren and Cohen (emphasis mine):
The idea behind Americans Elect is to force the two parties to the center where they
Force the two parties to the center.
Then, a couple of days ago, Thomas Friedman took to
the Times to — once again — regale his readers with
his utopian fantasies of a magical place in which the sun never sets on right-wing Democrats and left-wing Republicans, who, together with unicorns and bunny rabbits, amidst kool-aid streams and lollipop trees, play jump rope with rainbows all day long.
The "radical center," Friedman called it last summer, when he became the original Big Media benefactor of Americans Elect — the one to tell his friends in the Establishment that "it's OK to like this."
This week, writing from New Zealand, Friedman
lamented (emphasis mine):
"Looking at America from here, makes me
feel as though we have the worst of all worlds right now. The days when there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, who nudged the two parties together, appear over [and] we lack any credible Third Party that could capture enough of the center to force" — there's that word, again — "both Democrats and Republicans to compete for votes there."
In spirit, this actually is similar to what Friedman suggested in his roll-out of Americans Elect, eight months ago. Americans Elect, he wrote then
will not only be on the ballot in every state but be able to take part in every presidential debate and challenge both parties from the middle with the best ideas on how deal with the debt, education and jobs.
Even if Americans Elect manages to get on the ballot in most, or all 50, states, its wing-clipped messaging of recent days suggests that, in the House of Ackerman, political reality is coming home to roost, and that the second part of Friedman's projection — a spot in the general-election debates — may be where Americans Elect has adjusted its sights for this election cycle.
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TOM FRIEDMAN might still be dreaming of a centrist "Third Party" — Bat Signal to Americans Elect — but it seems clear that Americans Elect itself is in the expectations-managing mode of scaling back and
moving on from that ambition, at least for 2012.
Americans Elect finds itself in this position, in part, because — as Paul Harris and others have noted — it simply has failed to attract a political celebrity as a "headlining" candidate. Even the leaders of Americans Elect always have acknowledged that a political celebrity was what this effort required. But, at this late date, it's hard to imagine that anybody apart from Michael Bloomberg (and his cash) would be able to flip the switch on a serious Americans Elect candidacy.
Certainly, if what Americans Elect wants is a ticket that will "force" the hands of Republicans and Democrats in Washington, Buddy Roemer — currently in the lead, among the declared Americans Elect candidates — doesn't look like much of an Enforcer.
Of course, "the two parties" always have loomed large, for Americans Elect. What seems clear, though — especially from the apparent "downsizing" of Americans Elect as primarily a "rescue mission" aimed simply at making "the two parties" better versions of themselves — is that younger guns like CEO Kahlil Byrd and COO Elliot Ackerman might have underestimated just how large these parties loomed.
It's not that "forcing the two parties to the center," as John Backus put it, was not always one of the ideas "behind Americans Elect." But was it always, as Backus now claims, "the" idea? Was the main point always the one identified by Whitman, Boren and Cohen: simply to provide "the 'shock therapy' needed to get the two-party system working again"?
Given everything else that I know about Americans Elect, I am prepared to concede the possibility that the
answers to these questions are "yes," and that all the anti-system rhetoric that Americans Elect has, for months, been pushing through various media channels has been nothing but marketing claptrap designed to entice unsuspecting idealists to visit the Web site, register and become verified delegates.
But it also seems reasonable to conclude that this anti-system message has reflected the genuine, albeit corrupted, desire on the part of a significant portion of the Leadership of Americans Elect to do something more than try to make "the two parties" behave in ways that are consistent with these leaders' own preferences.
In light of the latter possibility, the new messaging At the end of the day, the true democratic promise of an open, Web-based nominating process and a 50-state ballot line has come up against the two-party duopoly; and the truth is that — once the built-in discount of Americans Elect's "bipartisan," "centrist" agenda is figured in as an offset — not much is left over. In other words: When seen through the lens of what Americans Elect could have been, stripped of its ideological pretensions... [Democracy] ÷ [D + R] = [meh]
points to an Americans Elect that is beginning to cut its losses — possibly, in part, because powerful Americans Elect leaders like Christie Whitman and David Boren are not prepared to go "all the way" with this project, absent a political star to carry the banner.
At the end of the day, the true democratic promise of an open, Web-based nominating process and a 50-state ballot line has come up against the two-party duopoly; and the truth is that — once the built-in discount of Americans Elect's "bipartisan," "centrist" agenda is figured in as an offset — not much is left over.
In other words: When seen through the lens of what Americans Elect could have been, stripped of its ideological pretensions...
[Democracy] ÷ [D + R] = [meh]