In recent days, Lawrence Lessig and I have been
having a public conversation about the neutrality policy at Americans Elect (me on 13 May and — in response
to a personal email from Lessig — 15 May; Lessig on
Although I've been a critic of Lessig on this issue,
I hope it's clear that I've initiated this dialogue with
Lessig not to somehow "call him out" or "take him on" but, rather, to promote a deeper understanding of the potential implications of the Americans Elect neutrality policy, by engaging Lessig both as someone who thinks deeply about issues of organizational process, and as someone whose own implementation of the policy can
be seen as an inflection point for the level of non-neutral public advocacy for specific candidates that Americans Elect was prepared to accept from members of its Board of Advisors.
I deeply respect and appreciate Lessig's willingness to reciprocate the engagement in the public space of his own blog.
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TO RECAP the fine-print origins of this discussion...
According to Section 10.0 of the corporate Rules
of Americans Elect (pdf link — emphasis mine):
Until the Americans Elect ticket has been selected by majority vote of participating Delegates...Americans Elect shall be neutral with respect to all Candidates and shall not endorse, oppose, advance, or advocate any particular Candidate.
But, down at the personal level, only directors and
staff officers of Americans Elect — not members of
the Board of Advisors — are bound by this policy.
Lessig, who is on the advisory board and who was a tireless advocate for the Americans Elect candidacy of Buddy Roemer — even going so far as to appear with Roemer on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" — thinks this exemption is OK. I don't.
Perhaps you think it strange that I am referring to Americans Elect in the present tense — as though anything to do with Americans Elect still was a live
issue. After all, didn't Americans Elect suffer a rather spectacular flame-out last week?
In fact: In the same public statement last Thursday
in which Americans Elect informed that "the primary process for the Americans Elect nomination" — by
which it meant the nomination of a presidential ticket
for 2012 — "has come to an end," the corporation
We are continuing the Americans Elect
mission of creating more choice in our
political system, giving candidates unaffiliated with the nominating process of either major party an authentic way to run for office and giving the American people a greater voice
in our political process.
Indeed, as Richard Winger of Ballot Access News notes:
Even if Americans Elect has no nominees
for any partisan office anywhere in
the United States in 2012, it will still be
a qualified party in 2014 in eleven states
if it takes certain minimal steps to remain organized. Furthermore, if the organization
will run candidates for office other than President in certain other states, it may
remain ballot-qualified in additional states.
So, Americans Elect hasn't just melted away, like
the Wicked Witch of the West doused with a pail of water. It is likely to be with us for at least one more election cycle beyond the current one.
That, together with the fact that some of the analysis
of What Happened already has begun to go sideways,
is why it's vitally important to continue to think through the implications of the corporation's organizational
ethic — including its policies and practices on political neutrality.
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THERE ARE a number of different ways to
approach this issue. One could ask:
Does the neutrality policy that Americans Elect
has articulated, in its Rules and ByLaws, clearly
and accurately communicate the policy that it
intends to enforce?
Is Americans Elect enforcing the neutrality policy
that it has articulated?
or — to frame this question another way...
Are Americans Elect's neutrality policies and
I've drawn on all of these approaches. But the more powerful question — and my real focus here — is:
Are Americans Elect's neutrality policies and practices
the right ones, given the corporation's stated values
and goals — i.e., opening up the political process; breaking up the two-party duopoly; putting full voting power back in the hands of "the people"?
To put it more pointedly...
Are Americans Elect's carefully attenuated policies
and practices on political neutrality what one should expect from an organization that was serious about implementing the democratic values and goals that Americans Elect claims to be championing?
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LAST FRIDAY, in the wake of the Americans Elect statement the afternoon before, New York Times columnist David Brooks filmed a PBS NewsHour feature in which he was asked what he thought had happened. Brooks offered some conventional wisdom, which quickly was seconded by Mark Shields (video starting at 2:38 — emphases mine):
I think the lesson here is that, if you're
gonna — there are a lotta people who are disaffected by the two parties — but, if you're gonna offer an alternative, you have to be for something. You just can't be a process. And so, you gotta have a story to tell, have
a bunch of issues, have a constituency. And they were, s[orta] wanted to be neutral. And I think that was sorta the problem.
Brooks was half right. To be sure, it is a compelling
set of ideas — and a candidate to deliver those ideas compellingly — that energizes individual voters and galvanizes and mobilizes blocs of those voters.
But it's irresponsible to suggest that Americans Elect "wanted to be neutral" or that it wanted to be "just...a process." That was the spin, of course. But it's not the way it was.
The truth is, one can't fully understand the license that Americans Elect gives its advisors, i.e., the permission it gives them to be non-neutral, without understanding the larger organizational ecosystem of which this license is a part — an ecosystem in which:
advisors almost invariably have used their license
to publicly advocate only for candidates that qualify
as "socially moderate and fiscally conservative" representatives of the ideological "center";
an ecosystem in which
even Americans Elect directors and staffers, who, according to Bylaws 4.12 and 6.1 (pdf link), do not
have this license, have used it anyway — with impunity and without consequence — to publicly advocate for candidates that answer to this same ideological profile;
an ecosystem in which
Americans Elect mandates an ideologically "balanced" "unity" ticket that — for all of the corporation's
rhetoric about the constrained options that the
"broken" two-party system presents to voters and
to citizens — includes a formally stated preference
for an R/D or a D/R ticket, a configuration that, as a practical matter, would average out somewhere between "moderate Republican" and "Blue Dog Democrat."
an ecosystem in which
the question of whether any and every proposed
ticket qualifies as ideologically "balanced" is a determination made by the Candidate Certification Committee — a committee of the Board of Americans Elect whose members, according to the Bylaws (5.4.2), are "appointed by [and] serve at the pleasure of the
Board and may be removed without cause."
and an ecosystem in which
although, on paper, provision is made in Rule 12.2 for delegates to reverse decisions of the Board, the Board in the past has repressed delegates' ability to use the Rule, in such a way as to make the Rule meaningless.
First of all: "No money goes to supporting any issue
or other political purpose"? Really?!!
What has been at play here is a kind of "centrist" protectionism — sometimes explicit, often implicit, but always intended to rig the game in favor of a highly specific outcome.
So, when Lessig's fellow advisory board member David Walker — who was the subject of a late draft effort — tweeted last Friday that "Americans Elect is about choice and competition," well, perhaps in a limited, abstract sense, an Americans Elect ticket produced within, and by, this ideological ethos would have offered voters one more "choice" and would have provided some "competition" to the tickets produced by the Democratic and Republican parties.
But, internal to the Americans Elect process — down in the Board-controlled habitat of delegates and candidates and "support clicks" that Americans Elect claims as the origin of a new model of democratic self-governance — the Americans Elect ticket always was going to be the Board's choice, not the people's: the product of a paternalistic, anti-competitive and, ultimately, anti-democratic impulse.
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THIS IS the backdrop against which one must challenge David Brooks's conventional wisdom with more important questions:
- Is there a cause-and-effect link, not between Americans Elect's neutrality surplus and its enthusiasm deficit — but between its neutrality deficit and its enthusiasm deficit?
- What if Americans Elect really had been "just...a process," and if — from the top down and the bottom up — the Americans Elect corporation, its Board, its staff, its advisors, and even its "delegate leaders" and other volunteers had been publicly neutral?
- Could such a truly neutral and altruistic Americans Elect — an Americans Elect whose only interest was (and was seen to be) to offer a ballot line
and a Web-based nominating platform — have attracted many more delegates and many more credible candidates, of all ideological persuasions?
- Might a politically neutral Americans Elect — rather than the ideologically stacked Americans Elect that we saw — have been more likely to produce an actual ticket, born of the shared sense of potential delegates and potential candidates, alike, that anything was possible?
- Is Americans Elect's absolute organizational neutrality a key to its catalyzing the kind of small-d democratic energy and citizen engagement that
is necessary, in order to create the participatory and electoral reforms that Americans Elect claims to want?
My contention is: Yes!
Had Americans Elect been truly and fiercely neutral — rather than giving mere lip service to neutrality, while paving the way for a "centrist," fiscally hawkish, Establishment-oriented ticket...
Had Americans Elect simply trusted delegates and candidates, rather than trying to manage them...
It could have created a truly free marketplace of
political ideas that might have been more attractive
to delegates and candidates alike.
Ironically, this might have been more likely to
produce an actual ticket — a ticket that was more flavorful and nourishing philosophically and that, precisely because it was grassroots-emergent and
not the product of a top-down fix, was more powerful
in political and electoral terms.
The great promise of Americans Elect, yet to be
realized — the only way for Americans Elect to produce authentic, grassroots-emergent candidates — is for it to become a truly free marketplace of political ideas and candidates. And the only way for that to happen is
for Americans Elect to jettison its "centrist" agenda, including its "balanced ticket obligation" and other procedural controls designed to help cultivate ideological purity and ensure the nomination only of candidates from the power chambers of the institutional Establishment
for Americans Elect itself — Official Americans Elect — the Americans Elect of press releases; interviews; op-eds; blogs; Twitter feeds; and television, radio,
video and podcast appearances — the Americans Elect that constitutes itself, via all these media, in the public statements of the Board and its committees, as well as
in the public comments of individual directors, staff, advisors, "delegate leaders," and volunteers...
...for this Americans Elect to be fiercely and doggedly neutral and independent of any political party, ideology, candidate or influence.
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LESSIG suggests that the critique I am making is a
We’ve got to avoid the Caesar’s-wife syndrome: If a new institution comes along promising a change from a plainly broken existing institution, the test should not be whether it is perfect. The test is whether it
is better than the alternatives — because otherwise, you bias in favor of the (plainly broken) status quo.
Lessig is right, of course, that one doesn't want to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But the surest way to avoid "biasing in favor of the...status quo" is for the "good" on offer to be not just marginally better than what it seeks to reform or replace, but a lot better.
A status-quo-oriented standard of success — just do a little better than the two parties — is not going to be enough to inspire and motivate a critical mass of delegates and candidates to engage in the Americans Elect process. If you are a reform-minded citizen, why bother, if the only payoff is to be marginally better than the system you already know is already broken?
And yet, it is precisely the status quo that Lessig keeps returning to, to defend the non-neutral activities of himself and his fellow Americans Elect advisory board members (emphasis mine):
John criticizes my serving on the advisory board because he believes my advocacy is inconsistent with the principle of “neutrality.” He believes, moreover, that the distinction between an “advisory board” and “board and staff” is “Clintonian” — that the difference is “hair splitting” and not real. But the difference is real and common and completely the same with every other major party.
Lessig continues (emphasis mine):
John...says the standard isn’t the reality
of the difference, but the “public perception.” But here he seems to be making a move / mistake that others are making about AE
as well: Compared to the other political parties, is there any difference here?
The Democrats and the Republicans both,
when there is no presumptive nominee
(i.e., an incumbent), run party primaries. During those primaries, the entity running
the primary is to remain neutral. But that entity has advisory boards. Does anyone
doubt the freedom of members of those
boards to indicate a preference for a
particular candidate, even if the people
running the primaries shouldn’t?
In addition to the fact that an appeal to the behavioral norms of the Democratic and Republican parties isn't especially inspiring...
Lessig's analysis would be more convincing, if
Americans Elect had been honest about its desire to
be an ideologically and procedurally tweaked version of
a traditional political party — i.e., if building a better, "centrist" version of the same mousetrap had been its stated goal.
Of course, some of us were well enough versed in the political code of Unity 08 / Americans Elect, to see that the creation of a "centrist" ballot line was exactly what Americans Elect was about.
But that's not how Americans Elect sold itself to those citizens who came to Americans Elect through the
"front door" of its Web site, its Facebook page, its
Twitter feed, and the round-edged media appearances
of its top executives. Here — and in the most public way possible — Americans Elect claimed to be a revolutionary, system-challenging "movement" to "crash the party" and put power back in the hands of "the people."
So it is, that the real standard of success, for Americans Elect, has to be the seriousness with which it is engaging that task.
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LESSIG concludes with this riff on part of one of my earlier comments (in quotes):
When the governor of a state endorses a candidate during a primary, John, do you
think that leads voters in the state not to
vote because they “believe that they have
been ‘pre-subjugated’ to the will of insiders with money, power and media access”? And if not, why would you think that with a member of an advisory board, with no access to the mechanics of the voting system, no authority over the organization, and no “media access” worth nails beyond a simple twitter feed?
Let's agree, for starters, that Lessig — a Harvard professor and co-founder of Creative Commons, whose books routinely are reviewed and noted in the New York Times; who made back-to-back in-studio "Morning Joe" appearances on 24 February and 1 March; who, on
25 April and 13 May, had back-to-back pieces on the Web site of The Atlantic magazine; and who once even was played by Christopher Lloyd on an episode of "The West Wing" — is being overly modest in characterizing himself as a guy who has "no 'media access' worth nails beyond a simple twitter feed" (a feed which, by the way, has more than 190,000 followers).
As to Lessig's questions themselves: They are well-
intended, but they strike me in the gut in a similar fashion as do the self-satisfied criticisms of those who say, of self-identified political independents: "A-ha!!!
You so-called 'independents' do vote for Democrats
and Republicans! You're not independents, at all!"
Well, of course political independents vote for Republicans and Democrats. They live in a political system that, by and large, gives them no other
serious choices. But their votes "for" Democrats and Republicans often say little more than that — when
push comes to shove — they place a higher premium on their responsibility to vote than they do their right to a greater variety of candidates from which to choose.
Ultimately, though, Lessig seems to be making an apples-to-oranges comparison. For voters in the
current system, the limited voting choices that the system produces — starting with the systemic flaws
and corruptions that produce those choices (including endorsements by elected officials) — are part of the baseline. In other words: These limitations are the "always already" built-in "discount" to many citizens'
decision to vote regardless.
But I am asking a different question...
If citizens already are in a system that they believe is fixed — a system in which, to borrow my own phrase, they "believe that they have been ‘pre-subjugated’ to the will of insiders with money, power and media access” — why should they engage in a "new" system — a "new" process — that they believe promises only more of
I don't mean to suggest that a policy of ironclad
and unflappable and inviolable political neutrality is
the only ingredient that was needed, to produce a happier ending for Americans Elect in 2012.
But I do think that Americans Elect's "rage for 'centrism'" explains a world of sins — including the tendency (policy?) of the Board of Americans Elect, contra its
own rhetoric, to repress the will of Americans Elect delegates. This repression is being felt, even now.
If Americans Elect — or any similar effort claiming
to be nothing more and, indeed, nothing less than a delivery system for the Voice of the People — wishes to succeed in the future, it would do well to keep its own organizational-political mouth shut and let the grassroots delegates — the People — speak for themselves.
Otherwise, it should dispense with the pretense of high-minded Neutrality; call itself the party that it is;
and operate on that basis.