15 May 2012

An empty container: more on Americans Elect

Americans Elect organizers have admitted failure without conceding defeat, cancelling another online primary overnight because no proposed candidate has met the minimum requirement of multi-state support in order to compete. However, the online group, which hoped to present a centrist ticket with instant ballot access across the country, and has secured lines in 27 states and counting, has announced that it still intends to address "an almost universal desire among delegates, leadership and millions of Americans who have supported AE to see a credible candidate emerge from this process." Over the next week, organizers will confer with their "community" before announcing their "next steps" on May 17. Today's announcement has sparked some concern that organizers might anoint a candidate through a process less democratic than the one originally announced, which admittedly set too high a threshold for viability for a new political movement. Those ballot lines are just too precious to waste, even if they don't come with any promise of financial support for a candidate. But as I wrote yesterday, the problem with Americans Elect is that those lines mean nothing to anyone until individuals fill them.

Whatever the organization's "centrist" bias, Americans Elect appeared to envision itself as a kind of public utility, a vehicle through which people could nominate political candidates without partisan supervision. The organizers may have presumed a centrist result, but the vehicle itself is essentially a blank slate -- yet Americans Elect promoted it as a cause in its own right under an anti-party banner. It was most likely to attract two kinds of voters; those willing to take a chance that their ideological favorite would win the online primary, and those genuinely indifferent to the result of the primary yet committed to the potential of the obligatory multiparty ticket to transform American politics. That left out a vast middle: all those reluctant to take a chance on Americans Elect so long as they couldn't know in advance what the eventual nominee would stand for. People had a vague idea of what Americans Elect was against: polarizing partisanship. Fewer people could extrapolate from that what AE was for, especially considering that any Democrat or Republican could get the presidential nomination. That's why the group has failed in its apparent purpose to become a public utility for candidate selection. Even in the distant past, when people gathered to "spontaneously" nominate candidates at mass meetings, those meetings usually self-selected their membership. The people who attended already had an idea of what they stood for, and what they wanted their candidate to stand for. For Americans Elect, this was undesirable if not impossible. For the organizers, the only way to escape partisanship was to generate a candidate from an essentially random gathering of people, united only in their hostility to certain aspects of the American two-party system. Affinity is not partisanship, however, but in its rejection of partisanship Americans Elect could find no way to promise affinity -- or else the affinity it presumed was so vague that few people recognized any affinity in it.

Looking at it another way, Americans Elect decried partisanship but ignored its roots. The organizers presumed that something exclusive to the electoral system caused partisanship, and that by admitting all the human elements of our present partisanship under one roof they could get better results with new rules.  An image of rearranging deck chairs suddenly comes to mind. The fundamental error may have been the assumption that all these elements could co-exist and get along if only the right formula for cohabitation was found. The result was an organization opposed to the two-party system without really opposing what the two parties stand for, while assuming naively that the vice-presidency is a wedge that can break up Bipolarchy even if the organization nominates Bipolarchy candidates. I can understand why Americans Elect didn't take a "No Democrats or Republicans need apply" approach, since it hoped to be a mass movement, but until someone dares argue that the premises underlying the supposed left-right division of the country are wrong, and that peaceful coexistence of left and right will not automatically solve our problems, no anti-Bipolarchy argument will really catch fire, and any organization defined only by opposition to Bipolarchy will be but an empty container, without a product or even a brand name to make it worth having. 


William Mercado said...

the technocratic response is cold and sterile and ultimately inhuman. It's like one of those old Star Trek episodes where the aliens get a lecture from Capt Kirk that one shouldn't forget the human factor

Calmoderate said...

The idea that needing to say what your stand for seems to be a part of what happened with AE. Opposition alone just won't cut it. Of course, as soon as one says what they do stand for, they lose potential support with each policy position they take. Getting this opposition thing right will be very, very tricky. Nonetheless, it should be possible.

Samuel Wilson said...

William, I'm not sure I'd lump Americans Elect with the technocrats, though Thomas Friedman was a big cheerleader. Anti-partisanship doesn't translate to technocracy, but I suppose an emphasis on process over not just results but desires could be seen that way.

Cal, Americans Elect proposed a possibly impossible alchemy through which no one needed to abandon their ideology, yet all would manage to work together by renouncing a vague concept of partisanship. Getting an opposition to Bipolarchy right should be possible, but it'll take more intellectual courage and a more confrontational spirit than AE was programmed to muster.