18 May 2012
The void at the radical center
Postmortems for Americans Elect continue after organizers decided yesterday not to change their online-primary rules, denying themselves a final chance to nominate a presidential candidate despite the ballot lines waiting in 27 states for whomever they might have nominated. Observers have drawn several conclusions from the embarrassing end of a once-promising anti-Bipolarchy movement. A talking head of the moment is David Karpf of Rutgers. Interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, Karpf says that the debacle refutes hopes vested in a "radical center" by centrist pundits like Thomas Friedman. Centrists aren't radical but apathetic. "The people paying attention to politics tend to pick a side," Karpf says, and as he sees it attentive centrists have already settled on President Obama. On his own blog, Karpf dismisses the radical center as a fantasy that its boosters hoped could be willed into being with technology, through vehicles like Americans Elect. Karpf himself is a believer in Duverger's Law and the inevitability of Bipolarchy and polarization, offering only the National Popular Vote as a potential remedy. Meanwhile, people who got involved with Americans Elect have commented on its labor-intensive sign-up and survey process, and a lack of follow up from AE itself, but Karpf cautions against assuming that glitches handicapped a good idea. Whatever the personal or structural factors, many observers seem rightfully appalled that an anti-Bipolarchy movement could gain so little traction at a time when public dissatisfaction with elected officials is at or near a historic peak. None of this alters my opinion that the tentative contentlessness of the Americans Elect vehicle was a fatal turn-off. Unless centrism is understood as a simple matter of splitting differences, centrists would have no automatic affection for a scheme that promised only a two-party national ticket, since the AE presidential candidate could not have a running mate from his own party. Even if you believed that this would result in bipartisan teamwork -- a dubious proposition considering how easily the Vice-President can be marginalized even by fellow partisans -- the prospect of a Republican and Democrat working together probably didn't impress many people as the answer to all problems. Whether there really is or can be a radical center depends on how you define the term. If centrism means no more than splitting differences and reconciling polarized opposites, there's no way it can be radical. If centrists plot themselves on a Bipolarchy graph, there probably isn't a way for them to escape the logic of Duverger's Law, which discourages difference-splitting in favor of either-or outcomes. A truly radical center would envision itself not between but outside conventional political bipolarity. Radical centrists will be those who can explain why "left" and "right" are hopeless options, not only because of their incompatibility, but each also on its own terms. People devoted to truly radical centrism might well be able to recreate the most successful elements of Americans Elect, particularly its aptitude for ballot access, but for such a vehicle to be more than another empty container, ideas must come first.