14 May 2012

What if 'Americans Elect' nobody?

In this week's Time, Michael Crowley comments on the seeming failure of the vaunted Americans Elect campaign to nominate a non-partisan presidential ticket through online caucuses. He reports that the organization had to cancel one of its scheduled caucuses because "no candidate met the necessary criterion of 1,000 backers in each of 10 states." The petition drive that resulted in earning Americans Elect ballot lines in 26 states so far hasn't yet translated into a groundswell for any actual candidate for President. Crowley claims that this is because AE is "all cart and no horse," an organization without a charismatic leader. Without a recognizable personality up front, AE's argument against Bipolarchy doesn't seem to have inspired many people; the organization still has less than half a million members. In Crowley's view, AE's worst miscalculation is its claim that the Democrats and Republicans aren't focusing on real issues. In his opinion, AE may not like either party's answers, but that doesn't mean they aren't addressing the issues. It may mean they aren't addressing them seriously, but according to Crowley, that's not the argument AE has made.

It's probably unfair of Crowley to quote an arch-partisan like Paul Begala to the effect that "I haven't the slightest idea what someone from Americans Elect would do," but the AE people should have anticipated the complaint. All along, they've been pushing a process rather than a platform. Their candidate could just as easily be a Democrat as a Republican, but AE's requirement that their nominee choose a running mate from another party symbolized its opposition to partisan dogma. The presumption has always been that AE would reveal a "centrist" bias, but a presumption of centrism should have mattered less than a promise of a new approach to the issues that could only begin with an AE victory. Americans Elect advocates should have been -- should be telling people that what we really need is to bring diverse points of view together with a sincere commitment to finding pragmatic solutions to national problems. Honest advocacy would tell people that the solutions remain to be found because the objective, undogmatic deliberation hasn't begun yet. But it's fair to ask whether that argument would work for many voters who want answers now. Since AE can't have answers now, apart from its founders' invocations of centrism, it can only suffer in comparison to the simple solutions peddled by the major parties. In a sense, Americans Elect is, unintentionally, an ultimate instance in faith-based politics. It demands faith that a new process will produce reasonable candidates, and obviously demands faith in those candidates before their identities are even known. That's not as tall an order as religious faith in supernatural powers, but it still may be too much to ask that people assume it can happen. It's probably more reasonable to ask that, if pragmatic people are capable of finding answers through honest deliberation, that they do so first and then declare their candidacies and announce their platforms. If solutions can be found, why wait until after Election Day to start looking for them? Crowley may be right about AE putting the cart before the horse, but if so the problem isn't a lack of personality, but a lack of ideas.

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