A new party won’t necessarily be more pure than our existing two
By David Callahan
All views expressed are his own.
One irritating thing about rich people nowadays is their boundless faith that they can solve society’s most daunting problems – whether it’s underperforming schools or the AIDS epidemic. Yet just because someone made a bundle trading stocks or developing software doesn’t mean they’re equally brilliant in other areas.
The latest example is Americans Elect, an ambitious effort by wealthy individuals to circumvent the two-party political system in order to give voters a “centrist” choice in next year’s presidential election. Never mind that we already have a centrist candidate –President Obama, who has repeatedly sold out progressives to cut deals with the GOP. The real problem with Americans Elect is that it exacerbates the biggest flaw in our political system: the dominance of money.
Americans Elect aims to get a nonpartisan candidate on the ballot in all 50 states and has already secured ballot access in 24 states, including Florida and Ohio, by gathering over 2 million signatures.
Collecting signatures is an expensive business. According to Ballotpedia.org, supporters of state ballot initiatives in 2010 paid an average of $3.29 to get each signature. Americans Elect says it has raised over $20 million and, to be sure, some of that money has come in the form of small donations. The group also says that it will repay its major early donors so that no individual gives more than the $10,000. But this whole effort has been instigated by wealthy individuals, most notably the former investment banker Peter Ackerman, who has donated over $1.5 million to Americans Elect.
Americans Elect is planning an “online primary” next year in which ordinary voters will purportedly choose a “nominee.” (Nobody is yet running for this honor.) But, according to the election law scholar Richard Hansen, writing last week in Politico, this “process can, in fact, be overruled by a small board of directors, who organized the group.” In addition, Americans Elect is refusing to disclose its donors.
What we have here, in other words, is a case of secret money bankrolling a process that, in the end, is controlled by a select group of insiders, not by ordinary voters. How is that an improvement over the “politics as usual” that Americans Elect says it wants to displace?
Worse, the Americans Elect effort is likely to be even more dominated by money once a candidate emerges. While the group’s organizers have said that its nominee could well be a former elected official, most such figures are closely identified with one party or the other. And realistically only a wealthy self-financing candidate will be able to compete next year in what is likely to be the most expensive presidential election in U.S. history. So get ready to see the name of some zillionaire on the ballot lines that have been paid for by other wealthy individuals.
The organizers of Americans Elect are right that the two-party system has not been working so well lately. Voters have been defecting from both political parties for years, and public approval of these parties – along with Congress and government overall – is now at a historic low.
But even if Americans Elect were a more authentic example of direct democracy, it would still be the wrong answer to our broken electoral system. We need to find ways to strengthen political parties, not replace them with online referendums. Parties serve as all-important intermediaries in the electoral process, given that most citizens don’t have time to master public policy or study the record of every candidate running or figure out how to get involved. Ideally, parties tell us how to behave as voters in ways that advance our values. The click of a mouse can’t substitute for this function. If a third party were to improve things, it would need a strong grassroots base – but Americans Elect shows no interest in that kind of organizing.
A big reason that parties are so weak these days is the huge influx of money into politics. The activated citizens who used to be the backbone of parties, working to draw in fellow citizens, have become less relevant in an era in which snaring big donors is what really counts. Today’s parties tend to be fundraising machines, not instruments of mass mobilization.
The solution to America’s hollow and broken political system is not a top-down technocratic effort orchestrated by rich people, but reforms that revive bottom-up civic engagement – like limiting how much the rich can give to candidates or outside groups, encouraging ordinary citizens to run for office with public financing, stripping incumbents of unfair advantages through neutral redistricting, and instant run-off voting that gives voters more choice when they cast their ballots.
All these reforms are being experimented with around the country. Public financing systems have been enacted in several states, including Arizona, but are now under attack. Nonpartisan redistricting plans have been put in place in California and Florida, with a similar proposal pending in New York. Instant run-off voting is in use in a number of cities, including Portland, Maine.
Plenty of good efforts are now under way to revive the world’s democracy. Americans Elect is not one of them.