Opinion

The Great Debate

A new party won’t necessarily be more pure than our existing two

By David Callahan
November 24, 2011

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.

Comments
12 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The Elect. Is that Calvinist or Puritan Predestined?

You already have a Mormon candidate

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive
 

This was a thought provoking article that I enjoyed reading. I don’t know that I agree with public financing. However, I would agree with free public forums for debate and financing research into improving direct democracy initiatives.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive
 

“…we already have a centrist candidate –President Obama…”? You’re joking, right? If Obama is “centrist” then who represents the homes and dreams of the radical left in American politics today?

The splintering of politics by additional parties has always been temporary and adverse to the interests of those who join them. In this example I am amazed that the “monied” would rush to shoot themselves in the foot in this manner (if it be true and serious). Two steps, neither likely or simple, would “fix” our broken system.

First and foremost, we need a national dialogue to consider, adopt and properly fund those goals as will define America as a nation in the years to come. Then, and only then can we move forward as a people to responsibly review all present and future for classification as a “need” or a “want”.

Human nature being what it is, the “wants” will largely be those expenditures not associated with the constitutional purpose of our federal government or that on their face are clearly NOT a “need”. We must then agree on a single, fixed and absolute estimate of government revenue to be “budgeted”.

Only then is it possible to allocate and prioritize the funding thereof. It is our failure to do these necessary things that results in the pushing and shoving of partisan political influence that has proven itself utterly incapable of governing in any meaningful manner. It is not enough to “kick the can” We must, instead, open the can and empty it or fill it as appropriate; yet we do neither.

By this process will “we, the people” decide whether a majority of want a welfare state that cannot support itself (effectively what we have now, inasmuch as current federal spending is known to be “unsustainable” by those serious in both parties) or whether we want a country with a strong economy sustainable into a future ever uncertain.

Our second challenge is to rid America of the “political class”, our professional politicians. In the beginning Congress was comprised of successful, full-time citizens.

It was our “best and brightest” who could afford to leave their enterprise or estate and serve without pay for brief periods to discuss and transact the nation’s business. These brought with them “real-world experience essential to doing this well on behalf of all Americans.

By making the transaction of the nation’s business a full time job, we attract and elevate those who know only how to schmooze; and thus are themselves easily schmoosed. Is it any wonder they then reward themselves with lavish salaries and benefits far beyons those of ordinary citizens and send us the bill? ENOUGH! Out with the lot!

Of course, the only way to get rid if them is for an “informed electorate” to rise up and “do the deed”. In today’s reality I fear it easier to organize the 50+ percent that pay no income tax to vote to increase their own numbers than to arouse a majority seriously interested in putting this country back on the road to sustainability.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

“…we already have a centrist candidate –President Obama…”? You’re joking, right? If Obama is “centrist” then who represents the homes and dreams of the radical left in American politics today?

The splintering of politics by additional parties has always been temporary and adverse to the interests of those who join them. In this example I am amazed that “wealthy individuals” would rush to shoot themselves in the foot as you suggest. Two steps, neither likely or simple, would “fix” our broken system.

First and foremost, we need a national dialogue to consider, adopt and properly fund those goals as will define America as a nation in the years to come. Then, and only then can we move forward as a people to responsibly review all present and future for classification as a “need” or a “want”.

Human nature being what it is, the “wants” will largely be those expenditures not associated with the constitutional purpose of our federal government or that on their face are clearly NOT a “need”. We must then agree on a single, fixed and absolute estimate of government revenue to be “budgeted”.

Only then is it possible to allocate and prioritize the funding thereof. It is our failure to do these necessary things that results in the pushing and shoving of partisan political influence that has proven itself utterly incapable of governing in any meaningful manner. It is not enough to “kick the can” We must, instead, open the can and empty it or fill it as appropriate; yet we do neither.

By this process will “we, the people” decide whether a majority of want a welfare state that cannot support itself (effectively what we have now, inasmuch as current federal spending is known to be “unsustainable” by those serious in both parties) or whether we want a country with a strong economy sustainable into a future ever uncertain.

Our second challenge is to rid America of the “political class”, our professional politicians. In the beginning Congress was comprised of successful, full-time citizens.

It was our “best and brightest” who could afford to leave their enterprise or estate and serve without pay for brief periods to discuss and transact the nation’s business. These brought with them “real-world experience essential to doing this well on behalf of all Americans.

By making the transaction of the nation’s business a full time job, we attract and elevate those who know only how to schmooze; and thus are themselves easily schmoosed. Is it any wonder they then reward themselves with lavish salaries and benefits far beyons those of ordinary citizens and send us the bill? ENOUGH! Out with the lot!

Of course, the only way to get rid if them is for an “informed electorate” to rise up and “do the deed”. In today’s reality I fear it easier to organize the 50+ percent that pay no income tax to vote to increase their own numbers than to arouse a majority seriously interested in putting this country back on the road to sustainability.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

In the past we had a 2 party system because extreme parties died off as new parties took their place. The current 2 parties have done everything they possibly can to stop that from happening to them. They have rigged the system to stay in power while having extreme views that do not represent the best interest of the country. (making it difficult to get on the ballot, gerrymandering, etc.)
We need something to break the strangle hold these two parties have on our system. They both have had the power to run the government in the last 12 years and have shown they are not worthy of the position they hold.
Time for change even though change might lead to the unknown…
We can keep doing what we have been doing in elections and expect a different outcome this time or we can have the courage to overturn the money changer’s tables in DC and start anew.

side note: “President Obama is a centrist” …now that is funny. President Obama is 100% politician…. he ran as a ‘Leader for change’ and in his heart he may in fact want change. But in action he is a political figure pandering and spinning his way through the maze of Washington DC.
President Obama has good poll numbers because that is what he focuses on rather than leadering this country during this difficult time. Sadly there is no one on the DC stage that will do much better…..time for complete change.

Posted by Gen | Report as abusive
 

The so-called “two party” system has been a gross failure.

We need to dump our system and get a parliamentary system with proportional representation. We need to dump lifetime judges not answerable to the victims they rule. And we need to limit military spending to a maximum percentage of GDP. Our whole system has been corrupted and the only thing solid in our legal system is the doctrine of sovereign immunity. They like immunity. They like not being answerable, ever.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive
 

“The latest example is Americans Elect, an ambitious effort by wealthy individuals to circumvent the two-party political system”

They were probably saying the same thing about the idea of America in Britain in the 1700s. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many of the founding fathers were part of the gentry – rich, landowners who had an idea of how to do things in a better way.

America is an experiment by the ultra wealthy that has benefited many over the last 200 years. Now it’s 2011 and we need another reform. So be it.

Posted by indie-voice.com | Report as abusive
 

> “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.”

You appear to be referring to Bill Gates…?

One thing most rich people have in common (especially when it comes to business executives like Bill Gates) is that they know how to manage money. Whether you’re administering charitable funds or business resources, it helps if you have a frenetic attention to detail, and a dogged refusal to sign off on expenses you don’t understand.

I agree with the general spirit of the article though!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive
 

I work in an inner city school. Parents, students and I talk everyday. I give common sense advice about school (do your homework) and life (don’t drop out-don’t get pregnant).
I think all the candidates (Republican and Democrats) are so far out of the real life loop of this particular world that they rely upon experts but they are also outside the loop.

With so many of these specialists we may someday have more employees than students. We need to simplify education.
More teachers. Smaller classes. Everyone else leave.

Posted by gobucks | Report as abusive
 

It is not often that I agree with txgadfly and/or matthewslyman, but I do with the last posts of each. I’ll go a bit further than matt…rich people who EARNED their wealth understand ideals, goals, resources and priorities and their necessity and interrelationship.

Perfection is a worthwhile ideal to aspire to. It is failure GUARANTEED as a goal. There are finite limits to resources…available manpower, physical and mental; and available capital. That’s why so many undertakings are done in “stages” and, in some cases, the success of the first making undertaking the second possible, etc.

Priorities are why you don’t sit down to eat before lighting the fire and cooking the food. I think CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT should be a mandatory high school course.

These crucial “success skills” are what such people “bring to the table” that (most) others lack (and don’t know they need). Politicians seem congenitally deficient in these skills!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

A new party could be purer if Buddy Roemer got the nod. I realize mainstream parties want him to shut up, but he’s the only one with guts enough to identify and run a campaign on our biggest problem — big money in politics. Buddy will not be beholden to PAC or corporate money. He only accepts individual donations. He realizes that corporations and special interests are buying access, and the rest of us are being left behind. Special interests are causing the gridlock and stalemate we see in DC. They stonewall, or kill any sensible solution or reform. Our representatives are dependent on their money for political survival.

It’s hard to take the needle from the addict’s arm.

Posted by CreoleRed | Report as abusive
 

Occupy Wall St. sounds like the party for me.
The set up operations in several places at once.
They maintained their own finances.
They have a webpage.
Power to the people!

Posted by adlalma | Report as abusive
 

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