Have you heard of this? Americans Elect is an online method for nominating and electing a president without the aid of a party. It’s an intriguing if problematic experiment that’s gotten a lot of press this election season. Thomas L Friedman praised it as a well thought-out initiative that could demolish our “two-party duopoly.” As late as last week, an enthusiastic Douglas Schoen of The Daily Beast proclaimed “it’s not too late” for Americans Elect to produce November’s winning ticket. (Wikipedia identifies Mr Schoen as a paid consultant for AE.) Supporters expect AE’s momentum to build in the next few months, as the remaining Republican candidates are winnowed.
The idea of Americans Elect is so seductive. Just visit its website: it’s as simple and pristine as a new Apple computer. With its childlike graphics and cheery colors, it makes politics seem so uncomplicated and straightforward. You will be walked through the steps of political participation. All you need to do is supply your email address (every trust relationship begins with that these days), check a few boxes regarding your political values, fill in the blanks regarding your favorite candidates, and—wah-la!—you have circumvented everything you loathe about the parties and pushed the country one step toward a brighter future. Or have you?
The premise of Americans Elect is that “the voice” of “the people” is being distorted and disregarded, and that the nation will be better off if we eliminate all political intermediaries. Americans Elect aspires to get rid of parties (which it pictures as impeding the rise of the best leaders) by crowd-sourcing the nominating process and the (snakier) task of platform-building. Leave behind the mess of face-to-face politicking! We can achieve a better outcome impersonally, with the aid of quantification and the newest technology. This is the gist of Americans Elect’s appeal.
To my mind, AE’s fails to identify our system’s real demons. We do not need “more democracy.” I’m not sure we even need better leaders. We do need better ideas and a reining-in of excesses in the way political candidates and partisans campaign. In the meantime, Americans Elect is a legitimate expression of frustration: a way for voters to threaten the security of the Democratic and Republican Parties, which have turned into such behemoths that it’s hard to imagine how to supplant them or get them to change. The difficulties of creating a competitive new national party are daunting. It could be done, but it hasn’t—not for the last 150 years.
Nonetheless, isn’t building that party better than embracing the alternative Americans Elect is offering, which is to elect a president dependent on—nobody? Whose only debt is to the electorate, considered abstractly? Parties constrain the executive by placing him or her under obligation to a brokering community. Historically, presidents have been constrained—in a good way—by a large community of peers, who are party statesmen. Americans Elect aims to create an executive untrammeled by any such obligation. “Pick a president, not a party,” its slogan proclaims. This atomized notion of leadership would make the Founding Fathers, who were all members of the political elites of their states, turn in their graves.
Will AE be the wild card of 2012? And what kind of ticket will it field? Despite its non-partisan stance (apolitical, really), Americans Elect must itself become a party or fail. Even as it effects a technological end-run around this eventuality, outside forces require its transformation from the virtual to the real. The process has begun already. The organization has been engaged in a massive signature drive (using paid organizers) so that, once its presidential ticket has been selected, its choice will appear on ballots nationwide. Meanwhile, questions regarding AE’s personnel, financing, field operations, organizational status, and lack of transparency are swirling. No matter how they are resolved, this intriguing experiment forces us to think again about why we need parties and the work we count on the parties to do.