Confidence in the U.S. Congress is at a historic low, more than half of Americans think that the Republican and Democratic parties are doing such a bad job that a third party is needed, and the word “dysfunction” has been common currency in the drawn-out debate over the national debt.
Does this mean the bells are tolling for the Republican-Democratic duopoly which has dominated American political life for more than 150 years?
The answer is yes for a budding political force that aims to get the millions of voters who are disaffected by the present system to bypass the traditional selection of presidential candidates through primary elections.
Instead, the new organization, Americans Elect, says it wants voters “to decide the issues that matter, find candidates to match your views and nominate the President and Vice President directly.”
It’s a novel and extremely ambitious idea, backed by a 50-strong board of advisors that includes business executives, seasoned political operatives and senior former government officials, including ex-FBI director William Webster and former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills. Also on the board: Doug Schoen, a pollster who worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The chairman of the group is Peter Ackerman, who heads the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and made a fortune in the 1980s working for Drexel Burnham Lambert, the junk-bond dealers. His son Elliot is chief operations officer. Both are confident that the Internet and social media are the right tools to change the way the system functions.
The debt debate has strengthened the case of those who think the two-party system is failing. According to a CNN poll this week, 77 percent of Americans say that elected officials in Washington have behaved “like spoiled children” in the tug-of-war over raising the debt ceiling.
Schoen described the disenchantment of many Americans with the bickering in Washington as an “extraordinary opportunity” to win support for the Americans Elect project and said some 40,000 voters had added their signatures in the past few days to the 1.7 million the campaign had already collected. “We are winning greater public acceptance than anyone might have expected,” he said.
Traffic to the website also jumped, according to Americans Elect. “We had more than 600,000 page views on AmericansElect.org in the past 10 days,” said Ainsley Perrien, the project’s press secretary. “And, in the same period, more than 3,000 ideas and comments.”
These are substantial numbers for a new website and for an organization barely known nationally until an influential New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, wrote about it in enthusiastic terms in July: “What Amazon.com did to books, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life – remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in.”
Perhaps. There are formidable obstacles on the road to the goals of Americans Elect: win access to all 50 state ballots as an essential step to holding an online convention in June, 2012, open to registered voters who have signed up to select a candidate for President and Vice President. The running mate must be from a different party (or independent).
Joshua Levine, the group’s chief technology officer who joined Americans Elect from the same position at E-Trade, has predicted that the way the group is planning its online convention will be a model for the way the voting process will be shaped in the future. Again, perhaps.
Old traditions die hard. But it is worth noting that according to polls, 41 percent of Americans are describing themselves as independents, beholden to neither of the two parties – which are more polarized than the electorate as a whole.
Will the disenchanted middle go to the trouble of registering with Americans Elect, participating in debates, selecting candidates?
It’s difficult to predict whether the depth of disgust shown by the polls will translate into action, and the will to try something novel and untested. What Americans Elect is hoping to do is more than a twist on an old story of third party candidates taking on the establishment, as did Ross Perot in 1992 (he won almost 20 percent of the vote), John Anderson in 1980 (6.6 percent), or Ralph Nader in 2000 (2.7 percent).
Officials of the group say it’s more about opening a second, 21st century process than about a third party.
To paraphrase a Wall Street phrase – past polls are no guarantee of future results, but it’s useful to keep in mind the surveys mentioned at the beginning of this column. Gallup began asking about Americans’ confidence in various institutions in 1973. Then, 42 percent of respondents said they had confidence in Congress. By June 2011, it had dropped to 12 percent, dead last on a list of 16 institutions.
Gallup began asking about support for a third party in 2003, when 40 percent of respondents said there was no need for it. By May 2011, 52 percent thought there was a need for a third party. Among independents, 68 percent of independents thought so.
And by June 2012, when Americans Elect plans to hold its online convention? Let the betting begin.
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.