Americans Elect Shoots The Moon (And Misses)

I want to talk about American politics. No, wait, don’t go! Don’t worry; it’s OK; I’m Canadian. Your nation’s psychotic death spiral of irrational blood vendettas, vampire-squid kleptocrats, and cargo-cult magical thinking means nothing to me. (Other than its undeniable entertainment value.) Yes, I mean both of your political parties. It’s so bizarre that you only have two that matter. We have five. How do you southerners get by with so few?

I’ve long argued that America needs a third party—any third party. For a while I thought the Tea Party might be it, but instead they did something much cannier. Don’t get me wrong, I think their policies are delusional, but I do grudgingly admire the way they hold the Republicans in thrall by exploiting the GOP’s vulnerable primaries system. It’s the political equivalent of gaining root access by hacking an unpatched bootloader.

Now a well-funded startup intends to birth a third party via the mighty power of the Internet. No, really. Americans Elect is on its way to accreditation and ballot placement in every American state. At the same time, it’s aggregating “delegates” who sign up at its web site into multiple like-minded groups who will suggest or support presidential candidates. A first round of voting will reduce the candidates to a primary group of six candidates, all of whom have to choose a running mate outside of their own party; then, in April of next year, an online convention will determine which of those six will be Americans Elect’s presidential candidate.

It’s a nifty idea, and a lot of people, eg the NYT’s Thomas Friedman, are pretty enthusiastic about it. But alas, my feelings about AE are much like my opinion of Friedman: mixed but mostly negative. It’s getting a fair amount of flak for its secrecy about who exactly is funding it, the considerable veto powers reserved by its board, and the lack of diversity among its first cohort of delegates. But my main complaint is that I just can’t see it working. Shooting for the White House out of the gate is too much too soon. America needs a third party, yes; but that third party needs to govern a state or two before it aims for the presidency.

You can tell that this startup was born in the Beltway rather than the Valley. The latter would create a minimum viable product, a city- or maybe state-level political movement, and iterate from there, learning from its mistakes. Instead Americans Elect is staking an estimated $30 million on a single elaborate throw of the dice. It’s too bad, because we’re just entering the era when you could create and sustain a whole new political movement online; but Americans Elect’s overambitious failure will probably tarnish that approach for years to come.

Update: A bizarre (ie nonzero) number of people are suggesting in comments that America’s first-past-the-post system makes a viable third party impossible. Let me just remind y’all who may be unfamiliar with how the rest of the world works that both Canada and the UK also have first-past-the-post voting; that Canada has had three or more parties for all of living memory, and its historical ‘third party’ recently surpassed the one that governed the nation for most of the 20th century; and, similarly, the UK’s historical ‘third party’ is currently part of the UK government.