Last week, the Washington Post profiled Americans Elect, a “centrist” political organization dedicated to changing the presidential nomination process for the sake of offering an “alternative” to Democrats and Republicans:
A bipartisan group of political strategists and donors known as Americans Elect has raised $22 million and is likely to place a third presidential candidate on the ballot in every state next year. The goal is to provide an alternative to President Obama and the GOP nominee and break the tradition of a Democrat-vs.-Republican lineup. […]
The group is relying on an ambitious plan to hold a political convention on the Internet that would treat registered voters like fans of “American Idol,” giving everyone a shot at picking a favorite candidate.
More people might vote in an online primary—though I doubt it—but I don’t see how this is more democratic than a system where party activists, party elites and interested voters band together to choose a candidate who best represents them and their interests. The former might be less partisan, but I wouldn’t count that as a virtue—if politics is the means through which we hash out problems as a society, then partisanship is the product of our real and genuine disagreements.
Indeed, this is what bothers me about schemes like American Elect, No Labels and Unity ’08; the backers of each seem to think that if you remove the politics from politics, then you’ll have better and more democratic outcomes. Worse, they treat their own narrow ideology as representative, and act as if they don’t need to engage with the public or convince anyone. Everyone loved centrism! All this country needs, they argue, is a benevolent billionaire “to get things done.”
Despite the conceit of Americans Elect—a nomination process driven by millions of people—the underlying impulse is incredibly undemocratic. You can see as much in the reaction of its backers to the possibility that partisans might get involved:
Some longtime political hands worry that no credible candidate will want to be the first guinea pig in the effort. And the blog techPresident has asked how Americans Elect leaders can hold a fully democratic election and still guarantee that their ticket will be centrist. Others warn that the group could become an experiment in technology gone wrong.
“Occupy Wall Street has discovered Americans Elect. The tea party has discovered Americans Elect,” said one strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank about the effort. “What happens if it gets hijacked?”
If Americans Elect were a serious effort to make the process more democratic, they wouldn’t worry about the involvement of people who have ideological commitments. As it stands, this is just another attempt to impose a “centrist” ideology on voters who have shown—through numerous elections—that they’re not interested.