AmericansElect, my new hat, and fundamental constraints on internet politics

Two noteworthy events from this weekend:

1. won a People’s Choice Award from South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), the annual Austin-based tech conference where everything cool seems to happen (read Micah Sifry’s writeup of this year’s conference.  Someday maybe I’ll get to attend…).  It seems that the digirati have bought into AmericansElect’s sales pitch — that the Internet can finally unleash the “radical center” and make the 2012 election a “three-way race” between the two parties and AmericansElect’s online nominee.

2. I became the owner of a lovely new hat, pictured below.

The relationship between the two?  If the former actually achieve their stated goals, I will happily eat the latter.

American’s Elect is a flawed idea, conceived by hedge fund-types (some of them anonymous) who’ve convinced themselves they don’t already have disproportionate influence over government. It proposes to use the freeing power of the internet to nominate  a centrist candidate (not beholden to either of our unpopular, partisan operations) who can then wash away all the gridlock in DC.

The two biggest problems  with this idea are that it violates Duverger’s Law (electoral systems where you elect a single candidate through plurality voting yield two stable parties) and it wishes away the role of checks-and-balances in gridlock.  Presidents don’t enact legislation alone.  First they need to navigate their way through a broken Congress.  Putting an Independent president in office won’t fix the Senate filibuster, it will just give them zero congressional allies to begin with.

A third problem, which bugs me even more, is that there is no radical center.  Most Americans are, indeed, centrists.  But by “centrist,” what we actually mean is “not particularly interested in/paying attention to politics.”  Efforts to build centrist political blogs and centrist advocacy groups routinely fail.  There’s a simple reason why: the engaged segment of the public is a partisan segment of the public.

We hear calls for a centrist third-party challenge almost every Presidential cycle.  Sometimes a challenge even happens.  It has never worked particularly well before.  But this time, we are told (and AmericansElect spends a lot of money on public outreach, so we are told this A LOT), the Internet will change everything.  The Internet has empowered citizens like never before, and old institutions will crumble in its path.

My book, The MoveOn Effect, is pretty optimistic about the Internet’s impact on citizen engagement.  But the AmericansElect folks are exhibiting a basic internet-as-magic-unicorn style flaw in their thinking.  The internet changes some of the constraints on citizen political engagement.  Other fundamental constraints remain completely unchanged.  Blogs and YouTube do not alter our electoral rules.  Twitter doesn’t undo the filibuster.  We have political parties for a reason.  Changes to our communication system (even radical changes) don’t change those institutional structures.  As a result, the big internet-related political changes happen around these fundamental rules, not through them.  The big Internet-driven changes are second-order impacts: changes in communications system yield changes in the structure and tactics of political organizations.

AmericansElect claims that this time will be different because they’re gaining ballot access in every state.  Whoever is elected through their online primary this summer (current declared frontrunner: Buddy Roemer. Most popular draft candidate: Ron Paul) will appear on the ballot in November.  Hence, they tell us, it’s a “three way race.”  That’s a great soundbyte (it even works as a #hashtag) but there’s one small problem:

Remember the 2000 election?  There were three big-name candidates in that race (Gore, Bush, Nader).  The famous “butterfly ballot” in Florida lists 10 options though.  Did anyone think that the 2000 election was a “10-way race?”

Getting national ballot access is one hurdle to national viability.  It’s a big one, but it’s one of many.  You also need a candidate.  And a ton of money for advertising and field organizing.  And a turnout operation.  And a platform that goes beyond simple gimmicks.  Getting into the October debates wouldn’t hurt either.

AmericansElect has none of this.  AmericansElect is a gimmick.  It’s the type of gimmick that leads people to misunderstand politics and misunderstand the Internet.  It’s a shame the SXSWi crowd couldn’t see through that.  When the whole thing dissipates in a cloud of smoke, I hope the “tech gurus” pause to understand why.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy wearing my new hat and AmericansElect will keep cranking out internet-as-unicorn pablum.  I’m as confident that AmericansElect will fizzle as I am that my fedora looks really, really cool.