The recent CBS/New York Times poll is a dismal sight. Some 12% of Americans voiced a favorable opinion of their congressional representatives. Congressional Democrats, wading through the challenge of progressive leadership during a (very reasonable) period of political compromise, command a 28% approval rating. Meanwhile, Republicans, who have done their utmost to reconfigure the definition of “civil discourse” in domestic politics, received 19%.
Given this political climate, it is easy to understand why plenty of folks-who-know-stuff-about-politics are looking to a third party as the silver bullet for the upcoming elections, the restoration of civic engagement, and the reinvigoration of faith in the functionality of the American political system. Indeed, a recent post on the Monkey Cage, a group blog for data nerd social scientists, suggests that from a comparative politics point of view, the level of political dissatisfaction with the current legislative and executive branches leaves the United States ripe for third-party mobilization.
Americans Elect, an organization founded in part by digital democracy advocate and Georgetown student leader Nick Troiano, thinks the solution lies in an online, social network of political and ideological synergists, mobilized around mutually agreeable issue platforms and, functionally, the ideal candidate. Americans Elect, touted by a variety of pollsters and political commentators, envisions this digital community as a driving force for true representative democracy in the 2012 elections. From the Americans Elect perspective, the voices of technological consumers, rather than party platforms, are the future of American democracy.
Americans Elect’s framework for digital democracy is misguided, though not for the reasons that derisive commentators have posited. Criticisms of Americans Elect have largely addressed the potentially destructive impact on the fundamentals of electoral politics — namely, campaign development and the electoral process. Rather, the central question facing the future of the American two-party system operates outside the electoral-political sphere.
As Michael Kazin observes in a new book on the history of American left-wing politics, grassroots political movements — and not electoral politics — have been the driving force behind sociopolitical change in the United States. While Kazin’s observation largely applies to left-wing social movements — abolitionists in the 19th century, fin-de-siècle Populists, civil rights advocates in the mid-20th century — a similar observation can be applied to right-wing social movements, for better or worse: the Nativist movement in the 19th century, the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the late 20th century, and the contemporary Tea Party movement. In this historical context, the absence of popular support for Congress reflects a widening gap between national politics and local grassroots mobilization, rather than a fundamental challenge to our electoral system.
Given this history of grassroots influence, the anticipated maximalism of an electoral solution to undemocratic party politics remains superficial. No matter how inequitable the two-party system of representative democracy may be, the Democratic and Republicans Parties don’t win elections as a result of the entrenched bias of the Electoral College. Both parties maintain robust and wide-reaching grassroots networks, dependent on local fundraising, education, and advocacy institutions. Neither an artificial community of Web 2.0 participants, nor a loose amalgam of dissatisfied centrists can provide the grassroots foundation necessary for systemic political change. In practice, Americans Elect’s third-party electoral alternative will do little more than repeat the unfortunate and predictable mistakes of the short-lived Citizens Party, Reform Party, and countless other heterodox members of the American party system.
Incrementalism, rather than maximalism, is the way forward for a more democratic, inclusive political system. In tying the hopes for third-party activism to an inorganic, digital constituency, Americans Elect promises to repeat the strategic missteps of their predecessors. As in the past two-and-a-half centuries, the foundations of American democracy will rely on the grassroots capacity to mobilize for full-scale sociopolitical change, rather than superficial alterations to the electoral infrastructure. In a period of waning collective interactions, splintering social movements, and a widening gap between politics and democracy, innovative mobilization is essential.
Americans Elect’s digital framework, however, does little to address this troubling glitch in our nation’s democratic development.
This article was originally posted on the Georgetown Progressive blog.
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