The Bigger the Problem the Riskier the Solution
Since the recent collapse of the supercommittee, there have been competing narratives about who wins and who loses from the failure. Some say Democrats gain, because it highlights the issue of millionaires paying more taxes. Some say Republicans gain, because it shows the government is incompetent.
I believe both parties lose and Americans Elect wins.
Americans Elect is a group that is inventing an online method for nominating a presidential ticket for the 2012 election. It believes that the political center can prevail over the extremes if the public is given a chance to choose a presidential candidate directly through social media — unfiltered by corporate money and the will of the major political parties.
The group is well on its way to getting its ticket on the presidential ballot in each of the 50 states.
Is this a good thing?
Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann — two of the most respected scholars of American politics — say no.
If an independent were to win, they say, he or she would have no leverage with the Democrats and Republicans in the Congress and, therefore, couldn't govern. More likely, the independent would not win but would tilt the contest to a major-party candidate, perhaps a far-right Republican nominee. In any event, these two experts argue, the next president would take office with fewer votes than past presidents, making him or her politically weaker. That is not a recipe for resolving a political standoff.
I posed some of these objections to Americans Elect's Doug Schoen — a political strategist, a pollster and an analyst for Fox News.
Schoen argued that the most powerful person in Washington from 1994-96 was Ross Perot. He was the reason the budget got balanced. He didn't even have to win; just by running in '92 and threatening to run in '96, he forced the other candidates onto his agenda.
Similarly, Schoen argued that if you have a national ticket talking about the need to find solutions in the center, it's going to force the two major-party candidates to take up that message, to compete for those votes. That will create a chorus of major candidates all promising cooperation, which would make it likelier to happen.
But I would argue that the problem hasn't been with the president.
How do you change Congress by changing the way you elect the president?
In my view, you can do it only indirectly, by changing the political culture. You would have to bet that a presidential campaign that emphasized cooperation could change the political climate so much that a refusal to compromise would become a political liability for a member of Congress.
Americans Elect wants us to make that bet. It believes that the great majority of Americans want cooperation and compromise but that they're marginalized because the process gives more power to extremists.
But where's the evidence for that view? "The Big Sort," written by Bill Bishop (a friend and former co-worker of mine), argues with powerful statistical evidence that since 1976, Americans have increasingly segregated themselves into neighborhoods, churches and volunteer organizations according to their political views. Once in the company of a large majority of people who think as they do, their views become more extreme and uncompromising. This would suggest that Congress is polarized not because of the major parties and corporate money. Instead, members of Congress are polarized because the people who sent them to Congress are.
Schoen acknowledges that there is no certainty that the extremists will compromise — no matter what happens in the presidential election. But he argues that there would be a much better chance of compromise after a strong third-party challenge than there would be if Obama were to win in a two-way fight with a Republican.
Good argument, but is it worth risking the dangers Ornstein and Mann warn about for a chance at a new political culture that values cooperation over extremism?
Frankly, no one is waiting for the answer. Americans Elect is going forward; social media will make a transforming impact in this election or the next. The technology appears to be in the hands of centrists now. It may well be better-used by extremists in the future. We are a restless society. We invent new things and use them without knowing whether they will make life better or worse.
Man, I hope this helps.
To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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