It was less than a year ago when Thomas Friedman devoted his column space in the New York Times to extolling the virtues of a "quiet political start-up." Americans Elect would hold an online convention and nominate an independent, bipartisan ticket to run for president of the United States. The group would also secure ballot access for its candidate.
Friedman, exuding the hubris of the captain of the Titanic, declared
Write it down: Americans Elect. What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life -- remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in.
After garnering millions of dollars in free media exposure from a press corps that fetishizes bipartisanship, gathering 400,000 online members, and qualifying for ballot access in 26 states, not a single candidate qualified for its nominating convention after an extended deadline.
Far from actually having to attract voters to the polls, all a candidate needed was 10,000 members of the organzation (1,000 from at least 10 different states) to hit an "add my support" button on its website. The draft Thomas Friedman movement received 73 votes, while the leading candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, managed to garner the support of more than 9,000 supporters -- although not more than 1,000 in any state.
This abysmal failure was not the product of scarce resources. More than $35 million had been contributed to the organization -- much of it coming from Wall Street elites. (More than 20 percent of the organization's board "work in finance.")
It now seems to be a regular process: a group of "well-meaning centrists" desire to rise above the ills they falsely ascribe to both ends of the ideological spectrum. After only a few election cycles, numerous organizations and tens of millions in capital have been thrown into the graveyard. In 2006, Jim VandeHei wrote in the Washington Post:
A group of old Washington hands has launched a campaign to remake Internet politics, taking a forum that until now has been associated with ideologues and angry partisans and using it to start a movement culminating in a bipartisan presidential ticket in 2008.
The group is called Unity08, and no one would accuse its founders of thinking small.
Likewise, Howard Kurtz announced with great fanfare in 2006 that a "group of political strategists who have spent years firing heavy artillery at each other came together at the Hay-Adams Hotel yesterday, put aside their weapons, decried the polarized state of debate in America and vowed a new approach to peaceful coexistence."
Their website, Hot Soup, survived barely six months before shutting down.
Each of these organizations fails precisely because none is as advertised. Far from representing the views of a broad swath of the American public, they represent a consensus of Washington and financial elites.
Americans Elect claims grassroots power through the 2.5 million names it collected to gain ballot access in 26 states. However, these were primarily achieved through money spent on signature-gathering firms. The group's 2010 tax forms already showed it had paid more than $700,000 to a firm for "ballot access services."
And among its more than 400,000 members, it received about 5 percent turnout for its online nominating process.
Americans Elect was never a grassroots movement. At best, it was a well-funded organization in which a number of elites could dream up a fake democratic process and pretend they were the heads of a benevolent oligarchy, above the silly infighting of the plebes.
The process itself was a lie from the start. Far from real democracy, candidates were to be reviewed by a "Candidate Certification Committee," serving at the pleasure of the unelected board of the organization, that would screen out undesirables from the slate.
Americans want government to work for them. And instead of convoluted online elections, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Orstein of the American Enterprise Institute provided the start of a real road map when they wrote:
In the end, while the press can make certain political choices understandable, it is up to voters to decide. If they can punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.
So the next time Wall Street billionaires and their friends in Washington desire to spend millions on their centrist fantasy, they could speed up the process by simply placing their money in the center of a room and making one hell of a bonfire.
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