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Nathan Daschle Headshot

The Day the Parties Died

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Imagine a world where corporations and special interests didn't have outsized political influence, where we didn't pay out millions of public dollars on closed partisan primaries that discourage independents and thwart political competition, and where gerrymandered districts didn't protect most of Congress and state legislators from competition.

Tough to imagine? Perhaps, but the effects that shape the current dismal state of politics did not come about by conscious choice; they were thrust upon us as the byproducts of outdated, anachronistic structures. Change the structures and we change the effects.

Let's start with the two parties.

Time was when we needed the two parties. The task of organizing Americans politically was so great that the two parties were necessary to do it efficiently. Campaigns traditionally relied on parties for money, media, and people. Today, however, unless legal reasons mandate it, no serious campaign delegates anything to the party. Campaigns, along with independent expenditure groups, now do everything through professional vendors. This is the modern campaign industrial complex -- a multi-billion dollar political promotion machine at the heart of what's wrong with our democracy.

Now think about how much our lives have changed in just the last ten years. Because of iTunes, most don't go to record stores anymore. Because of Wikipedia and Quora, Encyclopedia Britannica no longer sits on our bookshelves. For better or worse, today's consumers expect options, tailoring, immediacy, and a voice. You can "like" just about anything on Facebook, but when was the last time you had a say in your party's platform?

It's not just that the political parties have outgrown their usefulness; it's that they have done so while clinging to the rules that protect their duopoly, leaving Americans with seemingly no option other than disengagement. That's precisely what's happening now. Voter turnout in 2010 was just over 40% -- in the cellar compared to the rest of the world. Party approval ratings hover around 30%. Don't believe for a second that these trends are unrelated.

If technology is the wind that's letting us drift further from the shore, it's also a new world on the horizon. While parties are still trying to upsell outdated memberships, technology is offering something faster, cheaper, and better. Innovative startups like PopVox, Americans Elect, Votocracy, Votizen and of course Ruck.us are creating new platforms for political engagement based entirely on social media technology. Not only do these new sites have little or no need for traditional institutions, but they are also fundamentally more compatible with a 21st Century democracy. As tech pioneer Fred Wilson said, "The Internet is not controlled by anyone or anything. It is a highly distributed global network that has at its core the concepts of free speech and individual liberty. This ethos... is in many ways at odds with big companies, institutions, and governments...."

Ditching membership in the major parties while embracing new technologies will not just make us more satisfied political customers -- it will also start the process of real reform. Politics, like everything else, is subject to the laws of physics, which dictate that politicians will be gravitationally drawn to the largest masses. Right now, these are two lumpy mounds on the ends of the spectrum. If we restructure this landscape to form social clusters around issues instead of the same old labels, the system is physically bound to respond. More independents and new forms of political association mean new voices and choices for voters.

If you doubt that we can do this, take a look at China. Yes, that China, the last major power to be dominated by a single political party. In the last few months, there has been a surge of independent candidates running for office. This quiet rebellion, made possible by Chinese social media sites like weibo, is a direct affront to the Communist Party that, like our two parties, has monopolized politics for too long. If China can harness the new power of digital democracy surely we can too.

In the last four years, the number of Facebook users has increased by 1500%. At the same time, party identification has been steadily declining as independents have grown to 38%. In other words, in the world's only two-party democracy, for the first time in history, a plurality is refusing to identify with either party.

Our country is founded on great moments. A great moment is now upon us to leverage technology and change politics to accommodate the demands of the emerging digital democracy. As the political industry is fond of saying, when the people lead, the leaders will follow. So lets grab our laptops, iPhones, and tablets, and let's lead.

Krist Novoselic is the former bassist of the groundbreaking rock band Nirvana and now Chair of FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy. Nathan Daschle is the former Executive Director of the Democratic Governors Association and now founder and CEO of Ruck.us, a political engagement startup.