Now that the Obama White House has lost that shiny, new-president feel, and hope and change has turned into more of the same, gridlock is back in Washington and fury beyond the Beltway. With the distinctly uninspiring prospect of an Obama-Romney battle stretching endlessly across an infinite series of news cycles all the way to November, people are looking for something new. Surely there is some common sense, middle of the road option, many thoughtful people say. Surely there is some course between Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin toward which the national compass needle can point. Can nobody rise above the stale cliches of partisan rhetoric, stand up tall and, for God’s sake, speak for America?
Enter Americans Elect, a movement of centrist thinkers and politicians with varied backgrounds looking to break the “duopoly” of the two major parties that, in their view, is an inevitable source of crippling polarization. The group boasts the backing of big names, including Admiral Dennis Blair and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, and has impressive financial backing and organization for its reformist, good-government agenda. Plus, its website and entire image is pretty sexy and refreshing.
Yet despite their enviable organization and estimable pedigree, the group seems to have one small, lingering problem—it can’t seem to convince voters to care. A recent online poll looking to select a candidate for an upcoming election has been unable to produce the requisite number of votes for any of the nominees, and many now worry that the organization is not gaining traction with voters, reports the FT.
There are several reasons why, despite the entreaties and the dances of the priests and prophets of Baal, no fire falls from the heavens. Mark Schmitt summarizes one of the problems over at TNR:
But the deepest problem with Americans Elect is its unspoken Great Man Theory of American politics (and this is a Great Man Theory: you can count on one hand the women among the 26 declared candidates and top 50 draft candidates for the AE nomination): All we need to break through Washington’s dysfunction, so goes the idea, is a president with the will to get things done. Weirdly, this theory echoes both the most delirious Grant Park dreams of what Barack Obama would be able to achieve in the White House, and the delusions of Obama’s sharpest critics from the left, who insist that if he had only pushed harder for a bigger economic stimulus or a public option in health reform he would both have more to show for his presidency and be coasting to reelection. If the last three years have not demonstrated that the President operates within the constraints of an extremely complicated institutional structure with veto points everywhere, what could convince someone? How would a president with no allies in Congress do better?
The Great Man illusion — and the lack of appreciation for the role of Congress and other elements in our political system — is part of the problem. There are others; despite its unhappiness with the two parties and the state of the nation, public opinion is not yet ready to bolt. The two party system isn’t enshrined in the Constitution (the founders didn’t like political parties and hoped the US wouldn’t have them) but it is entrenched in the public mind. People are used to voting for the lesser of two evils and also think that a vote for a third party is wasted.
Also, in times like the present when people are angry, protest votes are more likely to go to spicy candidates with radical ideas than to bland ones professing enlightened centrist (which is to say, Establishment) views. In France, the protest vote in the first round went to radical left and right parties; the centrist in the race did poorly. A latter day George Wallace or Huey Long might make a run for it this year, but a bland centrist doesn’t stir up the blood.
Americans Elect represents a classic form of American political futility: the genteel, sensible and civilized revolt of the upper middle class. Americans Elect is the latest incarnation of the always thoughtful but rarely successful Broccoli Party, the movement of those who think we should start living rationally and moderately.
Generally speaking, these noble civic endeavors start out impressively and then stall. A few mayors get elected, a few people make some eloquent and heartfelt addresses. Much logic is displayed; few ballots are cast. So far, Americans Elect seems to be traveling that well trodden path toward irrelevance.
The American two party system is mostly a contest between the Pie Party and the Ice Cream Party. Each offers a mix of attractive, somewhat demagogic appeals to the magical thinking, inner ten-year-old that lives inside most of us American voters. Politicians tell us how we can get what we want — and why we deserve it. You name your desired treat — big spending, low taxes, social issues, earmarks — and politicians will offer to help you get it.
Voters complain about the insincerity and phoniness of politicians, but they still want dessert. When voters talk about bipartisan, centrist solutions, they are thinking about having some ice cream on top of their pie, not about giving up both treats in favor of some nice wholesome veg.
The Broccoli Party is the 21st century coming of the Mugwumps, the late 19th-century movement of high-minded liberals who were distressed by the corruption, machine politics of post-Civil War Republicans. The original Mugwumps, like their spiritual heirs, scored excellent debating points and had thoughtful positions on a variety of issues but never got much done.
President Clinton once cracked that Michael Dukakis would make an excellent president if the United States had a City Manager form of government; Mugwumps would be a powerful force in American life if we were a non-partisan and non-political people — with a strong taste for broccoli.
The trouble is that at least in the US system, a mix of civic-minded, balanced, and thoughtful upper middle class good government types is about as politically formidable as a basket of bunnies. They often know policy, budgets, management and “the issues;” the only things they don’t understand are politics and the American people.
The trick in American politics isn’t to persuade voters to shun ice cream and pie in favor of broccoli. The trick is to find ways to incorporate the necessary nutrition into the pies and the ice cream. You can get a lot of fiber into a pie crust if you are creative.
The appearance of Mugwump movements is a good sign that something is out of whack in our politics—well educated upper middle class reformers may be politically impotent as a group but their cries of alarm are often well founded. And some of the ideas Mugwumps advocate go on to be influential.
But our contemporary Mugwumps are wrong, I think, when they think that the solutions to our problems are all known, and that it is just a question of reason and willpower. America is at the end of one road — the way of the blue social model — and we are at the frontier of history, confronting problems that no large society has ever faced before. How to maintain a mass middle class when both manufacturing and white collar work faces challenges from automation and outsourcing; how to maintain large and expensive old age programs when demography shifts and population growth slows; how to provide dramatically greater quantities of health care and educational services when these sectors are low-productivity and costs are exploding: the answers to these questions aren’t in the old good governance textbooks.
We need Daniel Boones, these days, as we step uneasily into unknown terrain, rather than earnest city managers who want to run everything by the book. The latter have their place, and when the new frontier is settled and new cities and institutions arise, they will need to be managed by competent and honest people. But until that time, we are not in a Golden Age of Mugwumpery. In the dog eat dog politics of 2012, Americans Elect is barking up the wrong tree.
[Top image courtesy Wikipedia: 1884 US political cartoon showing James G. Blaine, the Republican presidential candidate, covered in his scandals. The original Mugwumps were Republicans who broke from the party after Blaine’s nomination. Sidebar image courtesy Shutterstock.]