Americans Elect Could Become a Viable Political Party

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J. David Gillespie teaches political science at the College of Charleston and The Citadel. Gillespie was a member of the Presbyterian College faculty in political science from 1979 to 2006 and that institution’s vice-president for academic affairs from 1997 to 2005. He has written extensively on third parties and has provided testimony in federal and state ballot access cases. His two books on the topic, both published by the University of South Carolina Press, are "Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics" (2012) and "Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America" (1993).

It may be that I just like duels. One of my favorite movie scenes is of the dueling banjoes in Deliverance. I find some fascination even in the historical accounts of the Burr-Hamilton affair, though it is a relief that such lethal blood sports no longer have the protection of law. This will be a dueling essay. It is about Americans Elect, the brightest, most glittering phenomenon situated outside the walls of America’s partisan duopoly in the 2012 election.

For sparring partner, I choose Professor Robert Brent Toplin, a respected scholar whose article on Americans Elect appeared on HNN two weeks ago.

Professor Toplin and I do share common ground on at least one point: just as white, waddling, quacking fowl are ducks (even if they don’t know it), Americans Elect is, in every way that counts, a political party. The movers and shakers of Americans Elect say theirs is not a party but rather something brand new, independent, and post-partisan. New it surely is, but it is far from the first to tap into that rich lode of de-alignment -- into popular disaffection over the hyperpartisanship in America's established political parties. The truth is that Americans Elect is better organized as a third party than the 1968 American Independent Party, far better than John Anderson's 1980 presidential campaign or Ross Perot’s in 1992. AE may surpass even the Democrats and Republicans in the future.

If the Washington Post's Ezra Klein is right about things, the current stage of the AE strategic plan is just the necessary stepping stone to what could eventually bestow legitimacy to the movement. AE is investing its considerable resources to surmounting every debilitating, discriminatory ballot access measure that Republicans and Democrats have engineered for their mutual self-protection state by state, and it is dedicated to selecting and offering a “bipartisan” presidential-vice presidential ticket capable of reaching debate stages and attracting many November votes countrywide. As Klein sees it, stage two (beginning in 2014) could then set Americans Elect as the alternate path to nomination and election for moderates running for Congress.

The ideological polarity now dividing Republicans from Democrats produces government gridlock, paralyzes the legislative process, and alienates millions of American voters. It also provides both political space and the crucial reconstructive work to be done for an electoral movement built at the center. That, at any rate, is the premise on which AE’s founders have constructed their movement. It flies in the face of longstanding conventional wisdom: that the outer margins of America’s ideological mainstream rest at the far ends of two similar parties -- one center-left, the other center-right -- and that any oxygen or opportunity for a third party would rest either to the left or the right of them both. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” was Helen Keller’s scornful appellation for Republicans and Democrats. Years later came the memorable George Wallace sneer: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference.”

Though remarkable, AE’s centrist insight is far from unprecedented. Twenty years ago Ross Perot and others grasped that space had opened for a movement of the “angry middle”—for people joining together to “clean out the barn.” Plenty of evidence, then and now, supports this intuition -- low affection for the established parties, a sustained desire for “a third major party,” record numbers of self-identified independents, and (despite the cards stacked high against them) growing numbers of successful independent and third-party candidates, often running as centrists.

Dueling metaphors may frame the issue in our time. Texas populist Jim Hightower declared that “there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” President Eisenhower said that ‘the middle of the road is all the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”  Millions of people surely embrace Eisenhower’s sentiment without knowing its source. Joined only in their common project of keeping ladders pulled up against outside challengers, today’s polarized major parties each steer toward the Hightower premise.      

I do have a few bones to pick with Professor Toplin, specifically for three points he makes or implies in that thought-provoking article of his:

1) The two parties have not moved apart. One party, the GOP, has moved, to the far right. The other has remained what it was: pragmatic, responsible, and center-left.

2) AE may very well have an unintended “spoiler” effect, defeating the Democrats and electing the Republican nominee.

3) Though rightly pointing out that “sometimes candidates who run outside the two-party system make a significant impact,” Toplin’s narrative connects that iteration solely to the occasional effect of third parties and independents as spoilers.

Toplin is undoubtedly right that the GOP has moved. In the heat of its internal contest for the presidency this year, the party of Grover Norquist has also opened itself to plausible claims that it is both anti-science and anti-contraception. But there is growing evidence that Tea Party power in the GOP is dissipating; and after flings with the Bachmanns and Santorums, it is the McCains and Romneys whom Republican presidential primary voters take home.

And it's not just that the GOP has moved. The Democrats have too. In passing Obamacare, Democrats (alone) legislated at last a health care vision first offered by Bull Moose Progressives in 1912. On LGBT and other issues recently deemed too hot to handle, Democrats are beginning to speak with some new clarity. Fully divested now of their “Dixiecrat” ethos, southern Democratic parties swim today in the progressive currents of their national party. Congressional trend lines over the years recently reveal growing cohesion within both congressional parties and widening ideological disparity between them.

With any forecast of third-party spoiling, I fall back upon a malapropism attributed to Yogi Berra (whether he said it or not): “It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Even alleged past spoiling may defy documentation. Did Perot really cost George H.W. Bush his reelection in 1992? No one knows for sure. I don’t know whether a strong American Elect tally this November would cleave more deeply into the Obama vote than that of the Etch-a-Sketch candidate now set to capture the GOP nomination this August. With due respect to Professor Toplin, I seriously doubt that he has been clued in about that either.

My most substantial quarrel with Toplin’s premises lies in the nexus he draws between spoiling and significance. Spoiling seldom is a minor party’s intention, and it is not how these parties assess their significance. They matter for other reasons. Third parties were the first to smash every de facto race, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation bar on nomination for the nation’s highest offices. And in a marketplace of ideas not fully free or open to them, minor parties have been first to offer up and push many of history’s most important, far-reaching reforms and policy proposals.

Americans Elect already has featured two important initiatives in the nation’s ideas marketplace:


  • Democratic selection online of a presidential nominee, with participating delegate status open to any registered U.S. voter; and


  • a proposed way out of the polarity and toxic partisanship that currently cripples our political processes.

    These, not any hunch about election spoiling this November, are what already have set AE’s significant place among third parties that have really mattered.

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