Will the Internet Make Democrats and Republicans Obsolete?

Groups like Americans Elect could kill our two-party system.

Whichever party you plan to support in the fall general election, you can rest assured it’s going to be an uninspiring campaign. Of course, the election of our country’s first black commander-in-chief in 2008 would be a hard act to follow even under the best of circumstances. But four years later, Americans are tasked with choosing between an unpopular incumbent who promised his supporters “Change” but offered another, less galvanizing C-word (Compromise); and a Republican challenger who has received more accolades for his hair than his political acumen, and who recently became the first presumptive presidential nominee ever to garner less than 60 percent of the vote in a state primary as the sole viable candidate.

Call me a cynic (you wouldn’t be the first), but I’m betting there aren’t going to be too many people terribly excited about getting out of the house to vote on November 6th. We can only hope it doesn’t rain.

Then again, when it comes to picking a president, our two-party system pretty much ensures as much. With the exception of a tiny proportion of strong supporters backing each contender, most voters cast their ballots for the “least-worse” candidate rather than the “most-best” one.

This probably explains why, according to a November 2011 Rasmussen poll, just one-fifth of voters believe the federal government has the consent of the governed.

It also helps explain why, with each passing week, public anticipation mounts for a viable third-party candidate to swoop in and save the day. The superhero imagery is intentional; for Americans, the “viable third-party candidate” embodies all the mythical lure of a Sasquatch, or better still, a rare orchid—one that blooms once every four summers only to shrivel and die with the first sign of frost.

It’s not that third parties haven’t played a role in U.S. presidential politics. Beginning in 1900, the Socialist Party ran a candidate in every election up until 1948—the year the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating domestic communism. In 1968, George Wallace picked up 46 electoral votes running as an “American Independent” (that’s only six fewer than Barry Goldwater carried running as a Republican in 1964). More recently, Ross Perot’s massive ears graced our television sets during two presidential campaigns in the 1990s—once as an Independent and again as the first candidate to run on the newly established Reform Party ticket.  This year, we can expect presidential runs from the Justice Party, the Constitution Party, the Reform Party and the Green Party (comedian Roseanne Barr is currently seeking the nomination.) History tells us they won’t get very far.

But the failure of a third-party ticket to make headway in a U.S. presidential election comes not from lack of trying (nor, as Perot proved, from lack of money). Instead, the nature of our electoral system has long ensured that no candidate who is not attached to one of the two major political parties could ever come close to winning the White House. For decades, this had to do mostly with the power of the party apparatus to consolidate support on a national level. Without the machine behind you, you didn’t have a chance.

Then something unexpected happened: Someone built a better machine.

Enter the Internet.

Modern technology could make the two-party system (and some might say partisan politics as a whole) an anachronism by enabling people to run as themselves instead of as party apparatchiks. Since the last election, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and online campaigns like Change.org and kickstarter.com have shown us the power of universal connectivity and social networking to move massive numbers of people to action. Why couldn’t the same networks that helped toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak be applied to electing our own president?

The group Americans Elect, which operates under the slogan “Pick a President not a Party,” thinks the time is ripe to give it a shot. A web-based nominating platform, Americans Elect invites users to declare themselves or draft other candidates for the 2012 presidential election. To qualify, candidates deemed to have “a similar level of experience as past presidents” must gain 10,000 clicks of support on the Americans Elect website (a total of 1,000 votes in 10 different states). Regular folk (like me, if I had an inclination to be leader of the free world) require 50,000 clicks.

The group will host three online caucuses—the first on May 8th—with the goal of sending six candidates to its June 12th convention. It plans to run whoever wins there on its own ticket in the November presidential elections. By then, Americans Elect hopes to be on all 50 state ballots. Last week, the group  was awarded ballot status in South Dakota, putting it halfway to its goal; and it says that so far, more than 2.5 million people have signed petitions in an effort to get it the rest of the way.

Americans Elect may seem like a novelty—and some have expressed legitimate concerns about the group’s model (like, how as a registered 501(c)3, it is not required to divulge its funding). But the group has attracted some powerful backers, including former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, Mark McKinnon—who served as a strategist to John McCain—and Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Walt Disney.

That in itself guarantees that whatever ripple it makes this year will only spread by 2016.  More importantly, its very existence reflects that a major paradigm shift is underway. And with more grassroots funding and private Super PAC money available, it’s conceivable that even the fundraising activities of political parties may be trumped by other avenues.

Some of the nation’s leading political operatives have seen the writing on the wall and are sharing the news with anyone who will listen. Writing last August in the Wall Street Journal, Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen—two longtime Democratic pollsters—declared 2012 a “prerevolutionary moment” in American politics, and the beginning of the end of two-party dominance.

“The political order as we know it is deteriorating and disintegrating, and politics abhors a vacuum,” they wrote.

Walter Russell Mead, the editor-at-large of the journal The American Interest, echoed that sentiment in October, citing Barack Obama’s grassroots victory over the “pro-Clinton party establishment” and Tea Party candidates’ sweep in the 2010 GOP primaries as early indicators of the “decay of American political parties.”

“The combination of citizen grassroots movements, decentralized party structures and the vast sums of money short-circuiting the official party structures is changing the way politics works,” he wrote. “American politics today occupies a space that is institutionally weak. A candidate with a lot of money (his own or raised from donors) can make an instant name and reputation; a movement that energizes the public can push aside established party figures to anoint its own candidates for public office.”

It’s easy to get excited about the prospects of a transition to a more open and, one would hope, egalitarian electoral system; but we also need to be cautious. Most worrisome is the fact that Internet-based groups like Americans Elect (not to mention private fundraising entities such as Super PACs) lack the financial accountability of established parties. Transparency is critical to democratic elections and any change in the current system would need to duplicate, if not surpass, current levels of openness.

Still, Americans now rely on the Internet to communicate with family and friends, buy goods, do their banking and in some cases even meet their significant others. Can electing the president be far behind?