Reasonable, Bipartisan Politics Still Not Sexy Enough for Voters

America's not ready to end the two-party system.

The leaders of Americans Elect, a semi-high-profile effort to find a nonpartisan, centrist, Internet-driven presidential candidate for the 2012 cycle, said last week it’s canceling the first phase of its planned “online caucus,” due to a lack of candidates who met the minimum thresholds for qualification.

Americans Elect was first announced last July as an effort, according to their official statement, toward “using the Internet to give every single voter—Democrat, Republican or independent—the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012. The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates. And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.”

At its launch, Americans Elect was hailed by Thomas Friedman and other top pundits as a new vanguard in American politics, a new way to get past the destructive partisanship of Bush and Obama presidencies, and a way to use the Internet to truly effect positive change.

As you may have noticed, Americans Elect hasn’t exactly caught fire, and most news reports about the group make it sound more like a failed Internet startup than an effective grassroots political campaign. For instance, according to a Washington Post report last month, the group has spent an astronomical $9 million just on its website. And while the group has succeeded on getting on several state ballots, it’s had a lot more trouble finding candidates to fill those ballot lines.

Among Americans Elect’s “declared candidates,” long-ago former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, who ran in the GOP primaries this year but was notably left out of all the debates, is in the lead with 4,860 supporters. In second and third place are Rocky Anderson and Michaelane Risley, and if you don’t know who they are, neither do I. Three bigger names—Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman and Bernie Sanders—are listed as “draft candidates,” which of course means they have taken no steps toward wanting to associate themselves with Americans Elect.

Various other media reports have talked up the candidacy of former U.S. comptroller general and Americans Elect board member David Walker,  who would have to campaign with the semi-significant handicap that just about nobody knows who he is, either.

Another centrist dream involves New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg being persuaded to enter the race. But independent bids generally gain traction when the candidate is populist and charismatic, and Bloomberg is about the furthest thing from either. In this year of resentment of elites and “the one percent,” it’s hard to see how he’d have any national appeal at all.

So what went wrong here? The Americans Elect organizers appear to have severely misjudged the political mood of the country. In 2012, most of the political, grassroots energy is on either the left or the right. And sure, there’s much anger about political polarization, but most of that isn’t coming from the middle.

Just as most people who call for bipartisanship really mean, “I want everyone on the other side to agree to everything I want,” most people who complain about political partisanship are on one side and blame the other side for it. Democrats are mad at polarization and blame it on the Republicans, and vice versa.

And perhaps even more wrongly, the Americans Elect organizers have misunderstood where political energy comes from. In the Obama years, we’ve seen huge amounts of grassroots energy on the right (the Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street.) Both movements have largely been driven from the bottom up, and by specific issues about which individuals feel particularly strongly, to the point that they have been driven to street protest.

Americans Elect is dedicated to political change from the top down, and isn’t really about issues at all—its platform is essentially whatever people on their website decide it is. America doesn’t have much of a history of successful political movements that believe in nothing.

Is there a bitter mass of people in the center who are angry at both the left and right? I’m sure there are, but people who fall in that category have so many divergent interests and beliefs that I’ve never seen them come together as a coherent political force.

Americans Elect is not to be confused with Unity 08, a similar effort from the 2008 cycle, or the “No Labels” movement that launched in late 2010, both with some of the same people in charge (David Walker co-founded No Labels). Unity 08 fizzled out, but not before morphing into an unsuccessful “Draft Bloomberg” movement. And if you’re wondering how much of an impact No Labels has had, try turning on cable news just about any time of day.

Will America ever have a viable third party? If politics keeps going the way it’s going, there’s a good chance one day it will. However, it’s safe to say it won’t be Americans Elect, nor will it use a model that looks in any way like theirs.