Thomas Friedman’s article on an upstart third party in Sunday’s New York Times has been generating buzz. Friedman explains that the new party — Americans Elect — will be one of a radical centrist variety. Eschewing the normal nominating processes, it will harness the power of the internet to nominate its own candidates for President and Vice President, stipulating that they cannot both come from the same political party. This is supposed to lead to the nomination of more representative candidates that will challenge the entrenched interests of the two major political parties.
On first glance, it is not clear what distinguishes Americans Elect from the spectacularly failed Unity08 movement which made a similar splash in the early parts of the 2008 presidential election. Americans Elect is wrapped in the same sort of vague centrism and similarly requires multi-party representation on the ticket. Unlike Unity08, it appears that Americans Elect at least superficially understands the necessity of actually organizing to get on the ballot, something which is quite difficult due to ballot access laws that are designed to frustrate third party participation.
Other than that, its chief novelty I suppose is its heavy dependence on internet participation. Its polished website and internet nominating process makes it somewhat distinct from Unity08, but not in a good way. Absent mass participation — which I am willing to predict will not materialize — the nominating process will almost certainly devolve into a comical circus of fringe candidates with dedicated internet supporters. Judging from how often Ron Paul supporters organized to spam internet polls last election cycle, I can already see him being a big contender once he loses in the Republican primary.
My real problem with Americans Elect, however, is not its internet-heavy process or its remote chances; rather, it is its reliance on the tired political rhetoric of populist centrism. According to this rhetoric, the Democratic party is an uncompromising left-wing political machine, and the Republican party is an equally uncompromising right-wing political machine. They are both controlled by hyper-partisan interest groups that seek to polarize the American people who are, on this view, actually more in agreement with one another than disagreement. If only we could find the sweet spot right in the middle of the right-wing and left-wing, we would somehow find the correct governance.
This populist centrism is surprisingly widespread. For instance, Jon Stewart’s whole persona as one of the few mature, reasoned, and therefore legitimate political commentators is premised on just such a populist centrist line. Additionally, you can hear the sentiment echoed in the voice of the everyday person who remarks that they are not a Democrat or a Republican, and that they are conservative on some things and liberal on others. Of course, this is a view you have to line up behind to position yourself as someone who is truly politically independent.
The chief problem with this centrist line is that it is not truly centrist, at least not on any normal political spectrum. As Paul Krugman succinctly points out, the modern-day Democratic party is really a moderately right-wing party. The policies that they pursue are the same ones that Republicans advocated less than two decades ago. The idea that finding some arbitrary point in between the moderate right-wing Democrats and the more extreme right-wing Republicans will generate excellent public policy is completely without merit. This is an especially strange rhetorical line when one considers that the center — when conceived of as being in between the Republicans and Democrats — is constantly shifting.
More than that, populist centrism seems to completely reject the idea that there are actually good reasons to have a defined political persuasion other than vaguely “in the middle.” It is not mindless partisanship or political dogmatism to line up behind a unified conception of the role of government that forwards a coherent program based on a particular worldview. In fact, that approach to doing politics actually makes sense because it is based on carving out a definite position based upon theories, arguments, and ideas. It differs from the amorphous centrism of parties like Americans Elect which defines solid political ground as being relational to existing political tides — the relation being of course in the center of them.
That Americans Elect will almost certainly fail goes without saying. However, in its failure it will probably provide at least some boost to the frustratingly incoherent rhetoric of populist centrism. That contribution, no matter how small, will only help to make the mainstream political discourse more vacuous than it already is.