I've run out of ways to describe how low approval numbers for our representatives in Washington have fallen, but Mike Huckabee did a pretty decent job of it the other day when he pointed out that it's now “just barely above a pedophile.”
If you've got an entrepreneurial bone in you, and have read much on the subject, you'll know that one of the most repeated lines is "the best time to start a new endeavor is always now," but failing that the best time is when everything is going wrong. When things are going well, people are satisfied with what they have and are won't to stick to what works. But when things are going horribly wrong, as they are politically these days, people are more likely to give something new a try.
Entrepreneurial and marketing author Seth Godin touched on this in his most recent blog post, saying that the status quo, "is taking a beating, there's no question about it. That's what makes it a revolution." The conditions couldn't be more perfect for a game changer.
In a small coincidence, I cracked open a book that one of the bloggers, Robert Levine, on my site wrote and sent me a while back that I hadn't found time for the other day, and the next day got an email informing me that he'd had a short op-ed posted in the New York Times. Both the book and the post were about the need for a centrist third party to break the stalemate in Washington.
The economy is stagnant, unemployment remains high, and budget deficits and the national debt keep climbing. Yet no answers are forthcoming from our representatives in Washington. The continuing dysfunction reinforces the need for a third party of the center as an alternative to the current parties.
A centrist third party could prosper in today’s political environment and end the stalemate in Washington. There is a large body of moderate Republicans, disaffected Democrats and dissatisfied independents looking for the kind of political home that this party could provide. Unhappiness with the political options now available to Americans will sooner or later translate into a groundswell for alternatives.
Robert's point is essentially the same as Seth Godin's. We have problems that the products (political parties) do not have solutions for, leaving a vacuum that a new party could meet the demand for. The only thing he misses is I'd say the groundswell for alternatives is already happening.
You can see the signs of this groundswell all around us. Of course the polling numbers, but also with the recent creation of new organizations like No Labels, Americans Elect and the Comeback Initiative, the increased attention that organizations like Third Way and Bipartisan Policy Center are getting, and the passage of electoral reforms in the states - like open primaries and nonpartisan redistricting.
I also have several daily news alerts that send me articles, videos and blog posts related to centrists, moderates and independents and I'd say the quantity has just about doubled since 2008. It used to be that I stumble across a letter to the editor from someone decrying the partisan rancor maybe once or twice a week, but now I often get 3-4 a day. I'm sure it's a chicken and the egg sort of thing, where editors are looking for material like this to publish, to sate the demand they see in the polls, and more and more of it is filtering up through the big political sites as well.
No longer is it just people scoffing at the notion of a third major party rising, or mere dismissive talk of spoilers and also rans. You're beginning to see people seriously talking about how a race between two deeply flawed candidates like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is an ideal time for something new to begin to take root.
A recent example would be a great post from Peter Modigliani, on over at The Hill. He lists five steps that need to be taken for a third party to emerge and start growing into a credible opposition to the two major parties. With all of the buzz about Americans Elect running a presidential ticket later this year, the chances of it winning this time around is fairly slim. But the real promise is in how it will be able to run candidates all up and down the ticket next election cycle, after building a network of supporters during this presidential cycle.
Modigliani hits on this theme in his piece:
Imagine what a third party would do to change Washington, not to mention state and local governments. A viable third party established on moderate and balanced views on the issues could capture the large and rapidly expanding group of independent voters across America. Finally breaking the two party system with a few members of the third party in Congress would be one for the history books. The mere presence of a competitive third party will drive reforms in the two major parties to avoid being branded as partisan extremists and risk losing additional moderate and independent voters.
The first major achievement will come when the two major parties fail to win 50% of the seats in Congress and the majority is determined by the third party. Imagine if the next House of Representatives comprised of 215 Republicans, 215 Democrats, and five members of the third party. Those five members could determine whether the Speaker of the House is a Republican or Democrat. For every major piece of legislation, no one party could drive bills through on party lines. They would need to develop bi-partisan or tri-partisan solutions to our nation’s issues.
He's absolutely right that the long term goal for any third party should be working towards enough seats in congress to not allow either party to pass legislation on their own. Americans Elect's COO Elliot Ackermann told me that was something Americans Elect would work towards in 2014, when we talked a few months ago on a promotional swing through Nebraska. They're already on the ballot in 13 states, having collected nearly two and a half million signitures, and are well on their way to getting on all 50 states' ballots.
Modigliani's five steps towards developing a lasting opposition party to the two major parties hits the nail on the head on all five. Americans Elect gets the first two right, in assembling many centrist and moderate figures to be on their board and learning from other grassroots efforts in the last few years. But Americans Elect isn't a party - it's a Super PAC and isn't going to be what we need to see in the long run.
Americans Elect can be a bride to what we really need, a lasting centrist /moderate big tent party, but the other three steps of developing a moderate platform, opposition to lobbyist and monied interests and developing a brand that people can rally around are things that a Super PAC just can't do well. Americans Elect doesn't take stances, and you can't build a solid brand without one. And they can't take a hard stance against the influence of lobbying and money in politics when they chose to structure as a Super PAC, and have raised tens of millions without opening their books so the public can know
Putting too much faith in Ross Perot in the mid 1990's led to the downfall of the Reform Party. Putting too much faith in Americans Elect risks the same. It's not perfect, but it is the best opportunity we've had in a generation to build an opposition to the two major parties. We should embrace it now, help get a good moderate on the ticket and work to build a network of supporters across the country that can evolve out of the confines of Americans Elect and build the party we need in 2016 and beyond.