This much should be said in defense of Americans Elect, the ambitious new venture to place a third party on the presidential ballot in 50 states: It at least defends the idea that there is a vibrant center remaining in American politics. That’s no small thing in a season where both parties have based their strategies on mobilizing the Left and Right respectively, and when the most energetic grassroots forces in the last several years — the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street — denigrate the center as feckless and dishonest.
But virtues aside, Americans Elect is just a decently capitalized start-up that still hasn’t raised enough cash to compete in a California governor’s race, much less a nationwide election. It is ostensibly free from the interest-group matrix that dominates each party, but because its donors don’t have to be disclosed under federal tax law, it’s less transparent than any presidential campaign operation in the modern era. It has constructed a state-of-the-art formula for a virtual online convention to pick a nominee, but has apparently shopped its nomination to every retired or retiring self-described moderate who has done a few terms in the Senate. It is a movement of the “responsible center” whose online followers track Ron Paul — the avatar of a politics that stitches the extreme Right and extreme Left together — more than any other political figure.
If Americans Elect amounts to nothing more than a footnote, its failure will be attributed to the obstacles third parties encounter in American politics. But its shortcomings also hint at something deeper: the elite centrism embodied by Americans Elect doesn’t address the fault-lines that are dividing the country, and, as a result, does not resonate with the actual middle ground that, according to Gallup, may comprise as much as 40 percent of the electorate.
To the extent an agenda can be gleaned from the impeccably credentialed insiders who form the vanguard for Americans Elect, from Tom Friedman to Mark McKinnon to Christie Todd Whitman, it is a Beltway/Wall Street–approved sensibility more than a program — a consensus of an affluent, cosmopolitan establishment that contentious social issues should be de-emphasized, that the Tea Party’s priorities have too much weight in the Republican party, and that President Obama has failed to summon the nation to an appropriately bold national challenge. The critique of Washington is descriptive — too many pledges, too many organized interests — but weak on details and actual proposals.
As a result, this version of elite centrism has been cryptically ambiguous on a range of policy disputes, from the merits or flaws of more government intervention in the health-care sector, to the balance between individual responsibility and entitlement, to the shape of immigration policy in a strained job market. This centrism is confident of what it doesn’t like — willful indifference to the science of climate change; flat-out refusals to raise taxes — but vague in its response to the erosion of the manufacturing sector and the wage stagnation of blue-collar workers. If elite centrism is troubled by the toll domestic regulations impose in a globally wired economy, or the weight of red tape on small businesses, it doesn’t say so.
On social issues, the silence is even more acute. Should a sweeping judge-made vision of equal protection trump federalism, and the prerogatives of states and communities to promote their own visions of the common good? It’s arguably the pivotal social question after a generation of constitutional rights expanding by non-democratic means, in a society roughly split on touchstones like abortion and gay marriage, but it’s a debate that elite centrism deliberately avoids.
It is not surprising, if Politico’s extensive story last week is to be believed, that Americans Elect has spent so much energy trying to draft either Evan Bayh, Bob Kerrey, Joe Lieberman, Lamar Alexander, or Chuck Hagel — all well-regarded Beltway personalities who are on the record denouncing hyper-partisanship and the collapse of bonhomie in the congressional cloakrooms. But their only major commonalities are an ambidextrous political profile and substantial time spent at a metro-D.C. address. The fact that they are equally appealing to Americans Elect is decisive proof that the organization’s convictions run broad not deep.
Americans Elect probably regards its lack of definition as a strategic asset. It may even be a necessity for an entity that is raising money around the value of an alternative voice, not around what that voice should actually say. But the carefully modulated, nuanced moderation that it embodies, the favored tone in the Acela corridor between New York and Washington, is probably the weakest possible catalyst for dynamic change.
Too much of the elite center was on retainer or in the boardroom when exotic financial instruments were distorting capital markets and Fannie and Freddie were collaborating to take the risk out of lending. Too many of them are immersed in a worldview that is famously tolerant and cosmopolitan, but tone-deaf about the anxieties of blue-collar Catholics and rural evangelicals, who fret that their social and economic moralities are under siege at the same time their communities are becoming poorer. The elite centrists are meritocrats whose children exercise every option of abundance, and are therefore too disconnected from places where ambition and work are not rewarded. Because power has been so good and so stable for them, they have only a thin understanding of how powerlessness and alienation are changing America’s civic culture.
The elite centrists are invariably charming, worldly people. But, to channel a line from Barack Obama channeling Alice Walker, if we want an upheaval, they are not the people we have been waiting for.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.