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Monday, January 2, 2012

Americans Elect: Using “Bipartisanship” to Advance the 1%

If you’re not familiar with “Americans Elect,” this post by Dante Atkins at DKos yesterday will help bring you up to speed.  Essentially, AE is an online group that intends to field its own presidential candidate in this year’s election.  Supposedly, its nominee will be selected by successive online votes by everybody who joins AE, culminating with a final “election” in June.  That nominee would then select a running mate who must be from a political party other than the nominee’s own.

The more I find out about this organization, the more it sounds like nothing so much as a front group working to advance the interests of the 1%.

Fetishizing Political Bipartisanship
To begin with, there is the goofy notion that requiring a presidential nominee to select someone from outside his or her own party is so transparently a good idea that it should be accepted without question.  But it is important to note that the simple requirement that the presidential ticket contain members of different political parties in no way indicates that those candidates actually would differ in any meaningful way from each other with respect to policy, and so this little trick really does nothing more than provide the appearance of bipartisan compromise without any of its substance.

Let’s be real clear here:  the Republican imposed gridlock in the federal government right now is about nothing more than the Republicans doing whatever they can to regain all the levers of power, full stop.  Not necessarily because Republicans want to enact legislative policies radically different than those pursued by Democrats (although in many instances they do), but simply because they want to be in charge. 

Now it is true that if both parties would just decide to work together to reach the same policy goals then gridlock would vanish and things would get accomplished.  But what things?  The execrable recommendations of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles?  The fact those recommendations were made by both a Republican and a Democrat didn’t thereby render them any less odious.  To the contrary, it just revealed that a broad bipartisan consensus exists among The Powers That Be for screwing over the working class, the middle class and our seniors in favor of the 1% that already is in charge.

AE’s little “bipartisan ticket” trick doesn’t require that its candidates differ in ideology, only in party labels.  Imagine a “centrist ticket” composed of John McCain and Joe Lieberman and you start to get an idea of what “bipartisanship” looks like in this context.

Which means that even if one assumes AE’s sincerity, the best one can say about the group is that it is fighting the wrong battle.  As Matt Taibbi has explained, what the Occupy movement and the 99 Percenters have been pointing out all these months is that America is not in crisis because of disputes between the Left and the Right, but because there is an actual war is being waged by the teeny tiny but extremely powerful Up (as in upper class, upper crust, upwardly mobile) against the vast but largely powerless Down (as in downsized, downtrodden, down and out).

Fetishizing political bipartisanship by presenting a Right-Left joint ticket won’t do a damned thing about the real Up-Down conflict that is screwing over so many people and leading so many to despair of our political process, but it may very well confuse a lot of voters about the real conflict underlying much of America’s problems.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that confusion would also provide additional cover for that conflict to continue and for the 1% to continue winning it.

AE’s Lack of Transparency
It is also noteworthy that AE has a real problem with transparency:  AE simply refuses to disclose the identity of the donors who are underwriting its “nonpartisan” efforts.  For example, here you can read a partial transcript of AE Chief Operating Officer Elliot Ackerman’s appearance on Hardball.

As the link makes clear, AE simply is refusing to identify who is underwriting its operation.  Ackerman (AE’s chief flack, apparently) seems to be arguing that AE doesn’t have to identify its donors – as regular political parties do – because “[AE’s] not a political party, Chris.”  But in fact Americans Elect is officially registered as a political party in states like Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.  Expect more states to be added.

In a political age dominated by ordinary voters’ concern that their voices might be drowned out by Citizens United and completely opaque Super PACs wielding millions and millions of dollars in corporate donations, it certainly seems strange that a new political party devoted to giving voters “a nonpartisan choice” is so skittish about disclosing who is funding what is supposed to be a deeply popular operation.  You’d think such philanthropy would be something the donors would want to tout.  After all, when Andrew Carnegie decided he wanted to give a little something back to the system that had made him so wealthy he created the Carnegie Corporation of New York – he wanted the credit, you see.

But then, AE isn’t about today’s 1% sacrificing anything for the common good.  Consider this statement on its website, apparently intended to assuage people who might be worried that Americans Elect is in the pocket of big money donors:  “we intend to repay our initial financing so that no single individual will have contributed more than $10K.”  Think about that statement carefully, and see if it doesn’t give you a chuckle. 

To begin with, AE isn’t announcing that they are not going to accept donations over $10,000, only that they intend to do something later; its good intentions about “paying the money back” sometime in the indefinite future are supposed to be sufficient assurances that the people paying the piper at AE right now don’t also get to call the tune.  Moreover, I note that AE is completely silent about repaying donors who contribute money other than AE’s initial financing.  Ignore the worthless language at the end of the quote, the statement itself makes quite clear that now that AE is up and running if a rich donor were to kick in a couple million dollars this group has no intention of paying that money back (although, they implicitly ask us to believe, they will turn a deaf ear to suggestions that rich donor might have about who the party’s ultimate nominee should be).

And, finally, wonder whether AE might have some reason other than a pursuit of autonomy for repaying its “initial financing” and think about this:  AE’s initial financing was $5 million in funding provided by Elliot Ackerman’s billionaire investment banker father – Peter Ackerman – who serves as AE’s Chairman.  

So a billionaire investment banker spent $5 million creating a third political party that supposedly will more accurately reflect the will of the American people, and part of that new party’s official policy is that at least $4,990,000 of the donations it receives will be used to pay that billionaire investment banker back.  You know, I might be a little more willing to believe that Peter Ackerman is underwriting this outfit because he really, really believes it is the right thing to do for America if he weren’t also so upfront about the fact that he doesn’t expect this new “people oriented” political party to actually cost him anything.

But even more significant than the fact AE’s donor list is non-transparent is the fact that its candidate selection process is completely opaque as well. 

Sure, AE claims its candidate will be selected by a series of online votes.  But, of course, there is no way for anybody to check the results of those votes.  AE participants will just have to accept the final result that AE spits out.  Hell, for that matter, there is no way of even knowing how many AE participants there actually are or how many votes are being cast. AE can claim that, say, 10 million people nationwide voted in its online poll, but for all any outside observer can know it was really only 100 people – or less.  After all, it’s not like we will be seeing any actual voters turning out the way we do when states hold their primaries. 

Do you remember all those concerns about electronic voting machines that didn’t produce paper records?  Well, multiple those concerns by about a billion (dollars) and that’s where we stand with AE.

Moreover, even if you assume that a significant number of people are participating in this process and you assume the good faith of AE in tallying those votes, AE still has virtually a free hand to decide who ultimately will be on its ticket.  AE has created a “candidate-certification committee” and these people will decide in some as yet undisclosed way which candidates the AE participants will actually be allowed to vote for.  Similarly, this committee will also decide in some as yet undisclosed way whether the winning candidate’s choice of running mate is sufficiently “bipartisan.”

So that’s AE’s premise.  A completely non-transparent online organization – funded by a billionaire investment banker (who has made clear he is not doing this for any philanthropic purpose) and paid for by donors who are unwilling to disclose their identities – is finally giving the American people a chance to elect a truly nonpartisan candidate.  You’ve just got to accept on blind faith that they’re not rigging the election results, you’ve got to trust that their selection committee is working on behalf of you and not the wealthy donors paying for this entire undertaking, and you’ve got to believe that these people don’t have an undisclosed agenda.

But hey, why wouldn’t you?  Hasn’t the 1% proven over the years that they have only the good of the country and the American people in their hearts?

Tipping the Election
The more one considers AE – its funding, its lack of transparency, its fetishizing of political, Left-Right bipartisanship and its complete disregard of the actual Top-Down conflict that has gotten America to where it is today – the more suspicious it all seems.  Take a quick gander at those first states where AE got on the ballot – every single one of them is a swing state.  Two of them – Ohio and Florida – are really, really important swing states.  And AE is also on the ballot in California right now – a reliably blue state in presidential elections.  It will be very interesting to see if AE ever actually does get itself on “all 50 states” as it claims it wants to do, or whether it continues to play triage and pick up the swing and blue states first. 

The reason that will be so interesting is because although “Ackerman and his colleagues argue that the moment is ripe for a third-party candidate – not merely to tip the election a la Ralph Nader 2000, but to win it,” I think Ackerman’s claim is patent nonsense. 

After all, Ackerman’s announced plan is to spend the first half of 2012 selecting a presidential ticket in a way calculated to provide little or no actual media coverage . . . while the rest of the country is kept continually informed of both President Obama’s doings and the race to secure the Republican nomination.  Then – only five months before the general election – AE is going to unveil its nominee to the American public for the first time and it claims to reasonably expect that the public will . . . what?  Rally ‘round the AE ticket based on nothing but its sheer bipartisany goodness?

The American people already know who Barack Obama is and they’re going to be learning all about the eventual Republican nominee during the next six months.  But – somehow – the sheer soul-crushing  happiness of a Bloomberg/Bayh or a Ben Nelson/Marco Rubio or a Chris Christie/Harold Ford or – I know! – a Jon Corzine/Paul Ryan ticket is going to so dazzle the American public that they elect a third-party candidate to the White House?

No sane person could seriously believe such twaddle.

As Dante Atkins's excellent post from last night makes clear, the real impact of the AE ticket is going to depend on the final names appearing on its and the Republican Party’s ballot lines.  Simply stated, AE’s presence could have the ability to siphon votes away from either the Democratic or the Republican Party depending on whom the Republicans nominate and whom AE selects.

So my cynical, black little heart guesses that once the Republican nominee has been made clear, AE is going to select a presidential ticket designed to divide the Democratic base and suck up as many disaffected Democrats as possible.  (As Atkins points out, Ron Paul is a strong contender for that role.) 

The bottom line is that I think AE has intended from the very beginning to wait and see who is going to be the Republican nominee and then select whatever “centrist” candidate is most likely to appeal to Democrats disappointed by President Obama.  I think AE is really only interested in running its hand-selected candidates in swing states and blue states, and I think AE’s entire goal is simply to help tip the election away from the not-quite-completely-in-the-pocket of the 1% Democrats and toward the wholly-owned-and-controlled by the 1% Republicans.  This whole bit about “nonpartisanship” and “online voting” is just the attractive magician’s assistant, gussied up for the 21st century, whose job is to distract the audience from what is otherwise the same tired trick of splitting the opposing party’s vote.

It’d be nice to get a little disconfirming evidence to suggest that I’m wrong, of course, but then that would require a belief that wealthy Americans still understood that we are all invested in this country together, and the kind of transparency in the political process that we are not likely to see until either Citizens United is overturned or the Constitution is amended.

Unfortunately, until then the smart thing to do is just to assume the worst.

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