Voters may be hostile towards incumbent politicians, but there’s also a weariness with our political system itself, especially the negative campaigning that’s fueled by record-breaking amounts of special interest money. People may be fed up with lawmakers but they’re still looking for leadership. In their search for answers, many are not only listening to celebrity commentators - they’re literally flocking to them. But is it politics or merely entertainment? Was Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear a live comedy show or an actual political rally? And the same can be asked of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor event last August – was it a rally or the TV host in front of an outdoor audience?
I think both events were showbiz but we can’t discount that those attending are looking for something new to belong to. Some brought signs or even just being with likeminded others was another way to express oneself. I’m sure it’s also a jab back at the negative commercials and mailboxes stuffed with nasty independent expenditures. People claim to be tired of political polarization but let’s face it, the Rally to Restore Sanity was for liberal voters and Restoring Honor was for conservatives. The United States is supposed to have a two party system to represent this dichotomy, but the major parties were not featured at the rallies.
Political parties exist to give common people a way to voice their needs and values in the forum of democracy. The grassroots aspects of the two major parties (remember that part in the midst of all the hundreds of millions of dollars in ads?) are failing to provide this voice and therefore people are disinterested in them (although Tea partiers have made use of partisan primaries.) Comfortable with their integration with government, there is no incentive for the D’s and R’s to modernize. For example, we’re in the midst of an exciting information revolution but the local affairs of the dominant parties still revolve around stodgy central committee meetings.
Frustrated Americans are searching for a new politic. According to an October 13th story in The Hill, 54 percent of poll respondents say “they’d like an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans”. This poll is no surprise considering all the big-money politics and its alienating negativity at the close of the 2010 election. But considering the appetite for it, where is this generic alternative party from the poll? Current conditions are very accommodating for association - just look at the explosion of social networking. However, at the same time we find political association mostly withering! It’s odd. I mean, if likeminded people find each other on the Internet, shouldn’t the politically likeminded be doing the same? I know they are of course; but not in a way that you would count as a true political association like the one The Hill asks about.
Sure, there are Tea party rallies or political-entertainment events, but there’s no successful web-based effort to promote a true new party – yet. The traditional functions of a political party, albeit digitized, can be a way to bring structure to web-based organization. Web-based association tends to be decentralized and any party proposal must be a bottom up arrangement. But there still needs to be a group of individuals to start things. So the first thing for them should be to lay a philosophical foundation within a charter. This would serve to, hopefully, attract likeminded others. Members then, through the social network of the party, could propose and pass resolutions, write a party platform, vote on party officers and most importantly – nominate candidates for the ballot. And what the heck, why not throw a rally in DC or a real convention in some other great American city! The key is that, through their chosen group, citizens feel ownership of the process.
Small-scale contributions are an important aspect in on-line organizing. A web-based party could not only appeal for money-bombs, membership could require a monthly fee. Even if membership were five dollars a month, a group that caught the imagination of voters could reap considerable resources. Here’s my point: Want to fight against big-money in elections? A new party, with its appeals to voters at-large, could boast that it accepts no political contributions other than the membership dues of its supporters.
Another key ingredient is ballot laws to accommodate the new forms of participation. States need to change election rules to use majority and /or proportional voting systems. Our current system is built for two – and even under current levels of new association, it is starting to fail and deliver undemocratic outcomes (Check out the voting reforms FairVote has been promoting.)
Both Stewart and Beck are not endorsing any new kind of political association. But if either did get behind an effort, judging by their successful rallies, they could make an impact. We’ve seen voters coalesce around a celebrity candidate, but we could very well soon see a celebrity-initiated new party.
I’m sure the folks had a good time at the respective rallies. But now that they’ve gone home, and with the election almost over, don’t forget that there’s still a hunger to be fed – the desire for a new kind of politics that’s inviting and not alienating. Those who can find a way to meet that need through harnessing the power of social networking will own the new politic.