Americans Elect Learns Online Organizing Can’t Do It All

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Americans Elect thought they could create a moderate third party force in America by using the Internet and learned painfully that politics doesn’t work that way. While AE achieved ballot status in 27 states, a notable achievement indeed, they failed at their major goal of having presidential candidates qualify for their online convention in June and have called it quits.

Last Wednesday, prior to the decision to shut down, their CEO and other top staffers said they would confer with their community to determine what to do next. This neatly highlights on one of AE’s biggest problems, which was their top-down organizational structure. Real political parties don’t have CEOs and their internal organization is bottoms-up. Plus, politics is inherently messy and tumultuous. Attempting to force a corporate mindset on it doesn’t work.

However, the primary reason why AE flamed out, as Forbes details in a thoughtful article, is because online organizing by itself isn’t enough. The Internet is a hugely useful tool for getting the word out, but it can never replace organizing in person. You need the grassroots gumption to act face-to-face, with meetings, protests, and the tried and true method of knocking on doors and talking to people.

Anti-Iraq war organizers learned this while building support for the protests of 2003-2007, some of which drew hundreds of thousands. I helped organize some of these protests and we quickly learned that you cannot build momentum for a cause by using the Internet alone. You have to hand out flyers, hold meetings, build coalitions, paint banners, and get engaged with people and groups face-to-face. Then you use the Internet to augment those efforts. However, AE tried to do everything via online organizing and found that the absence of personal contact and a “disembodied” look and feel led to a lack of participation and interest. There are good reasons why politicians press the flesh and have rallies. It builds interest, gives a personal touch, and generates headlines. AE missed this completely.

AE’s corporate mindset also led them to assume that centrist candidates, many of whom are successful in business, would be able to translate those skills in politics and thus end the gridlock. But the skill sets are completely different. A political entity cannot be run like a corporation. A company can block people from attending their annual stockholder’s meeting. With a corporation, things are often done in private, but politics is inherently public. Trying to block people from, say, a County Board of Supervisors meeting may result in pitched protests, angry editorials, and lawsuits.

Americans Elect was financed almost entirely by hedge fund money. Well, color me suspicious, but considering enthusiasm for Wall Street currently ranks lower than having a root canal, inquiring minds want to know what hedge funds expected for their money and why the whole operation has been run so secretly.

AE has created ballot access for a third party which might be able to be used by others in the coming years. But are they a ‘real’ party? I would say no. They have no discernible grassroots or public presence apart from the Internet. The key lesson that organizers can learn from this is that real organizing is done in the real world. The Internet can help spread your message but cannot be the sole message. You must have people on the ground actively organizing, building your message and focus, and recruiting new members.