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Public Opinion

Common Wisdom Vs. Common Vision: How Independents Can Achieve Fair Representation in Government

There’s been a great deal of speculation in recent news cycles about independent presidential candidates for 2020 thanks to Starbucks former CEO Howard Schultz. The common wisdom about his prospective presidential run is clear: it would be a political windfall for President Trump and a cataclysmic blow to any Democrat seeking the White House.

The problem with this kind of common wisdom is that it ensures that the competition American voters clearly want in our politics will be delayed, and effectively denied, for many more generations. Even a cursory look at the news coverage of the Schultz announcement and current punditry on all past or hypothetical independent or third-party campaigns will demonstrate why.

What no one seems to be talking about is how voters will ever get the political competition they really want. Although it is a widely accepted fact that “all politics is local,” the furor caused by Schultz’s intentions is just one of many pieces of evidence that, right or wrong, it is the presidential race that is the electorate’s undeniable focus.

How do we then, as a country, deal with our dire need for an end to the partisan polarity and gridlock that threatens everything from our economic future to key elements of our national security?  Given what we know about the political will of the country and the options afforded to voters by the Constitution, there is a way, but it will take more than common wisdom. It will take a common vision.

"What no one seems to be talking about is how voters will ever get the political competition they really want." - Jim Ragsdale, Founder of Purple State"

Judging by the coverage of the Schultz announcement and comments on social media content, the present consensus of opinion on independent presidential candidacies is that hopes for a post-partisan future are little more than pie-in-the-sky.

Pulitzer-prize winner Eugene Robinson wrote that although voters who identify as independents outnumber those who express party affiliation and the Trump presidency demonstrates how nearly anything is possible, our political duopoly is so “deeply entrenched and highly adaptable” that “only a supreme narcissist” would believe they could defeat it.

Fox’s Howard Kurtz said that “Trump would absolutely love Schultz to jump into the race and split the opposition.” He also invoked Ross Perot, saying that “even rich independents don't win the White House, and Schultz won't be any different if he runs,” and reminding us that “Perot...won zero electoral votes in 1992.”

During his interview this week on The View, Schultz elicited comments like these:

Meghan McCain: “...if you can live with the hypothetical situation that you get Trump re-elected, that’s fine, but no one seems terribly convinced that this is possible for you to pull off.”

Joy Behar: “The thing that scares me is that your entry into this race will guarantee Trump another 4 years, and we cannot have that.”

Here are some of the remarks from the YouTube comments section for that interview that are representative of the audience’s take on Schultz’s chances of success:

“He is either a compassionate conservative or a corporate democrat...he should pick a party and go through the primary process like everyone else.”

“...this won't work. He will draw centrists away from the Dem candidate but will not draw social conservatives.”

“I don’t see myself voting for him. I hope he doesn’t waste America’s time and votes and stays home ”

It is difficult to reconcile all of this commentary with what the electorate says it wants. Trusted data sources such as Gallup tell us that voters have consistently demonstrated a desire for change.

According to the latest Gallup poll, at least four in 10 Americans have been political independents in seven of the past eight years, including an all-time high of 43% in 2014. 57% of Americans express a need for a third, major political party, while 38% of Americans believe the current two party system does an adequate job of representing the people.

The question is: if there is that much interest in an alternative to the Republican/Democratic duopoly on our elections, why are so many of us convinced that an independent run for president is a pipe dream?

A recent piece from Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief, outlined the two scenarios that best answer that question, one considerably lesser known than the other.

The first is what Feist refers to as the “John Quincy Adams Scenario.”  It involves the Constitution’s remedy for an election in which none of the candidates wins an electoral vote majority needed to win. If no one reaches 270, the president is chosen by the House of Representatives, but each state's delegation votes as a block. Despite the present Democratic majority in the House, Republicans control more state delegations (26 states to 22 states, with 2 other states tied). In short, the current House of Representatives would almost certainly choose the Republican.

The other, more obvious one is the “spoiler vote,” the scenario that dominates the Schultz coverage (and for which Ralph Nader will forever be blamed as the cause of the George W. Bush presidency). In light of what appear to be increasingly closer races, it’s no surprise that an overwhelming majority of the American people are convinced that a vote for a presidential candidate without a D or R by their name is a vote that has been wasted.

Both scenarios highlight the need for change at every level of government if we ever expect to transcend this centuries-long partisan quagmire that founders like Washington and Adams warned us about. Most of us would say that it will take a full-scale national movement to make this happen. What most of us don’t know is that there is already such a movement underway.

There are hundreds of organizations now fighting the toxicity inherent in our two-party system. Their targets include issues such as gerrymandering, money in politics, lobbying, and yes, the viability of independent candidates. There is even growing support for electoral reform from sitting members of Congress, evidenced by the bipartisan Congressional Reformers Caucus, which has grown to 32 representatives of the 115th Congress — 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

"There are hundreds of organizations now fighting the toxicity inherent in our two-party system." - Jim Ragsdale, Founder of Purple State

This reform movement is guided by a clear-eyed understanding of why the duopoly doesn’t serve America like it should. One of the best examples of that understanding is a study titled “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.”

One of its authors is Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor and the director of its Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. Known as “the founder of the modern strategy field,” he is also in the Founder’s Circle of Unite America, an organization that fielded dozens of independent candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, and Honorary Co-Chair of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers (NANR). NANR was founded in 2018, and is bringing together a multitude of reform organizations through its members and their affiliates.

Porter responded to the reaction to Howard Schultz’s aspirations on Facebook by suggesting that “such intense backlash against the prospect of a new entrant is a telltale sign of a failure of competition.”

The need for fair competition in our politics is at the heart of the issues the movement is working to address. Thanks to NANR member organizations like FairVote, Represent.us and many more, real change is underway on moving towards a solution for the “Nader Scenario.” Ranked-choice voting or RCV is emerging as a feasible way to take the fear of a spoiler vote out of the equation.

In an election using the RCV method, your vote goes to your second choice candidate in the event that your first choice doesn’t win enough votes to be viable. Over 20 American cities presently use or have adopted RCV. In 2016, Maine became the first state to adopt it for congressional, gubernatorial and state legislature races, and withstood a legal challenge by former Congressman Bruce Poliquin when RCV enabled Democrat Jared Golden to unseat him in last year’s midterms.

"(S)uch intense backlash against the prospect of a new entrant is a telltale sign of a failure of competition." - Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor

The many objectives of the movement and its members are diverse but synergic. Their work on reforming voting methods, debates, and primaries will all ultimately serve to open up the field to nonpartisan presidential contenders.

That said, even if most voters knew about its growth and advances, many would conclude that the probability of successful independent presidential campaigns is still decades away. The truth is that if they ever really want to get there, they will need a vehicle and a road map.

If our problem is the two parties, then we need an alternative that isn’t another party. Despite the fact that so many attempts to create a competitive third party have failed, the partisan methodology of political organization is causing many of the ills we are hoping to heal. We should heed the founders and move in a completely different direction. Technology can provide us with a vehicle that can get us there more quickly than we might expect.

In the same way that platforms like Amazon and Uber have made massive changes to entire sectors of our economy with dizzying speed, a digital platform for crowdsourced political organization could be a powerful tool in the effort to effect the reforms our broken system so desperately needs.

This is not about breaking new ground in advanced technology. This is about providing registered voters with a simple app they can use to post, read, rate and review candidates and policies, and then achieve the proliferation of its use among a significant portion of the electorate.

As users would have to identify where they are registered, this can work just as well for city and state races as it can on a national level. The result would be an organically-generated consensus agenda voters can use to override the deeply flawed polling that inaccurately expresses their will and ultimately undermines proper representation, regardless of who is in office.

The platform would be a real time, bottom-up example of the “arena of ideas” we have heard so much about, where the best people and solutions trend and rise to the top. It could leverage basic social media functionality to create a central place for candidates to gain the support they need to organize volunteers to obtain ballot access in all 50 states and run the ground game necessary to win.

It could also partner with the reform movement to promote their work and help its members engage and organize voters on a national basis, accelerating the changes that make independent candidacies more likely to be successful.

There’s no debate about how our politics are driven primarily by media. It has been widely reported that Trump received as much as $5 billion in free advertising during his campaign as a result of “earned media” or news and commentary about him in print or on television, and we know that much of that was driven by social media.

The American people need to be able to manipulate the media narrative in the same way that the Trump tweets have proven effective in directing news cycles.

If nonpartisan voters focused their own collective social media voice on electing candidates they crowdsourced themselves, the attention they could draw from the mainstream media would certainly help those candidates offset the estimated $250-300 million an independent campaign needs to attain enough name recognition for an invitation to the presidential debates.

"The American people need to be able to manipulate the media narrative in the same way that the Trump tweets have proven effective in directing news cycles." - Jim Ragsdale, Founder of Purple State

It’s an approach that lends itself to the kind of bold vision the country needs to build confidence that this kind of change is possible. Imagine the organization of the nation’s own presidential exploratory committee to find and vet statesmen and stateswomen to send to Washington, as opposed to choosing the better evil from the options given to them by the two parties. You could see it as an incubator for politicians and policy at all levels of government, growing better choices that will be available when the country is ready for them.

Consider how the name of an app like that could serve as a brand for fair elections and common sense solutions that will stand out in the mainstream American political consciousness.

While the economic viability of social media startups is not what it once was, a platform like this one could be built at reasonable cost and sustained by a donor class made up of interests on Main Street, not Wall Street.

Starting with partnerships with associations and referral networks that engage tens of thousands of small business owners every day, that platform could offer a unique advertising opportunity to a legion of businesses previously burned by existing online giants and looking for affordable, effective digital marketing.

Advertisers would be encouraged to offset their ad cost by offering users deep discounts, incentivizing voters to share and engage with the app. They would also get the recognition and personal benefits of supporting potential customers and clients in performing their civic duties, often in their own communities.

Of course, small-dollar donors with no commercial interests would also have the opportunity to support the platform as well as their choice of candidates. The only one immutable rule: no political advertising allowed.

The product of party politics suffers from a lack of direction from the voter. Using digital technology, the electorate could take the lead by crowdsourcing a policy agenda and committing to support candidates best suited to fight for that agenda, by merit that can be measured - in user ratings.

Although it’s difficult to say how long it would take for all the necessary pieces to fall into place, it seems clear that if we continue to allow our two major parties to determine our choices, we will never attain the alternatives we have demanded for decades.

In our great nation, we don’t have much of an appetite for 50- or 100-year plans like they do in other parts of the world. This has a lot to do with why we sometimes fall behind many other countries in certain aspects of our society. Democracy should not be one of those aspects. We should always be a guiding light for democratic governments everywhere, and we have a lot of work to do if we intend to ensure the survival of American democracy for the 21st century and beyond.

We need a solution aligned with a universal, bold, and comprehensive vision of a political future that is much closer to a perfect union. We need leadership that is free from partisan bondage.  We need to start developing those leaders now, and start electing them with all deliberate speed.

Photo Credit: HBY Studio / shutterstock.com

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