Americans Elect and the Emerging Oligarchy: Update
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has made many more Americans aware of the issue of an emerging oligarchy based on wealth inequality taking control of American Democracy. There are a number of ways to look at this:
-- the growing economic inequality in the United States and around the world,
-- the increasing control of politics both in the United States and most industrial nations by the wealthy and the giant multinational financial, energy, pharmaceutical, and other corporations which are viewed as having either the same, or in certain respects more rights than human citizens,
-- the fact that neither of the two major political parties is preparing to run someone who is likely to represent the interests of the 99% (the President's recent noises notwithstanding),
-- the control of all the major media outlets by corporate interests promoting public debt hysteria,
-- the persistence and growth of different standards of law enforcement for the 99% compared to the wealthy and well-situated (the 1%), and
-- the increasingly powerful legal/quasi-military apparatus suppressing the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and assembly in the name of order and defense against terrorism.
All of these perspectives come together to support a narrative and an image of the increasingly rapid takeover of democracies, including the United States, by a small global elite composed of the very rich and very powerful corporate executives. Most Americans and many more people around the world are recognizing this reality of an emerging oligarchy and are looking for ways to get out from under its domination and to re-affirm democracy and open society. But to do that they somehow have to counter the influence of wealth in manipulating the perception and construction of social, economic, cultural, and political reality by the 99% and in dominating electoral processes even though they are vastly outnumbered.
To accomplish that, people are increasingly looking to the Internet as a democratizing force that could provide the ability for people among the 99% to self-organize and create their own reality and political movements without recourse to massive financial resources. Web-based organizations are now creating web sites/platforms that claim to offer people the possibility of having a greater voice in politics and in determining its impact on their lives. But do these new efforts offer a way out of oligarchy and back to democracy or do they just reinforce the emerging oligarchy?
This is the second in a series of posts on some of these new web-based platforms and how they relate to this central question of oligarchy vs. democracy. The first, “A System-Changing Solution for the OWS Movement?”, which I co-authored with Nancy Bordier, compared and contrasted two alternatives available to OWS, the Interactive Voter Choice System and Americans Elect (AE). This one will offer a more detailed analysis of AE.
AE is organizing people to participate in a national on-line convention that will nominate Presidential and Vice presidential candidates and place them on ballot lines in all 50 States. People who sign up as delegates will decide the issues, select the candidates, and nominate the President through participating in the on-line convention. According to its web site, any constitutionally eligible citizen can be a candidate, provided they meet AE's eligibility and qualification criteria. They have ballot lines in 11 States at this writing, and are currently working on 16 more.
AE states that it is “non-partisan” in its approach, and also claims that it is not a political party. However, to get a ballot line in some States you have to identify as a political party. Also, their draft by-laws contain this section:
“Section 7.2. Transition to National Organization. Pending the formation of state committees, the Board of Americans Elect shall be deemed to be acting in each state as an authorized state committee and to perform and exercise all duties, powers and responsibilities of a state committee as may be required by state law. In states where Americans Elect has met all statutory requirements to form a minor political party, such organizations shall be considered separate legal entities from Americans Elect, and shall be governed by the Board pending qualification as a national political party in accordance with law in the 2012 election. Nothing in this section shall prevent the Board from appointing persons to act as local governing bodies or agents consistent with these Bylaws in any state where Americans Elect has met such statutory requirements.”
So, there is some gray in the position AE is staking out. Are they aiming to become a national political party? If not, then what does this section of their by-laws envision?
AE claims that it doesn't represent any special interests, and it also welcomes any registered voter, whether party-affiliated or not, who wants to become a member and participate in their on-line national nominating convention coming up in the Spring of 2012. In addition, AE says that it is not committed to any ideology, and that it will not promote any candidate or platform before its on-line nominating convention. Nor will it promote the nominee selected by its convention delegates to run on the ballot lines it secures in the 50 States.
AE is run by a closed corporation whose funding sources haven't been made public in the main. The corporation sets all the rules for its national convention, determines who can and cannot participate, which candidates can and cannot run, and then it registers and tallies all votes in secret and without any monitoring to prevent tampering with the vote for candidates.
As I pointed out earlier, AE says that it is non-partisan, and is not committed to any ideology or political party, and that it is not a political party itself. Well, it certainly isn't a branch of either the Democratic or Republican Party. However, we've already seen that in getting on the ballot in many States AE declares that it is a political party. So is it or isn't it? It seems that when it wants to get a ballot line in some State it says that it is a political party; but when it wants to raise funds it relies on its status as a 501 c(4) organization to secure contributions as needed with no specified limits and also to refuse to disclose its contributors as political parties must legally do.
Is AE really non-partisan? Well, it is in the sense that it doesn't subscribe to the platform of the two major existing political parties, but that doesn't mean that its Managers, Leaders and Boards of Directors haven't agreed on definite positions that they are partisan about, and that are definitely ideological.
Their ideological bias is reflected in the framing and structure of the hundreds of multiple choice questions that it asks registrants to answer to define their “true colors” from a political perspective. I won't review those here and suggest that you go to their site, take their “true colors” survey and see for yourself whether you think there is a clear framing bias in their survey instrument. I think there is, and that this ideological bias is illustrated very well by the “core questions” that every prospective delegate to their national convention must answer.
“To date, Americans Elect delegates from the across the political spectrum answered 5 million questions on AmericansElect.org. The 9 core questions that every DELEGATE has already answered include:
ECONOMY: What is your stance on the US budget deficit? Are in you in favor of more spending cuts, more tax increases or some combination of both?
ENERGY: What is your stance on America’s energy needs? Do you favor investment in renewables or more drilling or some combination of both?
HEALTHCARE: What do you think the government’s role in health should be?
IMMIGRATION: What is your stance on illegal immigration? Do you think that all or most illegal immigrants should stay in the country or all or most illegal immigrants be deported?
FOREIGN POLICY: When you think about the US pursuing its interests abroad, to what extent should the US listen to other countries?
EDUCATION: What is your stance on educational curriculae? Should it be set by the local school boards, by national standards, or some combination of both?
SOCIAL ISSUES: When you think about the rights of same-sex couples, do you believe they should be allowed to marry or only allowed to form a civil union?
ENVIRONMENT: What is your stance on our use of Natural Resources? Do you think it exists for the benefit of humanity or should it be completely protected or a combination of both?
REFORM: Should we make this country great by returning to the values of our forefathers or keep building and adapting for the future?”
Every one of these core questions has an obvious framing bias leading the registrants in a particular direction. The question on the economy assumes the deficit hawk framing of fiscal irresponsibility. It assumes that one should have “a stance” on the budget deficit, that one should want to cut it, and that the only alternatives are cutting Government spending, raising revenue through taxation, or a combination of both. This is not true, of course.
The question on energy issues is framed in terms of the present partisan split, implying that the center is a position following both approaches the question frames. The framing of the health care question doesn't provide a preamble explaining the difference between the options provided to respondents. It assumes that people know the differences between Medicare for All, and and other types of Government intervention in health care, when there is plenty of survey evidence that there is no clear understanding of these differences.
The framing of the immigration question in terms of “illegal immigrants” isn't even centrist, but biases replies toward a rightist view. The foreign policy question assumes that listening to other nations and pursuing the national interest of the US are in conflict. This is a nationalistic “framing” of the issue. The education core question frames the issue in terms of local vs. national control; but not in terms of the issue of excellence in education.
Social Issues are cast in terms of same sex marriage vs. civil unions. But there are many other social issues of importance such as those affecting Federal rules about a woman's right to choose, continuing racial discrimination various areas, the role of religion in American politics, etc. Why select same sex marriage vs. civil unions as a “non-partisan” non-ideological social issue?
The environmental issue frame is very abstract in philosophy. There are a dozen other ways and more to frame this issue. Why is this framing the “non-ideological one” that all must respond to in order to elicit a “centrist position”?
Finally, the question on political “reform” is highly abstract, and it's very hard to tell what responses might mean to the members. Why is this not framed in terms of issues like Congressional paralysis in the context of the filibuster, or reform of the electoral college, or the highly unrepresentative nature of the US Senate; or the gerrymandering of Congressional Districts; or whether greater regulation of Supreme Court Justices is needed to ensure that they disqualify themselves from hearing cases where they have an obvious conflict of interest; or the role of money in politics?
AE has many other questions people can answer that go beyond the core questions in dealing with some of the above issues. But 1) they are not the core questions that all must answer, and 2) even when many other questions exploring these issues are posed, they are posed with a definite ideological “centrist” bias. Whether or not, or by how much, it differs from major party formulations, these questions aren't either non-partisan or non-ideological unless you mean, by those terms, formulations different from major party formulations.
One of the most important issues arising in evaluating AE is the discrepancy between the claims it makes about its purposes and processes, the scope it is trying to provide for people to influence the political process, on the one hand, and the reality of its structure and operation, on the other. AE says that people who choose to participate in its process will decide the issues, select the candidates, and nominate the President; but its actual functioning, both current and projected, as described on its web site and in its bylaws, belies these claims.
-- So far, the issues embodied in AE's questions are framed by its staff and leadership, not by the people who sign up as members. We've already written about the ideological biases present in the AE core questions, and also indicated that if one takes the trouble to answer the remaining hundreds of questions they ask of willing registrants, there are biases present in the comprehensive set of questions amounting to the staff and leadership framing “a centrist agenda” of issues to regulate the priority choices of members. The whole process of agenda selection occurs in the context of a “top-down” framing of the issues. There is no 'bottom-up” influence on the framing of the agenda, even though the members/delegates can respond in ways favorable or unfavorable to the specifics of the centrist framing.
-- When it comes to selecting the candidates, AE says that delegates will be able to nominate American citizens they favor. However, the AE leadership will review all candidates to see if they're “qualified' to run for the presidency. AE leadership may or may not specify explicit criteria, but whether they do or not, and whether a candidate meets them or not, AE reserves the right to eliminate candidates they judge as “unqualified.”
In other words, the leadership of AE is able to make sure that all candidates nominated by the delegates are acceptable to the leadership, and that the delegates won't have an opportunity to vote on candidates that the leadership thinks is “unqualified.” the leadership can ensure that all candidates remain within a particular of range of opinion that the leadership finds acceptable. This seems like a selection of candidates by the leadership of AE rather than by the delegates.
-- Going further to the on-line nomination contest itself, the AE leadership guarantees a completely secure and honest process. However, the delegates have no way of verifying that the process is secure and honest. AE mentions an independent evaluation mechanism to ensure the honesty and integrity of the nominating process. But it is the AE Board and leadership who will select the “independent evaluators,” not the delegates to their national convention.
So, the bottom line is that the delegates will have no control over the process, and no way of monitoring its honesty and integrity. The only thing delegates will have is the word of AE, an organization that has been very reluctant to implement transparency at this writing, that it will accept the actual nomination of the delegates rather than manipulating the results of the selection process in secret. Is AE's word enough? None of us know. But we do know that deception in politics, in marketing, and in the financial sector is the order of the day.
The President promised change when he ran in 2008, but the change most of us see is certainly not the kind of change we think we voted for. The Republicans ran on creating jobs in 2010. But, no jobs have been created through programs passed by House Republicans. Corporations routinely offer ads about all they are doing for the environment; but the reality of their practices is very different. Local governments say they are trying to keep order; but then they engage in what appear to be little more than police riots violating the first amendment rights of Freedom of Speech, Assembly, and the Press. Systematic dishonesty and fraudulent behavior seems to pervade our culture in every aspect of it, and it is no big deal for our leading politicians and business leaders to look directly into the camera and lie to the public.
So, why would anyone take what a new organization intending to intervene in and change the electoral process says at face value? Why shouldn't warning bells go off whenever an organization has a discrepancy between what it says are its goals, and its actual structure and practices? Why shouldn't people question discrepancies between an organization's claim of non-partisanship, and its clearly partisan and biased framing of issues?
Why shouldn't people be skeptical when an organization says that it is subject to no special interests, but is funded by $22 Million in contributions from a very small number of people, and then doesn't disclose the contributors? Why shouldn't people demand demonstrations of transparency and proof of sincerity and absence of elite control, before they commit any support to an organization that purports to give the public a greater voice in decision making?
-- In addition, AE’s goal of holding an online presidential nominating convention that automatically puts the same ticket on the ballots of all 50 states simultaneously appears to be headed in a dangerous direction because it is seeking to eliminate the face-to-face primaries and caucuses at the state level that are one of the cornerstones of the U.S. electoral process, hard-won by progressives over many years in their efforts to create open and honest elections that escape for the old 'smoke-filled' rooms.
Again, AE is run by a closed corporation that is secretly funded and sets all the rules for the convention, determines who can and cannot participate in the convention, which candidates can and cannot run, and registers and tallies all the votes. Whether the substitution of a closed corporation run in this way as the source of electoral nominations is a democratic improvement over the U.S. political party system is, to say the least, an arguable proposition, whether or not its delegates can select a presidential candidate within the constrained parameters AE's leadership chooses to impose.
So, if the problem the United States is facing is to provide a way of changing the political process to counter the emergence of oligarchy and to restore a Government that is “. . . of the people, by the people, and for the people . . .” then it's pretty clear that AE won't help us do that. Given its rules, governance, the lack of transparency in its funding, and the “guided democracy” style of its functioning organization, it won't help us to repeal Michels' “Iron Law of Oligarchy” and give the 99% a continuing influence in creating policies that serve them rather than enriching the 1%. Instead, it will simply provide a way for the discontented to vent their feelings through another political organization that is guided and managed from the top-down by people representing the oligarchy.
Now, to be entirely fair about this, it's pretty clear from AE's web site and interviews with some of their principals that Its purpose was never specifically to save the US from an emerging oligarchy. AE's view of the US's political problem is that it is legislative paralysis, caused by the two-party system and its excessive partisanship, in passing legislation aimed at our real problems. So, AE proposes a non-partisan President nominated through the AE online process and then elected, as a way of breaking partisan immobilism through a unity Administration that can broker consensus solutions among centrists in both parties. Its view of the world is through the right-center-left prism and so its solution is to strengthen the center giving it the balance of power, and allowing it to broker bi- or non-partisan solutions on which centrists of both parties can agree.
AE may succeed at developing a “centrist” balance wheel for the political system. But if this leads to legislative solutions that support or enhance the interests of the 1%, then how does that help the 99% and its problem of breaking the power of the emerging oligarchy?
For example, these days there is a Washington beltway consensus, and to a great extent a global consensus on the notion that the cure for our economic problems is austerity in public expenditures and restoring private solvency through savings. But how does that “old-time fiscal religion” help the 99%, especially since its short-term effects are likely to be a second and probably much deeper downturn than we have now?
If AE's centrist balance wheel had been in place this past fall it would have imposed a “centrist solution” to our economic problems in the form of a long-term deficit reduction plan such as the Bowles-Simpson proposal, which would have raised more tax revenue from the wealthy, but also cut entitlement and other Government programs for the middle class and the poor. But, this is a 1% solution, not a 99% solution. It doesn't represent what the 99% want. It is what the well-off people who run Americans Elect and many of the 1% seem to want.
So, the “non-partisan” solution to two-party polarization that AE is trying to mid-wife won't fix the political system by restoring popular control, but instead will place that system even more firmly in control of the oligarchy by imposing austerity economics and impoverishing the 99% even further, while providing the balance of power in national politics to a third political force that is dominated by centrist establishment figures. In short, AE isn't offering a way out for people, it's offering them a way to dig a deeper hole than they find themselves in now.
A 99% solution is one that, according to the polls, would re-create full employment, punish the banksters, stabilize the financial system, bring order to the housing sector while keeping people in their homes, provide consumer protection against the financial sector's predatory practices, provide Medicare for All, repair the nation's infrastructure, create a first class educational system open to all, and strengthen the social safety net, while taxing the rich, if necessary, to allow those things to happen. This 99% solutions could possibly be facilitated by AE, if it were set up to allow people to self-organize in whatever ways they choose. But its guided democracy structure won't let that happen. But the main point is that this 99% can only be brought forth by a change that undermines the emerging oligarchy and creates bottom-up accountability to the 99%.
You can also safely bet that whatever AE's delegates want, there will be no AE platform coming from its nominee that doesn't reflect the fact-free Hooverian perspective of fiscal responsibility = Government austerity, the current Washington consensus about what Government should do about the economy. And you can also safely bet that Bernie Sanders, Bill Black, Jamie Galbraith, Matt Taibbi, Dennis Kucinich, or Warren Mosler, provided it looks like they will be nominated by AE convention delegates, will then be disqualified by AE's governing committees before the convention is convened. This will happen because it is the job of AE committees to keep the world safe for the emerging “centrist” oligarchy, and out of the hands of people who might bring about the renewal of bottom-up democracy.
Update: Day in and day out, the best coverage of Americans Elect is provided by Jim Cook at his Irregular Times site. Here are three recent entrees that collectively drive home the point that Americans Elect's claims of being non-partisan and non-ideological have little, if any credibility, and that AE is primarily a marketing effort claiming these qualities, but belying these claims with almost every action it takes.
These three posts fit into the pattern of manipulation, systematic dishonesty, and the huge gap between AE's stated policies and actual behavior that I point to in my post above. In addition, there is a strong suggestion in the ratings system errors and sudden changes in the system and resulting ratings, reported by Jim Cook, that there is more than a bit of political bias, confusion and perhaps even incompetence, either on the part of AE's contractor "On the Issues" who handled the processing of data to obtain the ratings "matching" the candidates positions to the quiz choices given to Americans Elect "delegates," or on the part of AE employees who used their results.
AE is an organization that has raised $22 million for its project. If it is true, as its apparent rating system problem suggests, that it hasn't been able to get organized well enough to ensure that its process is unimpeachable, then that provides very little confidence that its online nomination process will be a reliable one that won't be subject to manipulation by its contractors and/or staff.
If it has its way, then hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of people would be participating in that process. Shouldn't those people have a nominating process whose integrity, reliability, and accuracy is beyond either reproach or the possibility of fraud by its administrators? How will AE ever be able to guarantee that? And how, given what they've done thus far, and appear to do on an everyday basis, in bringing centrist ideological bias to their web site and opinion instruments, can they guarantee to their delegates a non-partisan and non-ideological nominating process?
Perhaps AE needs to come clean and admit that it is not non-partisan, but actually a nascent political party with a definite centrist, austerity agenda, which it thinks is in opposition to the agendas of the two major parties. Then it won't have to claim that it has no framing biases, or that, incredibly, it is nonpartisan and non-ideological, or that it is anything other than another political party representing the 1% and its full-on austerity, globalist agenda for the US. That might not be unpopular, or get many people involved in its activities. But, at least, it would be refreshing.
Think of it, a political organization that is honest about its intentions! That should be worth at least a few points for its nominee at the polls on election day!