“Chicago police trying to keep the peace during the NATO summit may face their biggest test on Sunday when thousands of demonstrators were expected to march near the site where leaders of the military alliance begin a two-day meeting.” - Reuters, 5/20/12
On Thursday of last week, Americans Elect announced that the primary process to nominate an independent, Internet-driven candidate came to an end. The goal of Americans Elect, as described on its website, was to nominate a presidential ticket through the Internet that answers directly to voters—not the political system.
They wrote in their announcement on Thursday:
“However, the rules, as developed in consultation with the Americans Elect Delegates, are clear. As of this week, no candidate achieved the national support threshold required to enter the Americans Elect Online Convention in June.”
In response to this announcement, which has been bubbling for weeks, there was no shortage of ink to document the failure of Americans Elect.
The reasons for AE’s shortcoming are multiple depending on which pundit you chose to read – the weakness of moderates and/or independents, the fallacy of the Internet as a proving ground for change, the lack of transparency of the AE fundraising structure, the need for a big, name-brand candidate.
As with nearly all aspects of life, there is no one answer or reason for AE’s failure to nominate a candidate. Success involves so many intangibles – decision-making, timing and, even, luck – that to point to one area that caused AE’s outcome in 2012 would be an injustice to the work the organization put in and the challenge they faced.
However, with skimmerhat being an organization that is aiming to impact the political system and given the similarity of our core tenets – of providing the opportunity for education and a more powerful voice for individual citizens through an online platform – we would like to give our thoughts on AE’s situation.
Too Big, Too Soon
Americans Elect tackled a big problem – anger and discomfort with the current, two-party dominated political system. They wanted to change politics as usual.
And, who can really argue with that? Considering it’s been 15 years since Americans haven been as disgusted with the Federal government as they are today, according to a recent Pew survey.
They decided to do it through the Internet – a place that has flipped multiple industries on its head.
It seems, though, that AE might have gone too big, too soon. Not in the sense of the level of impact they wanted to make – because if you aren’t going big, then why are you doing it – but at the level of government they were trying to impact.
The presidential election is the Kentucky Derby of all elections – the crown jewel that even if you don’t pay attention to policy or campaigns at any other time, you watch presidential debates and commercials. It is high risk, high reward, when you consider the hurdles you have to jump to get a candidate on the ballot (looking at you, ballot access laws) and the fact that you can really only support one person in the end.
AE may have been better served trying to gain traction in Congressional or state elections, where the reward is still high – influence and possible election victories – but the risk is lower – namely the amount of money.
Look at Scott Brown’s election in 2010 or this year’s election in Indiana. They are Congressional elections and still attract national interest. We’ve seen movements like the Tea Party born out of passion in Congressional races.
As Dave Weigel of Slate wrote last week:
“You don’t break the power of the parties by running in a presidential election. You start with Congress.”
With this, the system that AE built was large and bulky, though sharp and eye-catching. There were lots of layers, features and moving parts for the layman to make sense of, which is understandable considering the challenge of constructing a “non-party” party structure in a presidential election.
But you can’t always count on that type of concentration from users, especially early on before you are established. In becoming a delegate through Americans Elect, it took time to fill out information, even though a delegate may not have clearly known who they would be supporting.
In studying startups and the philosophy of “lean methodology,” we at skimmerhat have discovered the importance of testing your hypothesis through a minimum viable product and then adjusting from there based on reaction. Then build and test again. It decreases the range of time it takes to create the product that best fits a target audience with the most possible success. Though we are far from experts, we believe this can be applied to government and the political structure.
Americans Elect was anything but lean. It was large and massive – in scope, in its target focus (presidential elections), and in the actual system that was built.
Transparent as Possible?
There are an endless amount of complaints with the current political system from citizens across the country. It is difficult to encapsulate all the emotions of Americans on a wide variety of issues, but the best word that can likely do so is – distrust.
Citizens on a large scale do not trust D.C., whether it is in terms of decision-making or moral makeup.
Therefore, when an organization aims to change politics as usual, they must first begin by bridging the wide canyon of distrust between politics and citizens.
Americans Elect did not help itself in this regard when they chose not to release complete information about their donors/investors, who wrote checks to raise $25 million for the project.
AE rebuffed this dispute by writing on their website:
“We intend to pay back the bulk of our initial financing as we recruit delegates, so that no single individual will have contributed more than $10K.”
Honorable, but not transparent.
It is not an upfront way to run a campaign upon the angst of politics as usual. In fact, it kind of sounds like politics as usual.
CEO Kahlil Byrd had reportedly said one of the reasons AE did not share their donor info was “because of the political environment we are in now” and that investors in AE need to be allowed to choose whether to disclose their own roles.
Again, when running a large presidential campaign, there are a number of aspects that an organization must take into consideration and weigh the pros and cons, and then make the best decision for the good of the organization and for the country.
Transparency should have been the easiest part for Americans Elect. Maybe their donors would have been the target of partisan attacks. Maybe the release of investor info would give pundits and critics more material to try to chop down AE. Those are risks, but not risks an organization that wants to be a shining star for political evolution should avoid.
AE put itself in the line of fire when they decided to shun complete transparency.
With that decision, they shunned the trust of Americans looking for something truly different. No bridge was built.
Looking to the Future
When evaluating Americans Elect in 2012, it is easy to take a hard line and call it a complete failure. Many have done so and, as we outlined, have gone far enough to say that AE’s stumble is a comment on the future of third parties or the Internet as a game-changer in political discourse.
We’re not so sure that is the correct position, regardless of the interest we have in this sector because of skimmerhat. We have a larger interest in individual Americans gaining a stronger voice/influence and letting them do with it what they will.
Failures are necessary to success, especially when the success is measured by a drastic change in the social norm. It is too easy to take a few failures and cast a wide net to determine that a certain change will never happen because we’ve never seen it before or can’t conceptualize it in our head given current circumstances. The most excellent examples of social or political evolution all seemed crazy at one point to a large group of people, but then it happened.
So, first as a community who is trying to impact change in our government, we must accept failures, and be open to a vision that might not make total sense at this very moment. That is not easy, particularly given the pressure of outside critique.
There are things we can take from each stumble, however, and apply it to the future. We outlined two of the main aspects above – the scope and size of AE and its system and the transparency put forth.
We, perhaps, should think smaller in order to make bigger change. Begin impacting lower levels/regions and individual citizens. Take a bottom-up approach. From our vantage point, influential movements begin at a lower level and then bubble up to the highest levels.
Also, movements don’t always try to change the status quo from the start; they, at times, begin within the current norms and flood their way out.
With the Internet, we must build a system that supports, not leads, this approach – smaller, intuitive and prepared for rapid change. Let the system be guided and molded by the people; the Americans who are invested in the future of our country.
Given this relationship, we must be transparent and open at all times. Unfortunately, citizens do not expect transparency when it comes to policy or politics because it typically isn’t present. Similar to how Zappos placed customer service at the core of its business model because customer service often sucked, we must be refreshingly and surprisingly transparent. Even if transparency might mean receiving negative feedback or trouble in circles that don’t need disrupting – disruption is really the whole point.
We believe we are at the very beginning of finding out how Americans engage with our government and its political system moving forward. There will be change and shifts in the future. There is no doubt in that. However, we hope we – and everyone else in the cross-section of government/politics and technology – can apply lessons we have learned in order to help support the positive change Americans are looking for.
Americans Elect failed in 2012.
It is not a failure of our future or our potential.