One of the most visible publicity campaigns at South by Southwest Interactive festival this year featured two guys dressed up as a fighting elephant and donkey. They ran around downtown complete with gloves, satin boxing shorts, and even a referee. Americans Elect—the political group they represented that wants to nominate an independent presidential challenge for the 2012 election—tweeted photos of the pair fighting. They also tweeted attendees to invite them to the group's lounge. The room featured t-shirts, hats, and "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots"—with a donkey and elephant head instead of robotic heads. Of course, the biggest draw was the free beer, which they advertised nonstop.
South by Southwest is known more for hipsters and indy music than it is for campaign nerds and public policy. But this year's interactive portion of the festival featured an entire "Government and Global Issues" track—much of which dealt particularly with political changes caused by the evolving internet landscape. And, as evidenced by Americans Elect winning "Special Honors" at the festival's people's choice awards, a major question loomed: doesn the current party structure work?
Americans Elect begins with a clear "no." The group, which is holding an online primary open to all American voters, will nominate a presidential candidate from one party who must choose his or her would-be vice president from the other. "We are basically crowd-sourcing a third choice for president in 2012," said Kahlil Byrd, the CEO of the party and former staffer to Massachussetts Governor Deval Patrick. Byrd spoke with Josh Levine, the group's chief of technology who previously ran E*TRADE. The panel was largely a cheerleading session for the group and its goals—a reform to the nominations process rather than a third party itself. (If you haven't read Harold Meyerson's fascinating piece on the effort, you really should.) Levine is particularly proud of the technology involved. The site allows people to actually vote online for their candidates.
Americans Elect identifies and attempts to remedy a common frustration—the lack of bipartisanship and spirit of compromise in national politics. It's certainly generated buzz and enthusiasm; Levine bragged about the site's 400,000 users. It's not clear how the election of one bipartisan ticket would fix long-term problems with gridlock. Lawmakers in the Senate and House still rely on parties for campaigning, support and the like. While Byrd says the group hopes to expand to beyond just presidential nominations, it's hardly clear that the 2012 presidential fight offers an opportunity to really change party dynamics.
Even more interesting was a panel featuring political heavyweights and former partisans discussing "How Social Media Imperils Political Parties." Two panelists, Mark McKinnon and Joe Trippi, have long been agitators within their parties (Republican and Democratic respectively). McKinnon has been involved in Americans Elect, although he joked he's still 'trying to be a Republican." The two other panelists had seemingly given up on political parties, shocking given their previous roles. Nathan Daschle, the former head of the Democratic Governors' Association, no longer is registered as a Democrat; instead he works on Ruck.us, a site inviting people to find others who agree with them on specific issues. Marci Harris, former legislative council to Democratic Representative Peter Stark, now runs POPVOX, a website that helps individuals find legislation they care about and then find ways to act on it. "Individual choice and individual expression on not luxuries to this generation," said moderator Matt Bai, a journalist with New York Times Magazine. "They are birth rights."
Unlike Americans Elect's more candidate-focused approach, Ruck.us and POPVOX begin with getting people excited about one issue or another. In some ways, they focus on governing rather than campaigning.
All four panelists talked about the dangers of the political parties as institutions. "I realized how much I did not like being a partisan," explained Daschle in what quickly seemed like the "confessions" segment. "The system and the incentives are set up so those in politics are forced to play a zero sum game where you only win if the other team loses."
Daschle and Harris both argued for a larger focus on issues rather than team membership, and saw the Internet as a unique place to connect people around issues they agreed on, creating cross-cutting coalitions around one issue or another.
While everyone voiced their frustrations over the partisan gridlock in Washington—and noted that lawmakers are just as frustrated—no one seemed confident that the parties would be able to bring any change. "The spirit of cooperation ... has to come from outside party lines," said Harris.
Even Trippi, who remains involved in Democratic politics, agreed. "I'm not really sure either of the two existing parties can do anything," he said, explaining that he believed parties had become "transactional" instead of "transformational," in which politicians offer voters a deal, either on taxes, government programs or the like. "You cannot solve the deficit problem in this country," he said, "using a transactional approach."
And according to many at the festival, sites like Ruck.us and POPVOX might be the place where Trippi's "transformational" politics might begin.