The words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his poem, The Second Coming, have an eerie resonance for American politics today. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold... The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand."
In an environment of unprecedented political gridlock in Washington and broad-based dissatisfaction with the leading candidates of both parties, 2012 may finally be the year when an independent candidate becomes president of the United States. For the first time in our nation's history, popular dissatisfaction with both parties is reinforced by the existence of serious bipartisan organizations that will facilitate the effort of a non-aligned national figure to become president. Because of these two factors, the opportunity to mobilize what Tom Friedman calls "the radical center" has never been greater. Indeed, "some revelation is at hand".
The extent of voter dismay in America is astounding. According to an October 2011 Pew Research poll, only 11% of us are content with the federal government. In a 1958 National Election Study, 73% of Americans said that they "always" or "mostly" trusted the government to do the right thing. In contrast, in a New York Times/CBS poll taken in late October, only 10% of those polled expressed the same faith.
With respect to the presidential options, voters are also extremely dissatisfied. According to Gallup last month, 47% of all voters and 58% of independents disapprove of President Obama overall, contrasted with only 17% disapproval in 2009. The news is not better for the Republicans, where according to a Washington Post/ABC poll taken in late October, 54% of all voters disapprove of the party. Following the failure of the debt negotiations over the summer, 66% of independent voters disapproved of the GOP.
Both parties have lost support because of the gridlock caused by ideological divisions. According to a report on Senate voting records in The National Journal, in 1982 there were 23 centrist Republicans and 35 centrist Democrats who often worked together on legislation. In contrast, in 2010 there are none, with the publication reporting, "... Ben Nelson, the most moderate Democrat, produced a record slightly to the left of George Voinoivich, the most moderate Republican".
With this state of our politics, it is not a surprise that 61% of all voters and 74% of independent voters in a recent Washington Post/ABC poll said they are ready to vote for a third party candidate in 2012. For the first time, 52% of Republicans share this view. This is significant because in 1992, according to Pew Research, only 12% of voters expressed a desire for a third party candidate. In that race, Ross Perot garnered 19% of the vote. Importantly, according to New York Times exit polls, Perot's vote would have been 36% if voters believed that he had an infrastructure to govern commensurate with the established parties.
The message is clear: as politicians become more partisan and less effective at governing, the electorate is ready for a radical restructure of our election system itself. Voters are refusing to be held hostage to the self-interests of either party. Thankfully, in true American fashion, our civic society has built the tools to meet the challenge; for the first time in our history, the means exist to level the electoral playing field for an independent candidate.
A not-for-profit organization, called Americans Elect is establishing ballot access in all 50 states for the candidates for president and vice president in 2012 who will be nominated directly by the people in an online nominating process. The sophisticated website of Americans Elect allows registered voters a revolutionary new way to nominate a bipartisan ticket to occupy the White House. To date, the website has over 300,000 delegates, more than 50 times the number that participate in both the Democratic and Republican Party conventions (in full disclosure, I sit on the Leadership Board for Americans Elect).
Many other bipartisan organizations have emerged over the past three years to give support and strength to any qualified independent candidate. No Labels is a political organization of Republicans, Democrats and Independents working on the grassroots level to support bipartisan and pragmatic politicians and polices. The group has 180,000 members and on December 13th is holding an open meeting at the Capital to unveil a comprehensive congressional action plan. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, is leading a movement of business leaders and political donors to end the hyper-partisanship in Washington that could be the bedrock of financing for a viable independent, bipartisan, ticket for 2012.
Simply, both the political environment and the tools are in place for a total disintermediation of our political duopoly. If activated, the "radical center" is bigger and stronger than all the vested interests and the extremists in the political parties, in the media, in the streets and in the guts of Washington. All that is needed is for them to mobilize with "passionate intensity". The way is open for ordinary citizens to reject the options that our dysfunctional party system offers and go online to nominate the people who we think are most qualified to be president and vice president. It is time to change the way Washington works by transforming the way that Washington is elected. Act now to change America!