A System-Changing Solution for the OWS Movement?
Nancy Bordier and Joseph M. Firestone
As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows, OWS members are weighing their options for obtaining redress of their grievances.
Holding and expanding the ground they occupy is an obvious priority. It draws worldwide attention to their grievances and increasing numbers. It gives them a place to meet, build relationships, discuss and debate their issues, and plan.
Foiling violent action on the part of the police and anarchists is a constant distraction, but it helps the movement develop rules of engagement for everybody. Civil disobedience and voluntary arrests is another avenue, as is direct action, like preventing the seizure of illegally foreclosed homes.
Seeking redress through the political process is even more problematic. Many OWS members believe it would be a futile exercise to try to get lawmakers who have been corrupted by special interests to pass laws in their favor. Using the ballot box to replace their elected representatives is difficult, if not impossible, now that the U.S. Supreme court has given corporations a green light to spend unlimited amounts of corporate funds to influence elections.
The nation's two major parties, the Democrats and Republicans, are a major stumbling block to non-party candidates trying to win electoral victories over party-backed candidates. The parties' grip on the nation's electoral machinery, and their ability to raise huge amounts of money for their candidates from special interests, gives them decisive advantages over their adversaries at the ballot box.
Efforts to pass laws reforming this corrupt system appear equally futile. Few lawmakers would vote to overturn the laws (governing campaign finance, gerrymandering and elections) that get them elected and enable them to hold on to office.
Despite these obstacles, we think there is a way OWS members can use the political process to redress their grievances. It is by taking advantage of the Internet and a new web-based organizing platform to build winning voting blocs and electoral coalitions that OWS members control.
The platform has agenda-setting tools that enable bloc and coalition members to collaboratively translate their grievances into legislative agendas. It also has consensus-building tools the blocs and coalitions can use to screen, nominate and run candidates for office at all levels of government who will enact their agendas.
While this platform and the website being built around it, reinventdemocracy.net, are still in development, it is possible that they will be available in time for OWS members to elect enough of their own representatives to shift control of Congress away from the 1% in 2012.
The Internet has already played a pivotal role in empowering the OWS movement to spread its tentacles — and tents, throughout the country and the world. It has enabled the movement to broadcast a global rallying cry that hurls the fury of the masses against the "1%" and their political bedfellows who have plunged the remaining "99%" into dire economic and financial straits.
Here in the U.S., unemployed college graduates are joining hands with trade unionists, war veterans, senior citizens, community organizers, dispossessed homeowners, the chronically homeless, and growing numbers of the 100 million Americans living in poverty, or in the category just above it. In early November, OWS demonstrators in Oakland, California, carried out a general strike that shut down its port, the fifth largest in the nation, and brought the city to a standstill.
We believe this movement is unstoppable. We also believe that it has the potential to shift the balance of power from the 1% to the 99% if its members join forces to combine the large scale collective action power of the Internet and the platform we describe below.
By so doing, they can collaboratively translate their grievances into legislative agendas, forestall efforts to embroil the movement in violent confrontations, and build winning voting blocs and coalitions to elect lawmakers who will enact their agendas into the law of the land.
Fixing the System
Currently, there are three major contenders for electoral victories in 2012. The Democratic and Republican parties, and a third party in formation, Americans Elect (AE).
The election prospects of the major party candidates are dimmed by the low regard in which a majority of voters hold the two parties and their elected representatives. A substantial majority of voters say they would consider voting for a third party candidate. That's where AE comes in.
The unpopularity of the two major parties may give AE candidates the chance to be the exception to the rule that third party candidates usually lose. AE candidates could actually beat major party candidates if they attract the votes of two groups of voters.
The first is the 40% of the electorate that is not registered in either major party. The second are disaffected registered Democrats and Republicans who polls show would vote for a competitive third party candidate if he or she were running on a separate ballot line from either major party.
We view AE's electoral prospects with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it would be highly desirable for a third party to run competitive candidates against major party candidates — provided it makes the parties and candidates more responsive to voters because they fear they might lose elections to the third party.
On the other hand, it would be undesirable for a third party run by a privately-run corporation like AE, whose board of directors writes the rules, to get into the process if it does not honor the will of the voters any more than the major parties.
[Note: Since AE declares itself a political party in documents addressed to state election authorities, we consider it a party even though it also defines itself as a "social welfare" organization.]
It would be even more undesirable if such a third party uses undemocratic means to nominate candidates, undermine other political parties and the political party system, and elect lawmakers unresponsive to their constituents' demands that they address the inequality issues raised by the wealth and income gap between the 1% and the 99%.
Unfortunately, in our opinion, AE presents risks on all these fronts. Based on what we have learned about AE, we think it may turn out to be no more responsive to the wishes of the electorate than the two major parties. We also think its modus operandi might well erode fundamental democratic processes and the political party system itself.
With respect to redressing the grievances of OWS members, AE's well-documented agenda appears to us more likely to favor the 1% than the 99%. The founders of AE and AE's predecessor, Unity08, have frequently labeled their platform as a "centrist" platform, presumably situated in the middle of a political spectrum they appear to assume comprises a "left", i.e. a Democratic platform, and a "right", i.e. a Republican platform.
According to one AE spokesperson, AE's "centrist" platform is apparently a fiscally conservative one:
"We need a fiscal plan developed that puts us on a path to reducing our debt and deficit while encouraging entitlement reform and cuts in defense and discretionary spending."
If we are correctly reading between the lines of this statement, AE favors many of the same policies favored by the two major parties that have led to the wealth and income gap between the 1% and the 99%.
Needless to say, AE is within its rights to pursue whatever agenda it wishes. However, it is important to note that terms like "left", "right" and "center" are widely viewed as having lost their authenticity as accurate descriptors of the electorate's legislative preferences.
As linguist George Lakoff pointed out years ago, the claim that a "center" and "centrists" exist is empirically and statistically unfounded.
Pew Research Center corroborates Lakoff with research showing that the views of the electorate, and supposed "centrists", diverge too widely to be categorized as "left", "right" or "center", according to a recent survey, Beyond Red and Blue.
The solution we advocate does not use these obsolete labels. It enables the electorate to build winning voting blocs and electoral coalitions around collectively-set legislative agendas that defy categorization as "left", "right" or "center".
These blocs and coalitions can work with political parties of their choice, but they will remain autonomous and independent of parties because they will be controlled by voters, and the needs and wants expressed in their legislative agendas will be defined by the voters that control the blocs and coalitions.
Below we describe how this solution works. In particular, we show how it compares with Americans Elect, with which it shares a number of common goals but diverges in far more important respects regarding form, substance and likely impact.
A Comparative Analysis
The system-changing solution we advocate is a web-based "bottom up" political organizing platform, the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS), invented by political activist and co-author Nancy Bordier. OWS members can use the platform to join with voters of all persuasions to build self-organizing online voting blocs and electoral coalitions.
They can manage and structure their blocs and coalitions as they wish, and organize themselves in ways that prevent the emergence of organizational hierarchies that concentrate power at the top, as political parties tend to do.
They can collaboratively set transpartisan legislative agendas, which transcend the partisan ideological orientations of the major political parties, by using the IVCS agenda-setting, political organizing and consensus-building tools that will be available on reinventdemocracy.net.
They can screen, nominate and run candidates on the ballot lines of political parties of their choice, and build broad-based transpartisan electoral bases that have the voting strength needed to put their candidates in office.
This system contrasts with AmericansElect.org (AE), which we view as a "top down" solution since it is controlled by the board of directors of a single corporation. It is led by veteran Wall Street investor Peter Ackerman.
AE's current objective is to conduct an online nominating convention to nominate a "balanced" presidential ticket for the 2012 election outside the two major parties. Based on publicly available AE documents and statements, we interpret "balanced" to mean "centrist".
As mentioned earlier, AE appears to be targeting the 40% of voters who are not registered in the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as disaffected members of the two parties who will vote for a competitive alternative to their party's ticket if he or she were running on a separate ballot line from either major party.
What the two solutions have in common are their goals of
-- Loosening the Democratic and Republican parties' grip on U.S. electoral processes;
-- Empowering the U.S. electorate to play a much larger role in elections than the Democratic and Republican parties have previously allowed them to play;
-- Enabling voters to express their political views online, compare their respective views, and screen candidates to compare candidates' views to their own;
-- Empowering voters to nominate and elect candidates who will represent the will of their constituents more closely than major party candidates have represented the will of their constituents in recent years.
The two solutions differ in just as many respects as they converge.
The IVCS solution enables voters to define any legislative agendas they wish, form as many online voting blocs and electoral coalitions as they wish, run as many candidates as they wish, for any office, and place them on the ballot line of any party they wish.
In contrast, the AE solution is attempting to draw voters into a single party, platform and nominating convention to produce a single presidential ticket, which AE plans to simultaneously place on the ballot lines in all 50 states that it states it is in the process of obtaining.
Whereas IVCS-enabled voting blocs and coalitions can make their own rules and create non-hierarchical voting blocs and coalitions, AE's corporate parent makes the rules and has created what appears to be a pyramid-shaped organizational hierarchy in which authority is concentrated at the top, apparently in the hands of the chairman of the board.
While IVCS blocs and coalitions can nominate any candidates they wish, AE's bylaws and rules appear to limit voters' nominations to those acceptable to a committee appointed by its board of directors, whose members serve at its pleasure.
Voters must nominate what AE variously defines as a "coalition ticket" and a "balanced ticket". Article 1 of AE bylaws specify the goal of the nomination process to be that of nominating a
"coalition ticket responsive to the vast majority of citizens while remaining independent of special interests and the partisan interests of either major political party."
According to its Pre-Convention Rules, the corporation's "Candidate Certification Committee" determines "whether any proposed ticket is balanced" and which candidates meet meet this criterion:
[A] "ticket with two persons consisting of a Democrat and a Republican shall be deemed to be balanced. A ticket with two persons of the same political party shall be deemed to be imbalanced." (See Section 8.0 of the bylaws.)
We see here a discrepancy. On the one hand, AE claims that the convention is the "first nonpartisan presidential nomination". On the other hand, AE requires voters to choose candidates from the nation's two major political parties, which are clearly partisan.
If the convention were truly "nonpartisan", the ticket would comprise candidates that belonged to no party, since political parties are "partisan", according to most common definitions, as are their candidates.
The bias toward a coalition Democrat and Republican presidential ticket also appears to violate AE's core call to action, which is to "Pick a President, Not a Party", according to a recent AE press release.
This throwback to the two major parties whose candidates AE is seeking to defeat, when combined with AE's insistence on a "balanced ticket" comprised of a member of each party that AE is seeking to defeat, reveal what AE's real goal might be.
We believe it is not merely to defeat major party candidates, but to replace both unpopular parties by migrating their supporters over to the Americans Elect party via a ticket comprised of at least one Democrat and one Republican.
From this perspective, AE's underlying objective could very well be that of realigning U.S. politics around a single "centrist" party that supplants the two major parties, whose chronic electoral posturing have created a stalemate in Congress and paralyzed the federal government.
To attain this objective, AE's spokespersons continually castigate the two major parties for being "partisan". They claim that AE is "nonpartisan" even though its founders are on record as long-time advocates of a "centrist" agenda, and the instrument AE uses to gauge voters' political views is biased, in our opinion, to skew results in a "centrist" direction, which is a "partisan" direction.
And even though AE says it is allowing voters to formulate the party's platform and nominate its candidates, by expressing their views in response to an instrument containing an online survey of their views, and voting on nominees, AE's board of directors has appointed committees to decide what the platform actually is and which candidates can be nominated.
We believe that if AE were genuinely committed to allowing voters to determine the platform, it could simply tally their responses and formulate questions corresponding to the tallies. If it were genuinely committed to allowing voters to nominate the candidates they choose, it would allow them to do so without the oversight of committees controlled by the corporation.
This potential for deviating from authenticity raises questions about the risks inherent in a political party being owned and operated by a private corporation. While AE's corporate bylaws do give voters it qualifies the possibility of overturning AE decisions by a 2/3 vote, these allowances are virtually meaningless since few bodies ever attain a 2/3 majority. Accordingly, we find it unlikely that AE, a privately run corporation, can be held accountable by any constituency other than its board of directors.
Given this potential lack of accountability, we think it vitally important to consider the risks inherent in AE's emergence as a political party capable of bringing about the collapse of the two major parties.
These risks are particularly relevant to the "99%" because AE's founders, leaders and contributors appear to favor a partisan "centrist" agenda that supports the "1%" and, we suspect, are likely to do what they can to obtain from their nominating convention an agenda and candidates who will legislate in the interests of the 1% if elected.
In this light, it is well to bear in mind that the favored candidate of the founders of AE's predecessor, Unity08, is reported to have been New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and that rumors continue to circulate that he is a prospective candidate for AE's 2012 presidential ticket.
We list below further steps AE is taking that, in our view, may well be intended to produce a platform and ticket reflective of AE's preferences.
While they show considerable legal ingenuity in skirting around the electoral laws that have traditionally given the two major parties unfair advantages over third party candidates, they also show a disturbing willingness to undercut traditional democratic processes.
It appears to us that they may undermine the political primary process as a whole, and pose a systemic risk of further weakening the responsiveness of the political party system to the will of the people.
Here are several examples:
1. State laws allow eligible voters to register to vote in any political party they wish, and parties do not have the power to expel any voter or prevent them from voting in a party primary.
In contrast, AE bylaws specify that any person can be "terminated from Americans Elect without prior notice by the Board". (See sections 2.4 and 5.4 of the bylaws.)
2. AE's online nominating convention circumvents the state-by-state primaries conducted by the two major parties without replacing them with an equally responsive alternative as far as voter-candidate interaction is concerned.
Specifically, AE asserts in its bylaws that the "secure Internet connection" that it provides voters participating in its convention is a substitute for a "physical presence" in a state. (See sections 8. and 8.1. of Americans Elect bylaws.)
Whether AE's "Internet connection" is a desirable replacement for face-to-face caucuses and primary campaigns at the state level is a doubtful and arguable proposition.
3. Unlike government-sponsored party primaries conducted at state level in which government officials are responsible for ensuring the accurate tallying of the ballots cast, it appears that AE, a private corporation, intends to have the votes cast in its online nominating convention tallied by its own corporate employees on its own in-house computers.
If AE had instead conferred this task on a third party without ties to the organization, the accuracy of the results could have been externally verified.
4. AE's bylaws contain a provision stipulating that its online nominating convention does not require a quorum. (See section 8.3.)
Presumably, this also means that there is no minimum number of votes that must be cast by voters in a particular state before AE can legally place its presidential ticket on its ballot lines in that state.
Whether an online nominating convention that has no quorum is a desirable and legal replacement for state-level primaries is also an arguable proposition. For it might well lead to a presidential ticket nominated by an extremely small fraction of the electorate being placed automatically and simultaneously on AE ballot lines in all 50 states.
Quite possibly AE is unconcerned by the prospect that its nominating convention and ticket are not representative or responsive to the "vast majority of citizens", for the reason that its overriding goal may be just to place on its ballot lines the ticket its committees have teased out of its online nominating process.
Once it does so, we think it likely that large amounts of campaign financing from the 1% will be expended to make the ticket appear responsive to the "vast majority of citizens" infuriated by the conduct of the two major parties, drive AE's newly forged electoral base to the polls to vote for AE's ticket, and quite possibly catapult the nascent Americans Elect party and its candidates into the winner's circle on election day."
5. At the same time AE is loudly protesting the two major parties' their grip on the nation's electoral machinery, and their use of it to prevent third party candidates from winning elections, AE's bylaws appear designed to similarly restrict competition, by preventing unwelcome external challengers who do not participate in AE's online nominating process from challenging the process, the nominees, or the outcome.
Section 8.6 of AE bylaws state that the "exclusive means" for any candidate to get on its ballot lines is through its "internet convention". If state laws allow a "presidential primary election vote", these votes shall be "advisory only".
It remains to be seen whether AE's assertion of these unusual prerogatives will be met with legal challenges at state level when it attempts to place a ticket on its ballot lines.
What is most concerning is that these short-cuts and end-runs around democratic processes may be only the initial phase of AE's grand realignment strategy, whose overarching goal, we suspect, is to collapse the two major parties into a single major uni-party, the Americans Elect party.
Once the corporation obtains a presidential ticket from its self-styled convention process, and places it on the ballot in all 50 states simultaneously, we expect to see unprecedented sums of special interest money expended to elect its ticket. AE candidates will join the ranks of the Democratic and Republican candidates in holding their hands out to the same special interest contributors pushing the same special interest agendas.
If AE's ticket draws enough votes away from the two major party tickets, it could actually elect a president and vice president nominated outside the two parties. The next best outcome for AE would be that its ticket draws enough votes away from the major party candidates to prevent the election of either of them, and thereby throws the determination of the outcome of the election into the U.S. House of Representatives.
While that outcome is unpredictable, it would seriously weaken the two major parties even though it favored the fortunes of future "centrist" AE candidates whose policies might well be no different from theirs.
Going forward, we suspect that if AE's ticket receives 5% of the vote in a respectable number of states, thereby entitling it to remain on the ballot for 2014 and 2016, it will work out the inconsistencies in its legal status and function as a full-fledged "centrist" political party running candidates for all offices at all levels of government, and not merely the presidency.
If so, based on what we have learned about AE's past history and current trajectory, we think these candidates are likely to favor policies that benefit the 1% rather than the 99%. If such a scenario is in the offing, the IVCS solution takes on special importance, particularly to the members of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
For we think the IVCS solution, and it alone, has the potential to empower not only the OWS movement but the entire U.S. electorate to forestall a possible AE takeover of U.S. electoral and legislative processes, assuming, as we do, that such a power play and realignment around a single party may well be in the offing.
Here's why we place such confidence in IVCS's potential:
1. OWS members can mobilize far greater numbers of voters than AE can bring into its fold, by using IVCS tools to bring together U.S. voters of all persuasions into consensus-building processes to translate their grievances into legislative agendas.Voters using the IVCS solution have the potential to exert a far greater political impact than AE nationally and locally because AE supporters can only sit at their computers, answer AE's questions and sit back passively while AE committees run the show. That's because IVCS users will get more deeply involved in starting their own ongoing dialogues and debates about their own self-defined issues, setting their legislative agendas, and building and managing voting blocs and coalitions to elect their own representatives to enact their agendas.
2. The IVCS solution enables voters to counteract AE's potential weakening of voter participation at the state level, by using IVCS tools to democratize and re-invigorate the electoral process at the grassroots.
Voting blocs and coalitions formed with IVCS tools will be able to inject a new dynamism and give-and-take into electoral politics. They will foster a healthy competition among all players, — blocs, coalitions and parties — to develop legislative agendas, negotiate common agendas with prospective candidates, and nominate and run slates of candidates that have broad popular appeal.
3. The IVCS solution will involve voters of all persuasions in developing a dynamic mix of interconnected blocs that will be constantly merging into ever larger coalitions, all seeking to develop and update common legislative agendas and forge electoral bases large enough to get their candidates elected.
4. Voters of all persuasions will use IVCS agenda-setting tools to set "transpartisan" legislative agendas that cross party lines and attract broad cross-sections of voters to their blocs and coalitions. As their numbers grow, they will be able to use IVCS consensus-building tools like the voting utility to help them make decisions.
These blocs and coalitions will spontaneously merge into a decentralized nationwide network of interconnected, interacting blocs and coalitions that supplant political parties as the driving forces of U.S. politics, even while creating alliances with democratized political parties of their choice.
5. To get their candidates on the ballot, blocs and coalitions can put them on the lines of any political party by registering sufficient numbers of their members in the party, collecting enough signatures from party members to get their candidates on the ballot, and getting out enough qualified voters to elect the candidates.
6. The IVCS solution has the potential to encourage greater numbers of candidates to run for office because they will be able to rely on the support and voting strength of IVCS-enabled voting blocs, electoral coalitions and electoral bases.
This positive dynamic will greatly reduce the influence of special interest campaign contributions in U.S. elections because these candidates will not need such contributions to get their message out. For their message will already be known to the members of the blocs and coalitions backing them, since many of them will have participated in setting the agendas and nominating the candidates in the first place.
7. Voters, and especially members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, can use the IVCS solution to usher in a "transpartisan" voter-driven era in U.S. politics that will be neither "left", "right" nor "center".
While there will always be "partisan" issues favored by certain "parties" of voters, IVCS provides voters unique problem-solving and consensus-building tools for reconciling differences regarding legislative priorities and collectively-setting legislative agendas.
Voters will be able to convert partisan differences into common agendas, including the partisan preferences of any political party, AE included.
IVCS consensus-building tools will enable them to build large electoral bases that permit them to outflank and outmaneuver political parties with whom they are not aligned.
Yet they can use these same tools to build winning electoral bases and coalitions with any political parties with which they wish to align around shared legislative agendas and common slates of candidates.
8. Finally, one of the most significant contributions of IVCS tools, especially the agenda-setting and political organizing tools, is that they enable voting blocs and coalitions to use their agendas as legislative mandates for which their members can hold their elected representatives accountable at the ballot box when they seek re-election.
If incumbents cannot provide tangible evidence and concrete track records showing they have exerted their best efforts to enact voters' written legislative agendas, the voting blocs and coalitions that got them elected will defeat them when they seek re-election.
Voters will at last be able to prevent politicians from saying one thing on the campaign trail and then doing another when they are in office.
The members of the Occupy Wall Street movement have demonstrated an understandable reluctance to establish hierarchical structures and decision-making rules. They prefer unanimous consent over other formulas.
What we hope is that the members of the movement will recognize that the IVCS platform enables them to build non-hierarchical political organizations like the self-organizing voting blocs and coalitions described above, and use them to obtain redress of their grievances through the political process.
Their blocs and coalitions will maintain their responsiveness to their members and their fluidity because their members will be controlling them and making all the rules.
If any members disagree with the way things are going, and encounter insurmountable obstacles in their efforts to redirect the things they object to, they can exit the blocs and coalitions and start their own. They can use the same IVCS tools available to all blocs and coalitions for attracting new members.
We believe the IVCS platform is uniquely designed to empower movement members and the 99% to join forces to translate their grievances into convergent legislative agendas in the near term.
We are confident they will be able to elect enough of their own representatives to shift control of Congress away from the 1% in 2012, enact their agendas, and at the same time empower the electorate to obtain permanent control of the nation's electoral and legislative processes and outcomes.