It's the age of ‘disruption," and politics should not be left out

Posted at 11:57 AM, Aug 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-13 11:57:43-04

Richard Rorty, one of America’s most influential philosophers until his death in 2007, wrote only occasionally about politics.  He once wrote, “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.”

Donald Trump is busy proving that our national pride is on the verge of turning into a national lampoon.

In my last column, I argued that a credible third party or independent presidential campaign is an obvious and excellent good way to spur some civic pride and stem the government’s bleeding legitimacy. It is, after all, how most democracies break partisan ruts.

So why now – and how?

First off, the conditions are ripe. The American economy right now worships “disruption.” Cable TV disrupted the networks; the Internet disrupted everything; Uber disrupted taxis; Airbnb disrupted hotels. If such transformations – such improvements – are possible in business, why not in politics? Democrats and Republicans are the last, best monopolists.

The political market wants it. In September 2014, Gallup asked Americans, “In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third party is needed?” A clear majority, 58 percent, wanted a third party. That’s been true since 2006.

Also, there is no incumbent in 2016. There have never been more independent voters. The parties’ favorability ratings have never been worse. Trust in government is at an all-time low.

But what really makes a political disruption possible this year is money. The Supreme Court has fully deregulated the politics market. Presidential campaigns can raise capital easier than Silicon Valley tech darlings. A credible start-up campaign could snag a $500 million Initial Political Offering no sweat, given the right business model. 

That might be gross, but it’s true.

The business model also would have to be new – entrepreneurial. The classic model of a political party is that a movement forms and eventually picks a leader democratically. That won’t work now because the two-party duopoly has made the barriers to entry too high. 

Success requires money and organization to get on all the state ballots. It also requires that a candidate have poll numbers of 15 percent or higher in September 2016 to qualify for the presidential debates, which means the candidate has to be well known and well sold. 

All that means that a 2016 disruption needs to be top-down. It will need to ride on a wave of disgust with the status quo instead of on a field of grassroots. (Donald Trump’s political vandalism doesn’t count.) The good news is that this might attract candidates who would never run in the current perverted process.

Here’s a scenario:

An insurgent cadre, call it the Declaration of Independence Alliance, forms what is essentially a venture political capital firm, staking upfront the money necessary to run a competitive general election campaign, say $500 million minimum. 

The Koch Brothers have proved that a national organization easily as competent as the parties can be built from scratch. The alliance has to bring non-contributors into its leadership and it has to be truly transparent about money and process.

The war cry has to be political reform, fixing a corrupted system and breaking partisan gridlock. That means proposals such as constitutional amendments to allow campaign finance regulation; creating four-year terms in the House; mandating shorter political campaigns (like every other democracy); changing ballot access laws; reforming the tax code.

The alliance has to recruit a CEO – a presidential candidate. It could be done partly in a smoke-filled room, partly through e-voting – direct democracy.

On July 4, 2016, the alliance announces its ticket for president, vice-president and as many Senate seats as possible – in case they win the White House.

Potential candidates? There are true disrupters: Michael Bloomberg, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Howard Schultz of Starbucks or Eric Schmidt of Google. There are “radical centrists” and party orphans: Maine Senator Angus King, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb (flirting now with the a Democratic campaign) and former governors Jon Huntsman of Utah, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Brian Schweitzer of Montana. They all have been mentioned.

I know. There’s no slam-dunk name. There isn’t going to be a slam-dunk name in this era, there isn’t going to be a political hero, sorry. The long and even less inspiring list of candidates from the two big parties confirms that.

So a Schultz-Schweitzer ticket?  Bloomberg-King? Schmidt-Sandberg? Who knows? 

Maybe none of them is far enough from the mainstream to find a new current. Maybe none of them can run without sounding like just another pol. Maybe the top-down model is too compromised. And maybe the whole centrist-reform third way thing is too wimpy.

But as unrealistic as my plot seems, it is more unrealistic to expect more than we’re getting from the current duopoly. A world of only two teams is not destined.

Disruption happens. These days, it happens a lot. Sometimes it helps.