Is Barack Obama the Leader of America's Great Third Party?

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Clifford K. Berryman Redux
Krist Novoselic's column on music and politics runs every Tuesday on Reverb. Check back on Friday when he writes about what he's been listening to.
Is there a major third party in the United States? And does its leader live in the White House?

Barack Obama was the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. At the same time, he spearheaded a groundbreaking campaign organization outside the Democratic Party--Obama for America (OFA). We know who the voters chose, but how did they come together to elect Barack Obama President of the United States? It came together in a mix of old and new ways, but there's an uneasy marriage between the two that's becoming increasingly apparent.

With presidential politics, I did things the old-fashioned way through the local Democratic Party. I led the organization of our 2008 presidential precinct caucuses. We invited local voters to participate in our nominating process. My county reflected Washington State by giving Barack Obama the largest amount of delegates for the national Democratic Convention. These delegates joined others from around the nation in Denver, and they chose Obama as the party's nominee on the November general-election ballot.

At the same time, the Obama campaign mobilized millions of voters through Obama for America, his own grassroots organization. Instead of a formal nomination, the candidate connected with millions of voters by harnessing the power of the information revolution. Along the way he scooped up millions of dollars in small-scale individual contributions.

Election night was a historic occasion, and many were happy that a Democrat was in the White House again. Even though a Democrat did indeed move in, some people are now perplexed by this. For example, in a recent Rolling Stone article, Tim Dickinson writes about how President Obama turned his back on the grassroots supporters who helped get him elected, and instead got sucked into D.C. insider politics. The assertion is that OFA and its legions were neglected because they got folded into the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

But who nominated Obama in the first place? The Democrats! But the legions of OFA voters couldn't care less about Democrats.

I recognized this tension soon after the election. When I was a Democrat--I've completely left the party--I was fully aware of this other organization that Obama's supporters created. We'd have party meetings and hear about the OFA people operating in the district. This put me at unease, because I'd put all this time into the party and now there was another group working for the president! Did I have to go to their meetings too? No, instead I read the writing on the wall. American politics are going through a transformation. It's manifesting itself across the political spectrum and is apparent in the situation between Democrats and OFA and also between Republicans and Tea Partiers. In essence, people are coming together in new forms of association.

The old model of association is clearly failing. For example, almost every member of Congress is either a Democrat or Republican. To get on the ballots that sent them to D.C., they went through a party nomination process similar to what the president did. Instead of speaking to the needs of the people who voted for them, issues like health care have become about D.C. insider political deals. No wonder people are excited about viral grassroots movements such as Tea Party or OFA!

We Rock Party people are going our way. I can't see how Obama can do this, though. Imagine the political upheaval if the president announced he's forming his own party! Instead he's going to try to reconcile business-as-usual Washington (the DNC) with a rising populism that lives in the digital realm (OFA). And the GOP will try to do the same thing with Tea Party people. Vast and decentralized, I can't see how the Internet-driven political phenomenon will adapt to our two-party system. That's why we need to retool our elections with majority and proportional voting systems.

The Rolling Stone article quotes an Obama campaign associate calling for an "Obama 2.0" organization. What we really need is something broader--a "Democracy 2.0."

 
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