Courting the innovator-establishment at SXSW, where Obama vs. Romney doesn’t work

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Street in Austin. (Brittany Murphy)
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AUSTIN—Working in politics for almost thirty years, as Mark McKinnon has, you learn how to size up an audience. When the Texan political strategist introduced himself at a South by Southwest Interactive panel discussion on the future of American political parties, he started off by drawling, “I’m for anything that’s disruptive.”

In politics, it’s not always good to be labeled “disruptive”—it can get you escorted out of meetings, and in certain circumstances, arrested. But there are few words more popular in the techno-futurist dialect of South by Southwest, and this week, Austin echoed with talk of the Arab Spring, populist social networking, and weakening hierarchies. When it came to politics, the conversation took disruptive transformation as a given.

One of the most in-demand events here was a talk Monday on evening involving former Facebook president Sean Parker and Al Gore, who said that democracy had been "hacked," and proposed "a new movement called 'Occupy Democracy.'"

At another, earlier event, the question up for debate among a panel of experts had been whether centuries-old institutions like the Democratic and Republican parties could manage to survive even another decade.

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“I’m not really sure either of the two parties can do anything,” said Joe Trippi, manager of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, as he sat next McKinnon, an old George W. Bush hand who is now a private-sector strategist and part-time pundit, for the Monday morning politics discussion. Political party identification has been plummeting for years, especially among younger voters, and the current race for the Republican presidential nomination has turned into a retreat to the fringes, largely financed by a handful of billionaires. It’s dispiriting, even for the professional partisans. At one point, the moderator, journalist Matt Bai—who identified himself as an independent—asked for a show of hands from his panelists, who also included Marci Harris, a former congressional aide who now heads a website called Popvox, and Nathan Daschle, son of Tom, who two years ago was the head of Democratic Governors Association.

“How many of you four now belong to political parties?” Bai asked.

A lone hand went up—Trippi’s.

“I used to,” Daschle said.

“You don’t, really?” Bai asked.

Daschle shook his head, and the moderator joked: “Scandal! The [former] head of the DGA is no longer a Democrat—what is going on?”

Bai moved on to McKinnon. “You’re not?”

“I’m trying to be a Republican,” he replied, “but it’s hard.”

Of course, the indictment of the two-party system—that it has become captured by moneyed interests and incapable of taking on Big Problems—is the same today as it was in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt was mounting his Bull Moose presidential campaign. In the past, America’s governing institutions have proven surprisingly capable of absorbing their attackers, from the Roosevelt-era progressives to the campus radicals of the 1960s.

What has changed, according to the would-be disruptors, is the ability of insurgencies to build mobilization organs outside of the traditional structures. Daschle, who headed the D.G.A. during a period a heavy losses and subsequetly left party politics to start a social networking website called ruck.us, said that he foresaw a future in which power no longer shifts between opposing sides, but fluidly moves among “swarms and clusters of people.”

“It’s odd that in the greatest democracy in the world we are limited to two choices,” McKinnon said.

He went on to tout an organization he’s involved with, Americans Elect, which is trying to secure a position on the presidential ballot for an as-yet-undetermined bipartisan ticket.

“You eliminate the barriers to entry on ballot access—that’s what Americans Elect is doing,” McKinnon said. “I don’t know what the outcome is going to be but I think four, eight, twelve years from now, we’ll look back and say this was the start of something that really transformed the way we do politics.”

THUS FAR, THE NATIONAL PRESS HAS TREATED AMERICANS Elect’s “online primary” campaign like a minor curiosity—the ostracized former Republican (and Democratic) governor Buddy Roemer is the most notable candidate currently pursuing its nomination—but the organization made a major effort to win the South by Southwest primary.

One morning, I visited the lounge it had set up on the third floor of the Austin Convention Center, where the throngs of burnt-orange badge holders could pick up bipartisan-themed t-shirts and boxing-glove keychains, shaded red or blue according to ideological preference.

“I think that if you allow the people to drive the conversation, you get to a higher level of discourse,” Ileana Wachtel, the organization’s press secretary, told me. “The conversation in the debates, it’s so … almost insulting.”

Wachtel was nursing a conventioneer’s cold, which had also kept her boss, Americans Elect C.E.O. Kahlil Byrd, from making a scheduled interview. But as we talked, Joshua Levine, the group’s chief technology officer, came into the lounge carrying a folding bike. He sat down and explained the organization’s online nominating process, which involves questionnaires, candidate drafts and the tabulation of clicks.

“Anytime someone comes up with a new technology, there’s a skeptical response—Facebook, Amazon.com, I could go on and on,” Levine said.

Politics, he predicted, was just as ready for digitization.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve broken away from brands,” he said. “People are self-selecting.”

The selection process is slated to culminate in a June convention, which will nominate a presidential and vice presidential candidate from different parties, and Americans Elect reportedly plans to spend $40 million to get the unity ticket on the ballot in every state. As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, the organization is not required to reveal its donors, and its financial opacity has led to much speculation about hidden agendas behind the transparent primary. To worsen appearances further, the day before we met, Buzzfeed reported that donations the organization are currently raising are going to reimburse the millionaire benefactors assembled by the organization’s founder, financier Peter Ackerman.

“Everyone is so obsessed with the wrong question,” Wachtel said, when I asked why the organization didn’t opt for full disclosure.

Levine claimed that, when it came to its money, Americans Elect should be expected to meet the same—minimal—reporting standards kept by the kind of technology firms that populated the halls of South by Southwest.

“How many other startups list out all their investors?” he asked. “Not a single one here.”

Americans Elect is just building a stage, she claimed, and it remains up to the voters to hand it over to a candidate.

“We’re not funding some agenda,” Wachtel said.

Nevertheless, it’s not at all clear that a Third Way movement can rally around the platform of creating a platform. McKinnon predicted that whoever ends up with the Americans Elect nomination will qualify for the general-election debates, but he acknowledged that the success of the online nomination experiment might depend on its selecting a “galvanizing” candidate to challenge President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee.

But when I suggested to Levine that the history of third parties suggests that they tend to mobilize around dynamic personalities, like Roosevelt or Ross Perot, he came back with a telling counterexample: John Anderson.

“I think it would be terrible if we had a charismatic candidate and that came at the expense of the process,” he said.

Many have suggested that this new, process-driven party could find its champion in technocrat Michael Bloomberg, who has called himself a “big supporter” of Ackerman’s effort. The mayor swears he’s not considering an independent presidential run, though, and the morning we met, the New York Times reported that he had recently lunched with President Obama.

Levine thought, or hoped, that the meeting had not been a signal that Bloomberg was more interested in cultivating an improved relationship with the suddenly stronger president.

“Why is that?” Levine asked. “I think it just means that Bloomberg wants what is best for New York.”

“OUR MAYOR IS THE ULTIMATE TECHNOLOGIST,” RACHEL STERNE said as she gave a presentation on New York City’s efforts at innovation at a panel called “Future of Cities.” Just 28 years old, Bloomberg hired Sterne early last year from a startup news site, naming her city’s chief digital officer. Much of the political dialogue at South by Southwest communicated a root distrust of government—one panel was entitled, “How Not to Die: Using Tech in a Dictatorship”—or a conviction that competing forms of social organization will make it nearly irrelevant. Facebook, it is often noted, now claims to have 845 million active users, a population larger than every country except India and China.