The Underpants Gnomes Theory of Internet Politics

Seth Masket makes a useful point about the reasoning used by the third party hypesters at Americans Elect:

This whole endeavor seems rather enamored of the idea that American Elect can change American politics by harnessing the power of the Internet. Or as the organization promises, “We’re using the Internet to give every single voter… the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012.” Look, I love the Internet as much as anyone, but its transformative power in politics has been way overstated. Political activists use the Internet to fundraise, to contact voters, to spread information, and to debate issues. News flash: we were doing all those things before the Internet was invented. We may do those things differently — sometimes more easily, sometimes more effectively, but not always — but it’s still the same basic tasks of politics.

This is the same specious reasoning we saw in predictions of an “Internet candidate” for president or the so-called “party-in-a-laptop”. In almost every case, the people who make these sorts of claims fail to explain how, exactly, the Internet will make a third party feasible. The whole enterprise has an underpants gnomes quality to it:

1. Internet
2. ???
3. Third parties!

The Internet may reduce the costs of organization or communication in important ways for political activists, but fundamental barriers to third party success – most notably, strategic voting and the Electoral College – haven’t changed.

[Cross-posted at]

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Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.