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(Guy Nicholson/The Globe and Mail)
(Guy Nicholson/The Globe and Mail)

Timothy Garton Ash

Can America be put back together? Add to ...

American politics have become so hopeless that I begin to be hopeful. From anger and disgust flows the energy for reform.

In a CNN poll, 77 per cent of Americans say elected officials in Washington have behaved like "spoiled children" in the crisis over the debt ceiling. And 84 per cent disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.

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A couple of years back, it was still vaguely original to describe the U.S. political system as "dysfunctional." Now it's official. In his televised address at the height of the crisis, President Barack Obama said "the American people may have voted for divided government but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government." Announcing the final deal just hours before America was due to default, he talked of "the crisis that Washington imposed on the rest of America." But he's one of those elected officials in Washington, too.

Why does the system work so badly? Decades of gerrymandering mean politicians have to worry more about being deposed by members of their own party in primaries than about convincing undecided voters in elections. This is what the Tea Party did to prominent incumbent Republicans before last year's midterm elections, putting the fear of Tea into moderate Republican members of Congress. It's now a verb: "He was primaried."

The undue influence of money also distorts U.S. democracy. A Supreme Court ruling last year means unlimited private money can be spent on political broadcasts. Special interests and lobbyists infect the whole legislative process. Politicians scuttle from one fundraising meeting to the next. Senate voting procedures, meanwhile, have evolved so you need a "supermajority" of 60 votes to prevent legislation being filibustered out. Culture wars and the strident partisanship of networks such as Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left increase the hysterical polarization.

Throughout the Cold War, the sense of needing to face up to the Soviet threat contributed to co-operation and compromise across the aisle. Somehow, neither the threat from al-Qaeda nor the competition from China has had the same effect. On one thing, however, Democrats and Republicans agree: In the great game of politics, there can be only two teams - Republicans and Democrats. Yet, two out of every three Americans now say they'd like to have another choice: a third candidate, from another party or from none.

Some states have even more dysfunctional politics. Two years ago, California was reduced to handing out IOUs because it couldn't pay its bills. Gerrymandering has been so outrageous that, in the 2004 election, not one of 153 federal and state seats changed to the other party.

Yet, if California led on the way down, it may lead on the way back up. Thanks to two statewide referendums, the corrupt business of redistricting (redrawing constituency boundaries) has been taken out of the hands of the politicians. Last week, a citizen redistricting commission presented maps of new boundaries for both state and national elections. If approved, they should produce more genuine competition. Thanks to another referendum initiative, next year's state and congressional races will begin with a single open primary. The two best-performing candidates from that primary will face each other in a runoff in November of 2012 - it could be two Republicans or two Democrats or even two independents.

There's now an exciting attempt to do something similar on a national scale: to change not just the personalities or the policies but the functioning of the system itself. It's called Americans Elect (www.americanselect.org). Earlier this week, one of its prime movers, investor and philanthropist-activist Peter Ackerman, sat down with me at Stanford to explain the plan.

The ambition is breathtaking. Americans Elect intends to use the power of the Internet to give effective voice to that majority of Americans who declare themselves deeply frustrated with the Washington duopoly politics of polarization and gridlock. Through a process of online debate, nomination and voting, it aims to have identified, by June 21 next year, a credible centrist candidate for president, together with a running mate who must be from another party (or independent). The hope is to produce an irresistible magnet in the middle. Both Democrats and Republicans will then have to return to the centre, where consensual, pragmatic answers can be found.

It is hoped that the winning pair of nominees could reflect the online voting of perhaps as many as 30 million Americans. What's more, these candidates should be on the ballot in all 50 states. Americans Elect has set out, at considerable expense, to overcome the hurdles to ballot access in each state. It has already got more than 1.7 million people signed up.

Will enough of those disaffected Americans take the trouble to register, participate and vote? Will this online project go viral? If yes, will credible candidates accept the nominations next summer? Just imagine a Michael Bloomberg-David Petraeus ticket, with tens of millions of votes from an online convention.

This is obviously a huge experiment. It, too, may fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. (Some Democrats fear it will take more votes from Mr. Obama than from the Republicans.) But that's beside the point. I keep meeting people who have the will, patriotism, ingenuity and energy to affirm: This place must be renewed. Its system can be reformed. Here's how. That spirit is a resource more valuable than oil, gas or gold.

Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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