Recently, on the main listserv and Facebook page for NCDD (the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, of which I’m a board member), we discussed signs of disaffection with the federal government.

There certainly seem to be a lot of them these days.

Part of the discussion centered on Americans Elect. In case you haven’t heard, this group aims to nominate a presidential candidate in a nonpartisan fashion through an online convention in which any registered voter can participate. The successful candidate (with a vice presidential candidate from the other established party) will represent the views of millions as expressed through their participation in an online survey. The goal appears to be a mobilization of the grass roots through the technology that has given everyone a voice.

Americans Elect isn’t the first group to emerge along these lines. No Labels “supports reforms, leaders and legislation that will help fix America’s broken government and break the stranglehold that the extremes currently have on our political process.” The Coffee Party USA is “a grassroots, non-partisan movement that aims to restore the principles and spirit of democracy in America.” (Quotes come from the respective websites.) And in terms of mobilized disaffection, we barely need mention the Occupy movement and the Tea Party.

I see all this as a hopeful sign. Not everyone does, however.

Amid our listserv discussion, someone posted a scathing article on this topic by the distinguished Mark Schmitt in Democracy. He writes that third-party movements and similar organizations are essentially fantasies meant to redirect our anger away from the hard work of reforming the system. The problems with these movements, according to Schmitt, are threefold: they are started not at the grass roots, but by consummate Washington insiders; they promise to break the duopoly of American politics when that duopoly is enshrined in the very structure of our government; and their policies are vague.

Schmitt’s points raise questions that should be asked of these organizations. The duopoly argument, especially, deserves serious consideration. But I wish he had given one other factor its due: the groundswell of public sentiment behind these movements, regardless of their origins. This sentiment is particularly in evidence in the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. Reforming the system, as he mentions, is important—but so is building and channeling sentiment against the inertia and despair into which government gridlock so easily casts us. It may be that these movements are a necessary first step to mobilizing a critical mass for change: the kind of critical mass that is powerful enough to inspire serious reform.

Or perhaps Schmitt is wrong and they’ll spark serious reform by themselves. Think Tahrir Square (though a direct import of that model to the U.S. seems logistically difficult at best).

What do you think of third parties and reform movements? Are they a waste of time, a distraction from real reform, “people’s movements” with real possibilities, or something else?