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Presidential Debates Betray Democracy
Published on Tuesday, October 17, 2000 in the Yankton (SD) Daily Press & Dakotan
Presidential Debates Betray Democracy
by Nathan Johnson, P & D Staff Writer
"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum -- even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate." -- Noam Chomsky

Debating politics on the presidential level is dead in America. If you watched the presidential "debates" over the course of the past two weeks, you know what I'm talking about.

Admittedly, the first debate was rough. There was Gore's sighing and lying (perhaps blown out of proportion by a bored media) and a bumbling and sniffling (some would say snorting) Bush.

By the second debate, however, the two candidates had been well-coached to avoid the previous week's gaffes. Their image manufacturers taught them well, and the whole point of the second debate seemed to be that there should be no debate.

Why not? Because we poor Americans don't like to see negativity in our candidates. To disagree would be downright negative, wouldn't it?

So what are we stuck with? Two candidates trying to lovingly hate each other while agreeing on everything but (for the "debate's" sake) disagreeing. From gun locks to military interventions to local control of education, both candidates agreed with each other as covertly as possible in an attempt preserve the illusion that there is a difference between the two.

Where's the debate we were promised?

It's in the third party candidates who were barred from participating in the debates from the beginning. Candidates like the Green Party's Ralph Nader and the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan could have put the debate back in the debates, but thanks to an ill-conceived Commission on Presidential Debates rule requiring candidates to have at least 15 percent of the popular vote, both candidates as well as other third party candidates were shut out.

The reasons for the 15 percent requirement are quite obvious and disappointing.

First of all, the Commission on Presidential Debates is a bipartisan organization run by former heads of the Republican and Democratic parties. After the phenomenal ratings garnered by the inclusion of Ross Perot in the 1992 debates and the eventual support for him in the polls, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats want to take the risk of a third party candidate gaining that much popularity again. The threat posed to their stranglehold on Washington would be too great.

Secondly, the corporations who sponsor the debates -- 3com Inc., Yahoo, Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc., AT&T Company and Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc. -- funnel millions of dollars into the two major parties every year. After making such major investments, they aren't very eager to allow a third party candidate opportunity to ascend to the presidency and thereby render their investment less valuable.

What are Americans supposed to do? Well, for God's sake, don't protest.

During the past two debates, thousands have gathered to protest what they consider an undemocratic process. For tonight's St. Louis debate, protesters have been denied protesting permits by the local authorities. You may get accolades from American press and politicians when you protest for democracy in a place like Yugoslavia ("The Yugoslav people had the guts to go out and get out on the streets and voice their views," Madeleine Albright said) but in America, you can expect to be derided or flat out ignored.

To witness just how undemocratic the debate process is, look no further than an incident that occurred during the first debate. Ralph Nader had a ticket to the event and was also invited by several news organizations to appear on their broadcasts, but upon arriving (via the Boston subway system, not a limo) he was met by a representative of the Commission on Presidential Debates as well as the state police. He was informed that despite his ticket and invitations, the commission would not allow him on the premises. He was also threatened with arrest by the state police on two occasions during the evening for simply being there. Does that sound like a democracy to you?

In a country that is supposed to be the beacon of democracy, it seems we've lost touch with what democracy is. We recently denounced elections held in Peru after international observers claimed the ruling party had barred opposition candidates from having access to the media. Is it any different here?

The debates are the single most deciding factor in who voters choose to vote for according to exit polls conducted in 1988 and 1992. Their power can be seen in the last Minnesota gubernatorial race, where Jesse Ventura had only single-digit support before that state's debates but ended up winning due to his debate performances.

It's up to the American people to change this. The politicians and the corporations will not do it on their own. When will we decide we want our democracy back? When will we decide that we want to choose from a free flow of ideas and not the corporate money-driven ideas of candidates who are little more than prostitutes available to the highest bidder? The charge is heavy, but I'm afraid it is well deserved.

I await the return of democracy to a fraudulent debate system.

"We're dealing with two parties that are remote from the American people. On the major issues there's very little difference. They say things differently but they don't do things differently and they don't fight for things differently." -- Ralph Nader

To contact Nathan Johnson, e-mail him at

ęCopyright Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan


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