Skip to main content

Common Dreams. Journalism funded by people, not corporations.

There has never been—and never will be—an advertisement on our site except for this one: without readers like you supporting our work, we wouldn't exist.

No corporate influence. No pay-wall. Independent news and opinion 365 days a year that is freely available to all and funded by those who support our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.

Our mission is clear. Our model is simple. If you can, please support our Fall Campaign today.

Support Our Work -- No corporate influence. No pay-wall. Independent news funded by those who support our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. Please support our Fall Campaign today.

Looking At Democracy And US Presidential Debates

John Buell

Political science 101 tell us that U.S. electoral laws favor a two-party system. Single-member districts and winner-take-all elections reduce the leverage of minor parties. Earlier insurgencies have been unable to dislodge these foundational electoral principles. Yet the two-party system is sustained by more than winner-take-all electoral laws.

State statutes vary considerably in their requirements for ballot access. As a result of third-party movements, a few states also allow "fusion." Under this procedure, a candidate may, for instance, seek nomination as both a Democrat and a Green. In addition, in an era when political parties as organized structures have deteriorated, decisions by the corporate media as to how campaigns are covered have a considerable impact on our politics. In the long run, the significance of the battle between Bush and Gore may depend less on the policy differences between them than on whether Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan are allowed to participate in the presidential debates.

No issue better illustrates the collusion of both major parties and their corporate sponsors than the televised presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has decreed that admission to the debates requires 15 percent support in the opinion polls. This commission was created jointly by Democrats and Republicans after the League of Women Voters, which used to organize presidential debates, upset both parties by including independent John Anderson in the 1980 debates. The commission is co-chaired by former heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, and its debates are sponsored by such major corporations as Anheuser-Busch.

Since the debates are bi-partisan, corporate contributions to them are not construed as illegal. Yet the CPD's actions are political. Its 15 percent rule is arbitrary and exclusionary. It is three times the level required to receive Federal matching funds. It excludes candidates in whom large majorities are interested even if they currently do not support their views.

The CPD argues that the fifteen percent rule is necessary to prevent the debates from becoming a showcase for trivial candidates. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura has quipped: "That's like Coke and Pepsi saying that you need 15 percent of the market in order to get your cola on the supermarket shelf." Ventura himself stood at 10 percent before he was allowed into the Minnesota gubernatorial debates. Without the debates, Ventura would have lost.

A more equitable rule for presidential debates would limit participation to candidates with names on enough state ballots potentially to win an Electoral College majority. This requirement would exclude the frivolous while allowing citizens to see candidates in whom they are interested. In politics, power is not simply a matter of who has the ability to prevail on issues that arise. At its most fundamental level power also includes those processes and procedures that allow some issues to surface while shunting others to the side.

Even if the Nader campaign makes no other contribution to our politics, it has highlighted the confining role that the debate requirements and, more broadly, media coverage, play in shaping the issues and candidates citizens have an opportunity to consider.

The Nader candidacy has already led editorial writers at several major mainstream media to criticize the role of the CPD. In addition, campaigns on behalf of more inclusive coverage conducted by such media watch dogs as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have persuaded the major broadcast media to expand their coverage of both Nader and Buchanan.

In the face of these obvious gains for our long term politics, many Gore defenders continue to argue that the Nader campaign is destructive. Nader can't win and a vote for him makes a Bush victory more likely. Their arguments would carry more moral weight if Gore would work to open the debates. Otherwise he will reinforce the sense many progressive have that when the chips are down, Gore does all in his power to defend corporate prerogatives. The least progressives must ask of a Democrat is a firm commitment to democratic procedures.

The Gore campaign's attack on Nader is misplaced in another fundamental way. Perhaps in November progressives should swallow their reservations and vote for Gore as the lesser evil. Nonetheless, such a vote should come only after a vigorous campaign in which third party candidates have been able to air their views, including their views as to the politics of the lesser evil. Too much of the talk of this and most recent elections equates our elections with horse races and suggests by implication that the only question that matters is who wins.

Elections in a healthy democracy do more than anoint winners. They educate citizens and deepen understanding of the democratic process. The Nader campaign has already won that election hands down.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." 

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'The Facebook Papers' Spur More Calls to 'Break Them Up!'

Other critics are demanding a "full, independent, outside investigation" of the tech titan as whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies to the U.K. Parliament.

Jessica Corbett ·

'This Is an Emergency': Oxfam Says Rich Nations' $100 Billion Climate Pledge Not Good Enough

"Time is running out for rich nations to build trust and deliver on their unmet target."

Andrea Germanos ·

Critics See Menendez Villainy Equal to Sinema's on Medicare Drug Pricing Fight

"It's discouraging to see Sen. Menendez is on the wrong side of this fight rather than leading the charge for more affordable, accessible healthcare for all."

Brett Wilkins ·

Humanity 'Way Off Track': WMO Says Atmospheric Carbon at Level Unseen in 3 Million Years

The new report has "a stark, scientific message for climate change negotiators at COP 26," said the head of the World Meteorological Organization.

Andrea Germanos ·

Any Lawmaker Involved in Planning Jan. 6 Insurrection 'Must Be Expelled,' Says AOC

Organizers of the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol say that several congressional Republicans and White House officials helped plan former President Donald Trump's coup attempt.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo