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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.


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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." 

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