The way the two major parties control the presidential debates is a perfect microcosm of how political debates are restricted in general. Though typically shrouded in secrecy, several facts about this process have recently come to light and they are quite instructive.
I was on Democracy Now this morning along with George Farah discussing the ways these debates, designed to cast the appearance of fostering vibrant exchanges, are actually intended to constrict the range of debated views as much as possible. My segment (and the transcript to it) can be seen here, but it was the commentary of Farah - who is a genuine expert in the history of presidential debates - that I found revealing.
He described how the two political parties in the 1990s joined forces to wrest control over the presidential debates away from the independent League of Women Voters, which had long resisted the parties' efforts to shield their presidential candidates from genuine surprise or challenge. Now run by the party-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates, these rituals are designed to do little more than " eliminate spontaneity" and "exclude all viable third-party voices". Citing a just-leaked 21-page "memorandum of understanding" secretly negotiated by the two campaigns to govern the rules of the debates, Farah recounted:
"We have a private corporation that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties called the Commission on Presidential Debates. It seized control of the presidential debates precisely because the League was independent, precisely because this women's organization had the guts to stand up to the candidates that the major-party candidates had nominated. And instead of making public these contracts and resisting the major-party candidates' manipulations, the commission allows the candidates to negotiate these 21-page contracts that dictate all the fundamental terms of the debates."
Gawker's John Cook has an excellent breakdown of the 21-page memo. In his piece, entitled "Leaked Debate Agreement Shows Both Obama and Romney are Sniveling Cowards", Cook details how the rules imposed on these debates demonstrate that, above all else, "both campaigns are terrified at anything even remotely spontaneous happening."
Under this elaborate regime, the candidates "aren't permitted to ask each other questions, propose pledges to each other, or walk outside a 'predesignated area.'" Worse, "the audience members posing questions aren't allowed to ask follow-ups (their mics will be cut off as soon as they get their questions out). Nor will moderator Candy Crowley." The rules even "forbid television coverage from showing reaction shots of the candidates".
All of this means, as Farah put it:
"The town hall debate we're going to see tonight is the most constrained and regulated town hall debate in presidential debate history. The first town hall debate was introduced in 1992, and no one knew what anyone was going to ask, none of the audience members were going to ask. The moderator could ask any follow-up questions. It was exciting, and it was real.
"Well, President George H.W. Bush stumbled in response to an oddly worded question about the federal deficit, and the candidates - the campaigns have panicked and have attempted to avoid that kind of situation from happening again. In 1996, they abolished follow-up questions from the audience.
"In 2004, they began requiring that every single question asked by the audience be submitted in advance on an index card to the moderator, who can then throw out the ones he or she does not like. And that's why the audience has essentially been reduced, in some ways, to props, because the moderator is still ultimately asking the questions.
"And this election cycle is the first time that the moderator herself is prohibited from asking follow-up questions, questions seeking clarification. She's essentially reduced to keeping time and being a lady with a microphone."
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Making matters worse still, the Commission is run by lobbyists and funded by large corporations. As Zaid Jilani writes today, the two Commission co-chairmen are former GOP Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and former Clinton spokesman Michael D. McCurry. Fahrenkopf is one of the nation's leading lobbyists for the gaming industry, while McCurry advises a long list of corporate clients including the telecom industry.
The debates are paid for by large corporate sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch Companies. As Jilani writes, "in the past, the tobacco industry, AT&T, and others have all been sponsors." And as Farah describes, with all that sponsorship comes the standard benefits:
"FARAH: 'First, the just nice advertising, of course. They get to - you know, Philip Morris sponsored one of the presidential debates, paid $250,000 and got to hang its banner in the post-debate spin room that was seen throughout the country. But more importantly, they get access, and they get to show support for both major parties.'
"AMY GOODMAN: 'The major parties on their podiums have Bud Light on the podium?'
"FARAH: 'Not yet. We're getting there. We're getting there, Amy. But they get to show support for both major parties. How often can corporations find a way to make a single donation that strengthens both the Republican and Democratic parties and get a tax deduction for that kind of donation? So it's a rare contribution. And it also gives them access. They get to go to the actual debate themselves and rub shoulders at private receptions with the campaigns and their staff.'"
Meanwhile, the moderators were selected to ensure that nothing unexpected is asked and that only the most staid and establishment views are heard. As journalism professor Jay Rosen put it when the names of the moderators were unveiled, using terms to describe those views that are acceptable in Washington media circles and those which are "fringe":
"In order to be considered as a candidate for moderator you have to be soaked in the sphere of consensus, likely to stay within the predictable inner rings of the sphere of legitimate controversy, and unlikely in the extreme to select any questions from the sphere of deviance."
Here then, within this one process of structuring the presidential debates, we have every active ingredient that typically defines, and degrades, US democracy. The two parties collude in secret. The have the same interests and goals. Everything is done to ensure that the political process is completely scripted and devoid of any spontaneity or reality.
All views that reside outside the narrow confines of the two parties are rigidly excluded. Anyone who might challenge or subvert the two-party duopoly is rendered invisible.
Lobbyists who enrich themselves by peddling their influence run everything behind the scenes. Corporations pay for the process, which they exploit and is then run to bolster rather than threaten their interests. The media's role is to keep the discourse as restrictive and unthreatening as possible while peddling the delusion that it's all vibrant and free and independent and unrestrained. And it all ends up distorting political realities far more than illuminating them while wildly exaggerating the choices available to citizens and concealing the similarities between the two parties.
To understand the US political process, one can just look to how these sham debates are organized and how they function. This is the same process that repeats itself endlessly in virtually every other political realm.