We’ve already discussed the huge problems this election cycle has revealed in our primary system. Everyone is also mostly aware of the two party system and the issues it causes; no one wants to “waste” their vote despite votes for third parties having more mathematical impact than votes for main parties.
When you stop to think about it, the overwhelming force of the two main parties is almost inconceivable: the Republicans and Democrats have been the main parties since 1856, that’s four times the length of time of the current most senior senator, Patrick Leahy, who took office in 1975. Imagine trying to win any election against Senator Leahy, who has been reelected six times already, and has connections to virtually all important constituencies and interests. His last election in 2010 he won 64% to 31%., and there’s essentially no chance he will lose an election until his retirement. Now imagine an institution that hasn’t just been around since 1975, but four times longer. It knows not only how to deal with personnel turnover, it has entire pools of talent for staffing, research, management, and outreach. It knows not only how to advertise its political message, it has adapted and changed its message to 160 years of changing American political values. And then you realize that’s just the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is about 30 years older.
So we get it, the two parties are very powerful. But this election cycle, we are getting a full display of just how solidly these institutions own us. Televised presidential debates began in 1960 and were run by the League of Women Voters until 1988. At that time, the League quit hosting the debates in protest, releasing a statement saying they did not want to “perpetuate a fraud on the American people”. This is a direct quote:
“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman said. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Neuman said that the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns’ agreement was negotiated “behind closed doors” and was presented to the League as “a done deal,” she said, its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.
Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called “outrageous” the campaigns’ demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.
Pretty damning. Since 1988, the debates have been run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit corporation controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties. Apart from deciding the debate formats, questions, and so on, they also decide who gets into the debates. They have made the polling requirements 15% prior to getting into the debates. Naturally, since this a decision done by the Republican and Democratic parties, there have been no third party candidates that have gotten into the debates. Ross Perot was able to get in, but since his party didn’t survive him, I am not inclined to call it a party. In fact, up until this year, we only had empirical evidence that you could get into the debates as a billionaire. Really democratic.
Of course this year we have the most unpopular candidates since we started opinion polls, and for good reason. Trump is incompetent, misinformed, capricious, and authoritarian. Clinton has been embroiled in scandals, has made bad policy decisions in the past, and has such a tight hold of the Democratic party that the prospect of her political machine controlling the federal government should give everyone pause. This week it’s even come out that her health is at least vaguely worrisome. It just so happens that this same year the Libertarian Party has nominated a ticket with two former two-term moderate Republican governors from blue states. They have more executive political experience than the two major party candidates combined, and a majority of Americans want them in the debates. So if there is a year where a third party should obviously be included, this is it. But as of right now, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld won’t be allowed in.
Our primary system is pretty broken. Congressional approval ratings are extraordinarily low. Federal budgets have barely been approved the last few years. But if we allow Gary Johnson to be excluded from these debates, we have resigned ourselves to living with these two parties, and all the trouble they cause, forever. We are stating that the only people we allow to run for president are members of these ancient outdated institutions or billionaires. We are agreeing that change will only happen if it occurs through two organizations whose entire existence is based upon extending their own political power by winning political office.
I’m not saying that the Johnson / Weld ticket has to win the election, or even that they should win a single state; but if we can’t allow our political parties to be publicly challenged in a debate forum, to suffer even the slightest bit of criticism to keep them in line, then what kind of democracy can we claim to live in? What kind of power does your vote have when your only two choices are extraordinarily unpopular candidates selected by the least moderate elements of each party and all other voices are silenced?