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Not Allowed to Debate? Now You Know How Third Parties Feel!

by Jay Stooksberry, published

Carly Fiorina and her supporters raised a fuss over her recent debate snub in New Hampshire. The dissatisfaction of her followers inspired the #LetCarlyDebate hashtag, making the case that their candidate was being cheated out of an opportunity for her voice to be heard.

Wait. Do you hear something? If you listen closely enough, you can hear Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Gary Johnson, Rocky Anderson, Jill Stein, Bob Barr, and every prominent third party candidate of the last two decades collectively rolling their eyes right now.

The reason? Mainstream political figures are finally getting a taste of their own medicine. These very same people have either actively lobbied or passively accepted the status quo of an American political dialogue completely devoid of anything but the two-party duopoly. The sympathetic tears shed by the aforementioned alternative candidates — who have been systematically shunned by the political class for decades — can fill a thimble.

Ross Perot, the first wealthy tycoon to upend the electoral system before it was cool, inspired a form of bipartisanship that we have become all too familiar with in recent years. This isn’t the kind of bipartisanship that achieves meaningful reforms or passes landmark pieces of legislation; it’s the kind where Republicans and Democrats work together to maintain a false dichotomy of choice in American politics.

What makes this false dichotomy even more frustrating is that voters — despite their pleas for third party options -- keep going back and asking for seconds. Increasingly, American voters do not identify with either of the two major parties. In fact, party membership in each has rapidly diminished over the years.

But then primary season comes along. A new batch of divisive figures emerges. American voters are duped into thinking that they must engage in this process for fear of the “wrong person” rising to power. And to participate in most primaries, voters have to pick a side. In closed primaries, unaffiliated voters need not apply.

Meanwhile, there is an entire cast of characters presenting reforms, policies, and ideologies that offer something demonstrably different from the two-party narrative. Such individuals include Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.

And average American voters might find an ideological common ground with these candidates. Consider the following issues:

  • While Democrats and Republicans embrace the war on drugs, the American public has grown weary of excessiveness and abuse. According to Pew Research, two of three Americans favor treatment for drug abusers over imprisonment. And for the first time ever, a majority of Americans are in favor of the full legalization of marijuana.
  • Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who shed light on the NSA’s domestic surveillance and metadata collection programs, is an unpatriotic boogeyman who Democrats and Republicans alike want to prosecute. However, the majority of Americans disapprove of this program that Snowden illuminated. Furthermore, 74% of Americans believe that civil liberties — such as the right to privacy and due process — do not need to be sacrificed as a means to embolden security measures.
  • The United States outspends the next seven largest militaries, and maintains over 900 military bases located in 130 nations abroad. To even suggest a minor cut in this defense spending would marginalize most politicians, setting up a narrative of being “weak” for political rivals. However, a plurality of American voters agree that we spend too much on the military and defense. Even though a strong majority of Americans believe the world is less safe than it was before the 9/11 attacks, they also have grown skeptical of the effectiveness of invasive foreign policies, leading many to argue that our country should “mind its own business internationally.”

While the Democratic and Republican platforms are virtually identical on all of these issues, do you know which candidates are campaigning with stances on the drug war, domestic surveillance, our invasive foreign policy, and a myriad of other pertinent issues more closely aligned with the American public? Candidates like Stein and Johnson.

And guess how many nationally televised debates they will get to participate in? None.

In fact, both Stein and Johnson are in the midst of fighting this injustice right now. These two are a part of an anti-trust lawsuit directed against the Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization responsible for the fall debates. Conveniently, the CPD is also run by a board of directors comprised entirely of Democratic and Republican leadership. It is this group that established the polling requirements for candidates—the “15 percent rule”—to gain access to a national audience.

Stein and Johnson both meet the other COD requirements to debate, which include the legally qualifying to run for the office and ballot access to over 270 electoral votes. However, they fall short of the polling requirement because of the lack of mainstream coverage.

On top of the lawsuit, there are several efforts to bring this issue to light with the hope of galvanizing a public backlash against the CPD. The Change the Rule Initiative has gained momentum in addressing the need to scrap the 15 percent rule. The initiative is part of the organization Level the Playing Field, which is also currently suing the CPD.

If Carly Fiorina wants to get behind this movement to address the lack of ideological diversity during our nationally televised debates, she is more than welcome to join the cause. Until then, many of us who have been banging this same drum for years feel little to no sympathy for those who have become victims to the very same capricious rules their parties have created.

Maybe political karma does exist.

Photo Credit: Center for Strategic and International Studies / Flickr

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