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Governor Johnson Must Be Included in All Presidential Debates

by Steve Peace, published

Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have faced increasing scrutiny over the undemocratic nature of their respective nomination rules.

Put simply, Americans are getting their first serious look at the immense power that has been granted to two private corporations to manipulate elections. But, if you think the primaries are subject to being rigged, wait until you get a closer look at the way this duopoly controls the general election.

The two parties have worked together for decades to erect multiple barriers against competition from either independent candidates or from alternative political parties.

They have been so successful that both academics and the media routinely, and inaccurately, refer to the American political process as "a two-party system."

The irony is that our country's founders rejected a parliamentary style of governance in the hopes of avoiding the formation of strong political factions altogether.

More than 200 years later, it is safe to say that the effort to avoid the "factionalism" of partisanship is failing. Few of us can imagine today that the original Constitution required that the second place finisher for president serve as vice president.

Nowhere is the behind-the-scenes collusion of the two parties more evident than in the total control that they exercise over the presidential debates. An organization called Level the Playing Field, led by Peter Ackerman, has led a relatively lonely but important fight in the courtroom against this duopolistic control over our public discourse.

Read More: It’s Time to End Two-Party Duopoly over Presidential Debates

The Commission on Presidential Debates is a bipartisan institution in the absolute worse sense of the word. Their bipartisan mission, of course, is to ensure that no candidate, other than the two selected through the private nominating processes of the Democratic and Republican parties, be allowed to access the debates.

This is an agenda the two parties could only have accomplished with the absolute complicity of the national media. The fundamental tool these establishment insiders use to maintain control is polling.

Pretty simple: set a threshold polling requirement (currently 15%) as a barrier to entry to debates and there is no way for any insurgent candidate to ever get sufficient exposure to mount a serious campaign. The same polling tactic is used to limit access to primary debates as well.

But, the maturation of social media and the increasingly insulated political class have combined in 2016 to upset the apple cart. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have both exploited this rogue medium to expose a "rigged system" to an alienated public itching for a fight.

Trump's apparent capture of the Republican nomination, in particular, has the talking-head crowd and the Republican country club set in a state of apoplexy.

It is this hysteria that is now producing a real -- if hypocritical -- crack in the duopoly.

The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens has publicly announced the paper's intention to do everything possible to ensure that Trump suffers a humiliating defeat. (Given that the last presidential candidate endorsed by the Journal was Herbert Hoover, this may be worth ignoring.)

But, even CNN is suddenly paying attention to the Libertarian convention held last week.

No media outlet can take more credit for creating the carnival environment that now is the American political scene than CNN. They pioneered the pursuit of the trivial at the expense of substance. Meaningless slips of the tongue and poor word choices were elevated to relevance by CNN and its progeny.

Just as importantly, once respectable newspapers, like the Washington Post and New York Times, joined the tabloid/cable obsession for sex, ratings, and clicks. Soon, we knew more about each candidate's bedroom positions than about any of their positions on issues.

It was Trump's combined understanding of the bankrupt morality of the American media and the power of social media that allowed him to exploit the media's consistent indifference to relevance or truth and fueled the reality star's meteoric sprint to the Republican nomination.

Too late to make a difference, many of the pontificating crowd have begun to understand that Trump baited them into becoming his agents of success. Rather than confess their culpability, CNN and others will now give unprecedented attention to the Libertarian Party. In their minds, it is the only possible path left that could diminish Donald Trump's chances of actually becoming president.

For the Wall Street Journal and many economic conservatives, more attention given to the Libertarians could deliver the humiliating Trump defeat necessary for the post-election purge they see as necessary to secure the Republican Party's future.

Neither of these are good reasons, of course, to finally allow a political party qualified in all 50 states to be included in presidential debates. The good reason is far more simple: it's the right thing to do.

But, if we leave it to CNN, Wall Street Journal, and clan, this will be a one-time event accompanied by no permanent reform.

Doing it right requires wresting control of the presidential debate commission away from the duopoly and transforming the "Bipartisan Commission" into a "Nonpartisan Commission." It wasn't long ago, as a matter of fact, that the League of Women Voters moderated the presidential debates but relinquished their role because it had:

 “...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 … the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” - Nancy M. Neuman, League of Women Voters president in 1988

Gary Johnson and his running-mate should be included in every debate. Period. Polling should be influenced by the debates, not the other way around.

But, we should do more. Reforming the presidential debate process, in the long term, is more important than the outcome of one election.

The Republican and Democratic parties are private corporations who have unique access to political power. They have used that power to make themselves the exclusive gatekeepers of our democracy. That exclusivity has insulated them against any possible competition. As a result, both have atrophied into empty election machines, with meaningful purpose becoming increasingly subservient to self-perpetuation.

Read More: Why Political Parties Control Elections

Debates produce competition. Competition will make our democracy stronger. It will make both Republicans and Democrats stronger.

The periodic threat from "third party" forces played an important role in America's first 150 years. The imperial duopoly was built in courtrooms, statehouses, and in the media with an embarrassing assist from an academic community apparently incapable of having more than two thoughts at once.

Reform often comes for all the wrong reasons. Those interested in the future should put aside philosophical differences over who should lead and focus instead upon how they are selected.

A unique set of circumstances and characters have unintentionally conspired to produce a "moment of attention" on our broken process. It will only be a moment. If we don't seize that moment to produce actual reform, the collaborators will inevitably revert to past practices.

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