Saturday, November 12, 2011

Presidential Debates: Fraud or Farce?

Technology Changes Political Campaigning.. Political debates became part of the American electoral process with the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. With the advent of television, the concept of debating between or among candidates became popular fare, wherein the American public could see and hear candidates. Prior to this, most voters were limited to newsreel cameos in the movie theaters, still pictures and articles in newspapers, and scattered radio addresses. A tiny sliver of the population were able to get a glimpse of candidates s they toured the country to campaign among the people.
First Televised Debates Determined Election Outcome . The first nationally-televised presidential debates were the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960. Kennedy's victory over Nixon in the election was attributed by pundits to the performance of the two candidates in the debates.
Debates Become Part of the Political Mainstream. In 1976, the non-partisan League of Women Voters became the official sponsor of the presidential debates. During this time, they hosted seven presidential debates. However, all of this was about to change.
Politics Rears Its Ugly Head. In 1988, the League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship of the presidential debates, as described in a press release, parts of which are cited below (emphasis is mine):
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship ... because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,"
"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," The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."
... 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" ... its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.”
Most objectionable ... were conditions … that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings ...” which included “... demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.”
"The campaigns' agreement is a closed-door masterpiece," . "Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates' organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands."
The League contended that the debates could not serve the national interests because the two major party's demands turned the debates into staged and scripted performances.
The Duopoly Dominates the Debates. Their coup complete, the two dominant parties coalesced on the formation of a bi-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to plan and control all “debates” from that time to the present. The duopoly now owns, operates, and dictates almost every detail of the events. They meet secretly, develop their strategy in private, and make their plans known only to the two controlling parties. Rarely, if ever, are these plans made public, other than dates, locations,and general subjects to be covered. On top of all that, the Commission is accountable only to the political duopoly and has no obligation whatsoever to the electorate it.seeks to influence.
Changing the Rules to Eliminate Competition.  It is intuitively obvious that the “debates” provide much-desired exposure to candidates, and that it is virtually impossible for anyone to be elected to the presidency without being included in them. However, the CPD sets the rules for who can and who cannot participate in the “debates” and have changed the rules over time to virtually exclude any third-party candidates who might represent a threat to their stranglehold on our government. For example, after Ross Perot qualified in 1992, the CPD raised the requirement for participation from a 5% poll rating in a specific group of polls to 15%, thereby excluding Perot, and depriving the people of exposure to ideas outside the traditional thinking of our political duopoly.
A Lack of Ideas Is a Lack of Options. Voices that can't be heard are voices of democracy lost. Without them, we will never break the stranglehold of our two-party elite. The 15% threshold is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, obstacle to having a truly democratic election of a president. A full 76 percent of registered voters supported Ross Perot’s inclusion in the 1996 debates, and 64 percent wanted Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan included in the 2000 presidential debates. They all were excluded from the debates by the duopoly-controlled CPD. (So much for the will of the people in what is supposed to be a democratic society.)  Yet, many of the rights and privileges we enjoy today came about from third-party sources: the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, child labor laws, public schools, direct election of senators, paid vacations, unemployment compensation, social security, and the formation of labor unions, and the right to collective bargaining.
The Duopoly's Double Standard. When it comes to primary elections, however, there seems to be no minimum barrier, and several candidates who have participated in this year's events have had ratings as low as 1%. This smacks of a double standard – one for candidates within the dominating parties and another for independent or third-party candidates .This appear to be just another of many very undemocratic policies.
From Debate to Debacle. Under the CPD, the debates have degenerated from an intelligent and informative discourse on issues affecting the country to being political infomercials to showcase the two parties and their platforms through their candidates. Candidates are depicted and judged in these “debates” more based upon personality and popularity, than on issues of substance.
Value of Televised Debates. True presidential debates that are televised for the public to view are arguably the most influential forum for voters. They can offer viewers the opportunity to assess each candidate's position on various issues, side by side with opposing views. However, instead of promoting an intelligent discussion, the CPD produces only sound bites, rather than any true information, by severely limiting the time of the candidates.  The candidates may complain about the time limitations, but it is their party who established all the rules.
Debates Can Make or Break a Candidate. In this year's events, we have already seen that happen with several candidates. Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, both of whom were doing well at one point in the campaign, are no longer in the campaign, mostly due to gaffes, some of which have occurred during the "debates." The other candidates have seen their fortunes rise and fall at the whim of the debate viewers (although Herman Cain had other problems as well. All of the five candidates above have been both at the top and at the bottom of the polls, largely based upon their performance in the debates.   Nowhere has the benefit of debates been  more dramatic than in the 1998 election for governor of Minnesota. As a Reform Party candidate, Jesse Ventura's poll numbers were around 10 % leading up to five televised debates. During the course of the debates, his numbers rose and he eventually won the election. Without the debates, he probably would never have had a chance to be elected.
The Stark Reality. As I see matters, these are the seven foremost issues that need to be addressed:
  1. restoring our economy;
  2. creating jobs for the unemployed, the under-employed, and the returning military;
  3. stopping home foreclosures, with equitable measures for resolving outstanding debt;
  4. getting money out of politics through public campaign financing for all federal elections;
  5. getting large corporations and the wealthy to pay a more equitable share of the tax burden;
  6. implementing and enforcing controls on large financial institutions, including Wall Street;
  7. getting Congress to represent the people's interests, instead of big-money interests.
Compared to these issues, the item of presidential debates ranks fairly low on the scale of importance. However, it is just further evidence that we need to do something to break up this political duopoly that has virtually total control over our daily lives and our futures. In accomplishing the seven items above, we will go a long way toward restoring democracy that can and should lead to a reformation of our political systems, how elections are to be conducted in a fair and democratic manner. 
Coming Up:

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