January 27, 2020

Ghosts at the presidential debates

Like many others who watched the presidential town hall in St. Louis, I loved how it revealed Donald Trump’s character, and I wanted to take a shower when it was over. I also wondered whether some structural reform could make these debates more useful to voters who view both candidates so unfavorably, which is most voters.  

Imagine, for example, if Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein had been at the town hall, too. Would the discussion have been better or worse? Could Johnson or Stein have emerged as plausible competitors for the prize? Or would enough undecided or frustrated voters who’d never seen or heard of them before vote for one of them instead of Clinton to throw the election to Trump, or instead of Trump to elect Clinton?

We’ll never know. Even though the Libertarian and Green candidates are on enough state ballots to hypothetically win 270 electoral votes, Johnson and Stein were ghosts in St. Louis because they didn’t meet the Commission on Presidential Debates’ 15% polling threshold. But if a long shot “>barred reporters from entering his rallies or “>rates reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars – 40 times the usual cost – for 30-second spots.

If the Commission’s 15% rule (first laid down by the sainted League in 1980) is engineered to protect the parties’ duopoly, what fairer bar should an independent candidate have to clear to get on the debate stage? The suit suggests that being on enough ballots to win 270 electoral votes should be enough. Really? Spoiler alert: If that had been the rule in 1992, there would have been five candidates in the general election debates; in 1996, six; in 2000, seven; in 2004, six; in 2008, six. The solution is worse than the problem it’s supposed to solve.

 The Constitution says nothing about political parties, and the glories of the venerable two-party system we congratulate ourselves on turn out to include dysfunction, bitterness and a people aching for alternatives. The public didn’t make this system; neither did the Congress, the courts or the Founders.  It may or may not be illegal for the two major parties and their corporate partners to operate like a cartel, but it’s clearly not accountable to anyone but their two candidates and the Commission’s board.

 America doesn’t have a parliamentary system, and multi-party campaigns and coalition governance isn’t in our democratic DNA. If we don’t figure out how to empower independent and grassroots political movements without succumbing to the mischief of factions that Madison feared (hello, Breitbart Party), it’s unlikely that the playing field of the next quadrennial spectacle will be any less tilted toward the power elite and oligarchs than the sorry one we have now.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.