DEBATING DEBATES-Before the face-off between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, many were pleading for Lester Holt (above left), the NBC anchor and moderator Monday night, to be a “fact checker.”
Any delusions in that regard should have been dashed right away as he perpetrated a root falsehood at the very start of the event.
Holt claimed that the event was “sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. The commission drafted tonight’s format, and the rules have been agreed to by the campaigns.”
While the CPD certainly controls much of the event, it’s not a “nonpartisan” organization at all. It’s about as far from nonpartisan as you can get. It’s totally bipartisan. It’s a creation of the Democratic and Republican parties designed to solidify their dominance over the public.
Its origins are in an agreement “Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances” from 1985 signed by Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., then Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Paul G. Kirk Jr., then Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The two would go on to head the CPD.
But that original agreement didn’t even have the word “debates” in it. This commission is the mechanism by which the Democratic and Republican parties came together to push aside the League of Women Voters, which had organized presidential debates before 1988. It was to make sure that the campaigns, not some independent entity, would decide on moderators, on formats—and to critically exclude other participants unless both sides agreed. They simply wanted to ensure “televised joint appearances”—which became emblematic of a pretense of democratic discourse.
Holt’s fabrication—he can’t possibly be ignorant of this—is really a root problem of our politics. All the lies and spin from Clinton and Trump largely manifest themselves because each side excuses them because “the other” is worse. That is, the very “bipartisan” structure of our elections is in large part responsible for the dynamics we’re seeing.
Normally decent people ignore all of Clinton’s deceptions because they loathe Trump, and normally decent people excuse Trump’s fabrications because they detest Clinton. That’s why candidates with incredibly high unfavorability ratings—as Clinton and Trump famously have—may still have millions voting for them, like two crumbling buildings helped up by each other.
And the voters have “nowhere else to go” because they are in effect held prisoners by fear. Millions of people who might agree with other candidates—Jill Stein of the Green Party or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or the Constitution Party or socialist parties—do not actually coalesce around those candidates because they fear helping Trump or Clinton. This mindset probably prevents stronger challengers to the duopoly from ever coming forward in the first place.
There are two ways out of this that I see:
Pollsters can find ways of finding out what the public actually wants. That is, every tracking poll today has the same format—some minor variation of “if the next election for president were held today, with Donald Trump as the Republican candidate, Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate, Gary Johnson the Libertarian candidate, and Jill Stein the Green Party candidate, for whom would you vote?” (NBC / Wall Street Journal)
What pollsters are not doing is asking people who they actually want to be president. That is, there are lots of people who want Johnson or Stein, but feel like they have to vote for Clinton or Trump to stop the other. So while media outlets claim that Gary Johnson is at 8 percent in “the polls” and Jill Stein is at 3 percent in the “opinion polls”—that’s not accurate. They are not opinion polls. Polls are not gauging the actual views and beliefs of the public. They are ostensibly predicting a future event. But they are molding that reality as we go along. Most brazenly because the CPD has set 15 percent in these polls as the criteria for exclusion.
USA Today, in a refreshing departure from usual polling, recently found that 76 percent of the public want Stein and Johnson in the debates. And here’s the kicker: When reformers suggested that someone should be included in the debates if a majority wanted them in, the heads of the commission rejected the effort. Paul Kirk, now co-chairman emeritus of the CPD, said: “It’s a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States.” But that’s the problem: The polls the CPD is relying on don’t actually ask the public who they prefer to be president. We could have a “third party” candidate with plurality support and we wouldn’t know it because the question to gauge that isn’t asked of the public.
Obvious recommendation: Pollsters should actually have an interest in the opinions of the public and ask them who they prefer to be president.
Voters Can Unite
The other way out of this seemingly perpetual duopoly bind is that voters come together. That’s what I outline at VotePact.org: People who feel compelled to vote for Clinton because they detest Trump can team up with their opposite number. This requires real work. Instead of stopping Trump by voting for Clinton, a progressive can stop Trump by taking a vote away from him.
That is, instead of a husband and wife who are actually unhappy with both Clinton and Trump casting votes that in effect cancel out each other—one voting for Trump and the other for Clinton—they can both vote for candidates they actually prefer. Each would be free to vote their preference—Johnson, Stein, whoever.
The progressive would undermine Trump not by voting for a candidate they don’t trust—Clinton—but more skillfully: by taking a vote away from Trump. The conservative would not feel they have to suffer the indignity of voting for a candidate that’s distasteful—Trump. They would instead succeed in depriving Clinton of a vote.
It’s that kind of outside-the-box thinking that’s going to get us out of the binds that the ever-duplicitous duopoly attempt to impose on the citizenry.
(Sam Husseini is founder of VotePact.org. This piece first appeared in TruthDig. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.