Drop The Hammer (But Not On Your Toe)

So, I signed a petition last month to support the Fair Debate lawsuit that the Our America Initiative is bringing to try and crack open the stranglehold the Commission on Presidential Debates has on the presidential debates- they're taking a somewhat unusual tack this time and filing an anti-trust lawsuit and they did raise more the $100k to support their legal efforts. Thing is, I'm just not sure that opening the debates is going to be the cure all the outside parties think it is.

Don't get me wrong: I hate the two party system and I'm pretty sure a lot of the rest of the country isn't exactly enthused by our lack of choices at the ballot box, it's just that the effort to break the system faces three distinct problems: a chicken vs egg problem, history and the structure of our political system.

The chicken vs egg thing is a common response I've seen on Facebook whenever people bring up Fair Debates. "They don't get airtime because their views aren't popular" is the usual refrain, which brings up the next question: how do candidates from outside the two parties get their views heard? Which comes first- do the views have to be listened to in order to get the coverage or does the coverage and exposure bring the views into the mainstream? I'm honestly not sure. This is where I think the Fair Debate Lawsuit probably stands on interesting ground, because by being controlled by the two parties and not the government, the CPD can decide who is and isn't invited into their debates and surprise, surprise, they never seem to include anyone from outside the Republican and Democratic Parties- so it really does seem like an effort to crowd out the competition.

The debates along with various ballot access restrictions and hurdles that other parties have to clear do represent an effort to crowd out the competition. If the playing field is level, then yes, I can go back to the core of the 'chicken v egg' refrain and argue about non-mainstream views not receiving coverage because they're so far outside the box. But nugget of cold hard truth at the center of this lawsuit is that the playing field is not level and other parties are denied a chance to even play the game.

To me, debate standards should be set by the Federal Election Commission and not a private corporation/entity.* However, that's not to say that I don't think that there should be standards. Any random other party shouldn't get a seat at the table- I think this:

1. If you're on the ballot in all 50 states, then you can go to the first debate.

2. If after the first debate, you break 5%, you get an invite to debate #2.

3. If after the second debate, you break 15%, you get an invite to debate #3.

(I also think it'd be fair to say that if you're on the ballot in enough states to get to 270 electoral votes, then that could be a fair standard as well, but if you're also organized enough to get on the ballot in all 50 states, that speaks to at least a baseline of national support across the country. You should get a voice, in my opinion- ballot access laws are a whole other post, though.)

So, I come down on the side of 'egg' in this, I guess. Without access, you can't put your views up next to the Big 2 parties to see if people care or not. Access gets you exposure and the Presidential Debates are absolutely a free media gift that the two parties don't need but outside parties do.**

Where it all goes wrong is at my second point: history. America has always tended toward a political binary in our history- and if one party withers away something else usually rises up to replace it as this excellent chart from XKCD illustrates beautifully. (So want this for a wall somewhere.) As a country, we haven't tended toward regionalism in a way that's translated to our party politics- at least not yet- and shifts in ideology and factional fights that in other countries would lead to party splits and the formation of new parties tend to just push the Big 2 one way or the other along the ideological spectrum- which brings me to my third point:

The structure of the system. The single member district, first-past-the-post system (which is a nerdy polisci way of saying, one member per Congressional district, person with the most votes wins) tends to produce a lower number of parties than say, a proportional representation system or a mixed system. It's not guaranteed to be two parties in any way, shape or form. It just usually shakes out that way. But other democracies with our system either have medium sized parties (like the NDP in Canada or the Lib Dems in the UK) or regional ones (like the DUP/PC/SNP in the UK or the PQ in Canada) that provide voters a clear alternative if they need it- and news flash, I think the American system desperately needs some kind of pressure valve. A medium sized third party with mainstreamish appeal and a broad geographical base- a party where the sensible moderates can defect too if/when the Big 2 get too ideologically crazy as they are now.

Right now, the biggest problem, at least to me is that there's no impetus to accomplish anything. If Republicans are in power, Democrats can wait around for the inevitable bus crash that will happen at some point and take advantage. They know the pendulum is going to swing the other way at some point. They just have to wait.

But what if they didn't have to wait? What if they actually had to work for it a little and get some shit done because the pendulum might not swing back to you automatically. It can swing over here to point C. I feel like the system needs another voice if for no other reason than to provide a credible alternative for voters disgusted with the Big 2 parties a home.

I think this antitrust lawsuit is interesting enough that it might well go some place- for the sake of our democracy, I sure hope it does. But even if the outside parties get everything they hope for, including access to the debates, that's only the first step. With the free media exposure they crave that means their ideas are going to have to stand up to the mainstream of the electorate- so they may well succeed in dropping the hammer on the Big 2 parties. Unfortunately, they may well end up dropping the hammer on their own toe in the process.***

*Whoever sets debate standards should be accountable to somebody, preferably the voters. And yes, I believe there should be some standards for outside parties to clear. I don't think the Make Marijuana Legal Party that's on the ballot in like 10 states should get a seat at the table, whereas the Libertarians and Greens who are on the ballot in close to 50 states should. 

**And goodness me, wouldn't the debates last time have benefited from a third candidate up there? Even a fourth? Anybody else? I think so. 

***I honestly don't know how/if/when another party can emerge in the current system. Lowering barriers to entry is a great first step, but it's not the only step you need to take. The hard work begins after you get to invited to play and getting the invite isn't the golden ticket. We tend to shy away from regionalism in this country except in the most quirky, off the grid ways (see: the State of Jefferson, Cascadia, etc) so I'm not sure if a regional model or a state by state model would be the way to go. For sure- unlike, say Iowa's Green Party, if you're gonna do it then you gotta show up EVERY DAMN TIME.


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