In the 2012 presidential election, my running mate and I were arrested, handcuffed, taken to an undisclosed site, and tightly cuffed to metal chairs for seven hours for attempting to enter a college campus in order to listen to a debate from which I had been excluded. In 2016, outrage at the political establishment is boiling over. And the sham general election debates have become a symbol of what people are upset about.
Americans are clamoring for big change. Majorities express record high levels of disgust and distrust for the presumptive nominees of the big corporate parties. Moreover, a recent CNN poll showed that the majority of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE supporters back her mainly because they dislike Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE. And Trump supporters are mainly voting for him because they don’t like Clinton.
What’s wrong with this picture? Democracy does not consist of what we don’t want. It’s powered by what we do want. Without the moral compass of our affirmative values, we are lost at sea. That compass won’t be found in a race to the bottom between greater and lesser evils. It will come from an inclusive, open dialogue free from the corrupting influence of big corporate money, as Bernie SandersBernie SandersRestless progressives eye 2024 Key senators to watch on Democrats' social spending bill Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan MORE exemplified in the Democratic primary debates.
Polls show that 50% of Americans do not identify as either Democrat or Republican. 60% say the establishment parties are doing such a poor job of representing them we need a new major party. All this means that the Presidential debates restricted to the two presumptive nominees will silence the voices, views and values of at least half of all Americans. This is not what Democracy looks like.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which runs these productions, may sound like an impartial, public-interest institution. It’s actually a private corporation run by the Democratic and Republican parties, dedicated to the elimination of electoral competition. When the two establishment parties took over the debates in 1989, the League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship, saying the ''unprecedented control'' demanded by the Democratic and Republican Parties would turn the debates into ''campaign-trail charades,'' perpetrating ''fraud on the American voter.''
Restricting debates to the political establishment ensures that the corporate sponsors of both parties – Wall Street, fossil fuels, insurance companies, big pharma and war profiteers – will be the real winners of any debate.
The need for ''more voices and choices'' can be met by including all candidates who are on the ballot for a majority of voters, representing a potential majority of electoral college votes. This rule would typically give us debates with 4 to 6 candidates in total.
It’s no surprise voters are clamoring for more options. While the Democratic and Republican candidates generally differ on social issues, they have been aligned for decades in their support for predatory Wall Street banks, corporate trade agreements that send our jobs overseas, endless expanding war, deadly inaction on climate change, abusive student loans, high stakes testing, school privatization, austerity budgets, the destruction of social safety nets, and tax favors for the wealthy.
Open debates will allow the American people to hear real solutions from candidates and parties that are not sponsored by the economic elite – like an emergency Green New Deal to put America back to work greening the economy, averting catastrophic climate change, and making wars for oil obsolete; canceling student debt and making public higher education free; improved Medicare for All; a welcoming path to citizenship; an end to police violence, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration; and a foreign policy based on international law and human rights.
Opening the debates should be part of a broader reform that replaces the private, partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. When the CPD seized control of our national debates, it not only took charge of who gets to debate, but also who sits in the audience, who moderates, and what press is allowed access. Thus today’s sham debates have been engineered to drum up support for the bipartisan corporate agenda, and suppress all traces of alternatives. It’s time for a new non-partisan Commission that transforms these spectacles into real debates that engage and inform voters as the true engine of democracy.
If protest is needed this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself in ample good company demanding we transform this mockery of democracy into the enlightening, empowering debates that are critical to our future. You can sign a petition for inclusive debates here.
Stein is a Green Party candidate for president.