Intoxicating the Voter 

Two-party debate system keeps electorate in the dark.

Politics and beer. Beer and politics. The message is in the beverage. In fact, a major brewery has been a primary sponsor of the presidential debates for the last four presidential elections. Thus, if you watch the debates conducted by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), it should come as no surprise that the debates share some of the characteristics of the sponsor's advertisements.

No one ever consumes a beer in a beer commercial. Presumably, there are good intentions behind this rule. The most important being the avoidance of the perception that beer companies actually support drinking. It would be quite a PR hit if they appeared to be supporting abuse of a product that can cause negative effects such as alcoholism, DUI, liver disease, and death. The preferred message is that beautiful women and muscle-bound men are attracted to people who purchase beer.

The CPD, like its beer-hawking sponsor, has an interest in hiding the negative sides of its product from consumers. The CPD sells candidates and, to a lesser extent, their ideas to the American voting public. The founders, co-chairmen, and board of the CPD are Republicans and Democrats, so naturally they exclude third parties and limit probing questions and extended discussion on any issue. It would be a travesty for Republicans and Democrats to give anything other than prefabricated talking points. What if some brazen third-party candidate tried to debate them without the assistance of a teleprompter? How could they sustain such a monumental PR hit?

Fortunately for the Republicans and Democrats, they won't have to face such horrific circumstances. Their organization sets the rules for inclusion in the debates, making it all but impossible for third-party candidates to qualify. They also negotiate a contract, which dictates who will be asking the questions and what type of questions can be asked. The contract sets out ground rules for the candidates, such as forbidding the candidates from asking one another questions. All this is done in the interest of "educating the voting public" and "narrowing the issues" — presumably to fit in more beer commercials.

If this sounds undemocratic, others share that sentiment. The League of Women Voters, host of the presidential debates prior to 1987, withdrew its sponsorship from the debates "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 answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

After the league withdrew, the Democrats and Republicans simply created their own debate organization, the CPD, disguising it as a nonprofit and "nonpartisan."

The warnings of the League of Women Voters are proving particularly prophetic in this presidential election. The U.S. is stuck in a multi-trillion-dollar quagmire in Iraq. The civil rights of Americans are eroding. Wall Street is collapsing, and health care is failing. Yet the Democrat and Republican solutions to these problems are virtually indistinguishable. There are rumors of alternatives floating around, but these are almost exclusively limited to the Internet. Ralph Nader and Bob Barr meet all but one of the criteria for inclusion in the debates and have views substantially different from the major-party candidates, but they are excluded.

It is obvious that the Democrats and Republicans are mutually responsible for the problems facing the U.S. today. What other parties have controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency for over 100 years?

Despite this, the American voters continue to buy into the tired rhetoric created by Republicans and Democrats and perpetuated by the national media that accuses third parties of being "spoilers." It is as if the American public is voting under the influence — but of what? Perhaps the suds-soaked message of the CPD debates.

For those who believe in the concept of an informed, participatory democracy, the message is clear: "Crack open a cold beverage. It's going to be a long night."

Parker Dixon, a recent graduate of Mississippi College School of Law, helped arrange independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader's recent visit to Memphis.

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