Third-Parties and the Presidential Debates

The presidential debates in the United States have become a joke, or perhaps they were always a joke. I can’t remember the last time I actually learned anything about any candidate in a debate—at least not at the general election stage. (I’m not particularly interested in the primary debates, since I’m not a member of any party.) They always end up being a tedious litany of memorized lines and catch phrases. The formats are bland, strictly controlled, and designed to prevent the candidates from actually having to think on their feet and demonstrate leadership skill. The reason is simple: the Democratic and Republican parties, through their jointly-managed Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), manages the process for their own mutual benefit.

The duopoly also artificially limits participation by anybody other than the ordained Republican and Democratic party candidates. Obviously you can’t let everybody from every state ballot into the debates, but there’s no reason to exclude those candidates who have managed to make their way onto enough state ballots that they could theoretically attain the necessary 270 electoral votes and win election. In this election, that would include President Barack Obama (D) and former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA), as well Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Each has earned the right to participate.

Although the United States has long-since settled into a stable two-party system, and it will likely remain that way, there is no valid reason to exclude third-party participation in the presidential election process. Don’t forget that our two-party system doesn’t necessarily have to be ruled by the specific two parties we have today. It was once the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. The Democratic-Republicans gave way to the Democratic Party, and the Federalists gave way to the Whigs and then to the Republicans. Republicans and Democrats have since been seriously challenged by third-parties two times: the Progressive (or ‘Bull Moose’) Party under Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and the Ross Perot candidacy in 1992, which later morphed into the Reform Party.

Those challengers were unsuccessful and their parties soon died-out, but there is no reason that some future third-party—or even one of the few we have now—couldn’t eventually supplant the Republicans or Democrats (or both) if those parties continue to fail to adapt as the electorate changes. The presidential election process should not be manipulated so as to artificially prevent that from happening. We aren’t going to become a European-style multiparty system any time soon, but we have to allow for the natural progression of the two-party system we have. The Republican and Democratic parties should not be permitted to declare themselves the permanent national duopoly and exclude everybody else from any possible chance of succeeding them. That is anti-democratic, and un-American.

And if the third-parties are really as ‘fringe’ as the duopolists claim they are, then there is nothing to be afraid of. As President Woodrow Wilson (D) once said, “The wisest thing to do with a fool is encourage him to hire a hall and discourse to his fellow citizens. Nothing chills nonsense like exposure to air.”

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.