On Oct. 3 the first of three presidential debates in the 2012 American election cycle aired internationally, and what a spectacle it was. Anyone watching could see how diametrically opposed the two candidates are, how vast and substantive the differences between them.
For instance: the Democrat wore a blue tie and the Republican wore red.
Discerning viewers probably noticed how often President Barack Obama said he and his opponent, Mitt Romney, agree on an issue. From taxes on corporations — both candidates think they should be lower, of course — to continuing America’s role as international police force — and how! — the two big-tent parties have similar policies more often than not.
But candidates who are aligned on most major issues do not make for interesting political theatre, especially when there are just two of them in the spotlight. So they paint themselves as polar opposites (he’s a tax-and-spend communist, while he’s an out-of-touch robot) and ignore important questions in favour of wedge issues and talking points.
In a system with only two viable candidates for president, this is the best Americans can hope for, right?
Well, not so much.
There are several other people running for president of the United States, some of whom will be on the ballot in most if not all states. The principal third-party candidates are Jill Stein of the Green Party, the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Despite the fact that none of these candidates will win this election, they should be included in the presidential debates.
Outside of political junkies and devoted members of the parties mentioned, few people even know who these candidates are or what they stand for. For example, I first heard of the Justice Party a few weeks ago, and I follow American politics closely enough for it to be detrimental to my mental health. And even though none of these people will be elected, they advocate policies and ideals that would enrich American political culture if given a larger audience.
Many political reporters in America, including some progressives, argue that having more than two candidates debate would allow the dominant candidates to dodge unpleasant questions, or would make the debate too confusing for viewers.
On the contrary, the inclusion of alternative perspectives would force important questions to the table, and would invite voters to think carefully about how the big-tent parties deal with contentious issues.
Whole swaths of domestic policy go undiscussed in American elections because the two major parties agree so entirely that it would be pointless to bring up things like the failed, expensive and ongoing drug war. Or the horrific system of mass incarceration that has attended the drug war, disrupting entire neighbourhoods by targeting mostly poor minority men and taking them out of both the workforce and their families’ lives.
The entire discussion about money in American politics has been distilled into a few trite talking points, like “my opponent has friends on Wall Street.” While true (of both candidates) that statement does nothing to actually explain the immeasurable damage done to American politics by candidates constantly currying favour with corporations and rich tycoons in order to out-earn the other party.
There is growing discontent with the way national politics are conducted in America, and some organizations are pushing for more inclusive discussion. Open Debates one of these organizations. It seeks to inform Americans about the closed nature of the presidential debates and to gain inclusion for alternate candidates.
In lieu of third-party candidates being included in the prime-time debates this year, National Public Radio hosted a debate between the Libertarian Party’s Johnson and the Green Party’s Stein, the two front-runners among the backbenchers. Additionally, Democracy Now! had Anderson of the Justice Party on with Stein while the first presidential debate happened. They listened to Obama and Romney answer moderator Jim Lehrer’s questions before adding their own responses.
Listening to these unofficial debates and what kinds of policy changes third-party candidates advocate is a lesson in just how narrowly focused American politics truly is, and how much it would benefit from including new views.
Illustration: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf