Donkey and Elephant, Make Room
America’s political polarization is on track to get worse, not better. Polarization will persist and progress as long as the Republican party and the Democratic party are the only significant political parties. These two parties have worked to prevent the rise of third and fourth parties through their control of the televised Presidential Debates. Unless other parties are allowed to participate in the Presidential Debates, America will continue to polarize around two ideologically opposed extremes.
Until 1984, the Presidential Debates were organized and managed by the League of Women Voters. The League oversaw the very first televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy, the debate whose victor depended on the medium- Nixon won on the radio, Kennedy won on the television. Republicans and Democrats were quick to realize that whoever had more control of the debates would be more likely to win, so they immediately began lobbying the League of Women Voters to grant more and more concessions- the two major parties wanted to pick who asked the debate questions, they wanted to pick the audience members, they wanted to pick which journalists could attend. When the League formally withdrew its support from the debates, they issued this damning press release:
“The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential 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.”
In the wake of the League’s withdrawal, the two major parties swooped in on the debates like a pair of circling vultures. The congressional Commission on National Elections (run by elected Republicans and Democrats) recommended that the two major parties control the debates. The two major parties graciously excepted the recommendation. Since 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates has controlled the debates, and the Commission is co-chaired by the former head of the Republican National Party and Dorothy S. Ridings, the last survivor of the Leage of Women Voters. The Commission excludes all other independent parties with a 15% national-polling threshold. A less desireable state of affairs for the integrity and growth of American democracy is difficult to fathom. The status quo is stagnant.
The Commission on Presidential Debates’ Board of Directors reveals that the commission is heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. Here is a list of the directors and their key career positions:
1. Howard G. Buffett: Son of Warren Buffet, who has made a career of sitting on executive boards, including the boards of Coca Cola, ConAgra Foods, and Berkshire Hathaway.
2. John C. Danforth- former Republican senator for Missouri.
3. Charles Gibson- former host of “Good Morning America.”
4. John Griffen- lawyer and business consultant, sits on board of Allen and Company.
5. Jane Harman- former Democratic representative of California 36th congressional district.
6. Antonia Hernandez- CEO of California Community Foundation.
7. Reverend John I. Jenkins- President of Notre Dame College.
8. Jim Lehrer- former anchor of CBS Newshour.
9. Michael D. McCurry- former press secretary for Bill Clinton.
10. Newton N. Minow- former FCC chairman, currently ninety-one years old.
11. Richard D. Parsons- former CEO of Time Warner and Citigroup.
12. Olympia Snowe- former Republican senator from Maine.
13. Janet H. Brown (Executive Director)- former staffer for John C. Danforth, former staffer for Ronald Reagan. She has been executive director since 1987. Her Wikipedia page is almost blank. In a New York Times article which revealed practically nothing of substance about her, Janet Brown made only one comment that revealed her philosophy on the debates:
“I look at old debates quite a bit. I was looking at some footage of the 1960 debates the other day and the sheer difference in image on screen between that time and now is remarkable. Part of it was black-and-white versus color, but also the staging and the way it was shot. It’s impossible to say what anybody takes away from an image, but if someone is looking at debates on a high-definition, big-screen television, then it is a more intimate experience than ever would have been possible in the past.”
Thanks for the intensive research, Executive Director. Janet Brown is clearly far more interested in making the debates more of a spectacle, more of an “intimate” experience, than she is in improving their educational quality. Debates aren’t about getting “intimate.” They’re about getting information. Why does the executive director think super-high definition images of Donald Trump’s fake hair follicles or Hillary Clinton’s false smiles is an improvement worth lauding, even as she has presided over the utter collapse in debate quality?
Debates can be a marvelous way to learn about a presidential candidate. Under pressure, without aides, without teleprompters, without press agents and public relations counsels whispering in their ears, the candidate is alone, armored only with their own intellect, their own arguments and expertise. Like a lawyer, the candidate must make the case for his candidacy while also rebutting and criticising the opponent.
The only real formal debates occurred between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. The two would-be-senators debated each other seven times- and these were true debates. No moderator. The first man spoke for one hour without interruption. Then his opponent spoke for ninety minutes (sixty minutes to make his case, thirty minutes to rebut the first speaker), and finally the first speaker offered his rebuttal in thirty minutes. Each debate was at least three hours of straight talking. Argument, argument, rebuttal, rebuttal. Over the course of all three 2016 Presidential Debates, Donald Trump spoke for a grand total of 115 minutes and Hillary Clinton spoke for a grand total of 101 minutes. Combined, they spoke for a little over three hours in debate context. Lincoln and Douglass spoke in a debate context for a total of nine hours each in a Senate race.
America has become a giant stadium in which only two teams play. The Elephants and the Donkeys, the red and the blue. Their rivalry is ancient and bitter. Their supporters in the stands hate each other with enmity and memory older than their own lives, because the battle is their father’s battle, it’s their mother’s battle, and one day it will be their children’s battle. As the teams battle on the field, the fans battle in the stands. Every election is a derby, a vicious cross-town rivalry- A Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals, Michigan vs. Ohio State, Yankees vs. Red Sox. If only every game were not between such bitter rivals, we might have good sport. Fair play. Moments of power and brilliance. But bitter rivals seldom play by the rules, are seldom honorable to each other, and are often violent.
America is more bitterly divided than it has been for decades. The division is political- right versus left. America needs more political parties on the scene to diffuse this tension. The televised presidential debates offer the perfect showcase for independent parties to make their case to America. It’s time the Donkey and the Elephant made room.