THE BLOG
08/31/2016 09:42 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

The Two-Party Hamster Wheel Makes a Mockery of Democracy: The Need for Expanded Electoral Options, Open Presidential Debates & Approval Voting

Current politics is not "Capitalist vs. Socialist," but rather, "Corporatist vs. the People"

A Republican delegate at the Cleveland Party Convention drew a contrast between Republicans and Democrats, describing "Capitalists" vs. "Socialists." In fact, it is the Corporatists vs. the People that have spawned the huge gulf of wealth disparity and the takedown of democracy. The two major U.S. political parties represent two aspects of the corporatist state. Whether Republicans or Democrats predominate, wealthy elites rule and the financial-medical-military-fossil-fuel-industrial complexes prevail, effectively defining down democracy, the middle class, education, health care - all in service of the huge upward transfer of wealth and power.

No surprise, a 2014 Princeton study attests to the U.S. transformation over several decades from a democracy into an oligarchy, with elites steering the direction of the country regardless of the will of the majority of voters. Researchers cite data since the 1980s demonstrating a trend toward substantial impacts on government policy by prevailing economic elites and business interests, while citizens/groups have had little or no influence.

The two major political parties reinforce establishment power, not power of the people

Each of the two major political parties holds as its primary purpose the perpetuation of its own power, enabled by endless campaign cash. The U.S. political system is largely unrepresentative of the electorate by design. Parties act to benefit themselves at the polls - e.g., supporting open primaries or closed primaries in different states, depending which enhances their control over elections. Manipulation of electoral districts and election laws by the parties are designed to tilt competition to one party or another, even as they override individual voting rights.

The two-party stranglehold places the country in a race to the bottom, serving interests of the wealthiest, betraying democracy and holding hostage the common good of the people. The "red vs. blue" narrative greatly restricts people's choices and limits dialogue around issues.

Following 16 years as an Oklahoma Republican congressman Rep. Mickey Edwards described the political parties as the "cancer at the heart of our democracy." He describes how parties so dominate the process that party leaders control who runs for office, what bills make it to the floor, selection of committee chairs and how lawmakers vote, all with an eye to perpetuating a party's power, rather than the interests of the electorate. Power of a political party reinforced by big money becomes more sacrosanct than democracy. Even choice of candidates is dictated by power and money that serves corporate/party goals. The singular goal, describes Edwards, is "to be true to my party" and "defeat the other party."

DNC Election Interventions

Even before hacked emails confirmed such intervention, it was no secret that the Democratic National Committee has often intervened on behalf of the party establishment's preferred candidate. The party actively promoted Hillary Clinton before the caucuses/primaries, even as two other candidates vied for the nomination, and a third person's attempted run was bulldozed.

Democratic presidential candidate and former governor of Maryland Martin O'Malley told the Democratic National Committee's 2015 annual summer meeting that the party's process for nominating a candidate for the 2016 presidential election was "rigged" in favor of Hillary Clinton. He noted the committee had scheduled just four debates before the first primary vote in Iowa, just six debates total, most scheduled opposite football games or during the Christmas holiday season when they were least likely to be viewed.

In November 2015 Lawrence Lessig abruptly ended his presidential bid when the Democratic Party changed the rules after he initially met their terms to participate in the Nov. 14 Iowa Democratic primary debate. Lessig achieved the party requisite one percent in three polls during the six weeks prior to the debate, only to have the Party move the goal posts, changing the qualifying deadline to the beginning of October. Consequently, Lessig was denied his chance to participate in any candidate debate, and to advance his single platform item - the Citizen Equality Act of 2017 designed to implement campaign finance reform, ban gerrymandering and expand voting access.

Coincidentally, then-governor and current VP candidate Tim Kaine was chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2010 when the DNC intervened in the Colorado Senate Primary (How the DNC Sandbagged the Colorado Senate Primary). President Obama assumed a prominent role in the Colorado state primary, with an immediate endorsement, money-raising, robo calls, mailers, TV spots, and the enlisting of cabinet members to campaign for the establishment's chosen candidate, Michael Bennet. The president's former campaign group Obama for America (OFA) transitioned from base of the Obama campaign to Organizing for America, described as an adjunct of the DNC. In Colorado DNC efforts more than doubled Bennet's $6 million campaign investment, giving him a 6:1 financial advantage over alternate candidate Andrew Romanoff. Then-state senator and Bennet supporter Chris Romer justified the Obama and DNC interventions, asserting that Obama would be more affected by the outcome of the election than Coloradans, and therefore, the White House had "every right" to get involved in the senate primary.

Washington Politics: "The art of posturing as a populist while catering to plutocrats"

In recent history, Republicans have largely represented the party of oligarchs, fundamentalist Christian nationalists and white male supremacists backed by a right-makes-right gun culture. Corporatists advance exclusionary policies that serve the few, while eschewing the common good and accelerating a race to the bottom for the many. The 2016 Republican presidential candidate can be viewed as the culmination of the Republican party's downward spiral to the lowest common denominator of incivility, racism, incoherence and demagoguery.

The Democratic party that once represented working people has over several decades become an echo of Republicans' corporatist narrative, and Democrats have been complicit in rigging the economy for those at the top while undermining the working class. The party has too often been AWOL as corporations pummeled trade unions, Wall St. gambling was unleashed by repeal of Glass-Steagall and rewarded by bailouts, as many lost homes to reckless bank speculation, and "free-trade" NAFTA-like deals increased trade deficits, exported jobs and transferred evermore power to corporate elites - much occurring during Bill Clinton's term. The 1994 crime bill, recently regretted by Bill Clinton, exploded the U.S. prison population to the largest worldwide, its mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses leading to disproportionate incarceration of minorities. The transfer of billions of dollars from public housing to the prison system in the '90s also contributed to an explosion of private for-profit prisons.

Democratic candidates often run as progressives and govern as corporatists.

Political posturing in 2008 saw primary candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each accusing the other of supporting NAFTA. Each vowed they would renegotiate or opt out of NAFTA, citing flaws with its labor and environmental provisions. Candidate Obama declared opposition to trade deals that "put the interests of multinational corporations ahead of interests of workers," and stated concern for protections for labor, environmental and consumer safety.

Fast forward to 2015 and President Obama has doubled down to promote the ultimate assault on democracy, jobs, food safety and national sovereignty - the corporate power grab known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty, also referred to as "NAFTA on steroids". Even as Pres. Obama campaigns for Hillary Clinton, effectively seeking a third term for himself, he blatantly promotes lame-duck passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So confident is party leadership that they do not have to pay heed to the people, that immediately after speaking at the Democratic Party Convention, Virginia Gov. Terry McAullife, expressed confidence that Clinton would reverse her position to support the TPP after the election.

Clinton reportedly garnered more than $2.5 million for speeches made to groups lobbying to fast track the TPP, and millions more speaking to corporations and special interests who were actively lobbying Congress. Hillary Clinton's State Department was reported to approve almost twice as many arms sales to nations as George W. Bush's State Department in his second term. Twenty of those nations, among them Middle Eastern nations including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, also contributed to the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton family.

Hillary delegates to the DNC rejected a platform plank opposing the TPP ostensibly because they did not want to "embarrass" President Obama. Convention attendees reported that one of the signs confiscated from delegates entering the convention read "no Oligarchs" - "Oligarchs" with a superimposed red circle & slash mark - because, one certainly wouldn't want to embarrass the oligarchs.

Bipartisan corporatists have required that health care reform be structured around for-profit health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The Affordable Care Act was modeled on a Republican plan for industry-centered health care reform. Serving industries' bottom line, bipartisan legislative efforts continue to make it illegal for Medicare to negotiate bulk drug rates, as the Veterans Administration has done for years.

Democratic leadership has too often been willing to deal away Medicare and Social Security as bargaining chips. In response to a manufactured deficit ceiling crisis in 2011, President Obama made deficit crisis a primary focus of his 2010 State of the Union address, subsequently offering a "grand bargain" of spending cuts (including Medicare and Social Security) at the expense of working people, while refusing to veto extension of Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1%.

Language of "entitlement" is manipulated to serve various political agendas. Health care, Social Security, Medicare and civil service pensions have been targeted as "entitlements" by Republicans and Democrats alike, though working people are financially invested in all of these.

Two-Party Control of Presidential Debates

Corporate media cover presidential elections like a 2-horse race, reinforcing the two-party stranglehold, while excluding independents and third parties. The two-party duopoly and their corporate backers ultimately determine which candidates will be included in presidential debates.

Associate professor of journalism and former TV journalist Jeff Cohen writes that "the standard that does justice to real democracy is that any candidate who is on enough ballots to achieve 270 electoral college votes should be included in the [presidential] debates." There are very few independent parties or candidates who make it onto enough ballots to achieve the potential of 270 electoral college votes. However, in 2016 he notes, there are four campaigns who have done so, including the Green and Libertarian candidates.

From 1976 through 1984, presidential and vice-presidential debates were sponsored and run by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. In 1980, the League insisted on allowing independent candidate John Anderson to debate. Ronald Reagan agreed, Jimmy Carter did not, so Reagan debated Anderson without Carter's participation.

In 1985 the national chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, signed an agreement designating that future televised presidential/vice presidential debates take place between the two major political parties - that such "joint appearances be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic Committees." In 1987 the two party chairs announced the formation of the "bipartisan" Commission on Presidential Debates, designed to advance the joint will of the two parties, with themselves as co-chairs.

Kirk and Fahrenkopf Jr. declared the newly formed commission would ''institutionalize'' the debates and strengthen the role of the two political parties in the electoral process. The New York Times quoted Fahrenkopf saying the CPD was "not likely to to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates." Mr. Kirk declared that third party candidates should be excluded, stating "As a party chairman, it's my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system."

In 1988 the League of Women Voters withdrew from its role as debate sponsor because demands of the two campaign organizations "would perpetuate a fraud on the American voter." The League declared the debates had become a charade "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 nearly three decades, the two CPD co-creators remain its co-chairs. Both have been long-time high-powered corporate lobbyists, engaging with corporations that have funded the commission, including oil and gas, insurance, pharmaceutical and Wall St.

Through seven presidential elections, major TV networks have bowed to the two-party hegemony that holds hostage the American people and maintains a vice-like grip on the electoral process and presidential debates. An obsequious media have abandoned their journalistic role, acceding to the major-party control of debates, including format, content, moderators, and efforts to freeze out independent and third-party candidates. Only in 1992 did the CPD allow participation by a person outside the two political parties. Billionaire Ross Perot was permitted on stage only because each of the two parties thought they would benefit in some way by his inclusion, at a time when Perot only had 7 to 9 percent support in the polls.

In 2000, majorities of the voting public expressed the will to see Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Nader included in a four-way presidential debate. Nevertheless, the CPD had erected a new barrier, specifying that to participate in the debates, a candidate had to be polling at 15 percent.

In 2016, the CPD has raised the bar yet again for participation by independent or third-party candidates, requiring that candidates poll at 15 percent in five national surveys (of the CPD's choosing) before the three scheduled debates, and that "they garner enough spots on state ballots to chart a path to the White House." The CPD purposefully creates an electoral Catch-22: If you can't get in the debates, you will not be a legitimate candidate; if you're not a legitimate candidate, you can't get into the debates. Another catch-22: Most polling outlets only focus on the 2 major parties.

Hofstra University, scheduled to host the first 2016 presidential debate, has been complicit with exclusionary policy of the Commision on Presidential Debates. In October 2012, Hofstra University President Rabinowitz's administration apparently ordered campus security guards to arrest Green Party's 2012 presidential candidate, Jill Stein and vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala when they attempted to enter the debate site - never mind the notion that U.S. university campuses are "free marketplaces for all ideas and viewpoints." Stein and Honkala were handcuffed and detained in a warehouse for 8 hours before being released.

Judge Rosemary Collyer dismissed a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the Libertarian and Green parties and their respective 2012 presidential nominees, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Dr. Jill Stein. The lawsuit argued that the Commission debates violated federal antitrust laws and the First Amendment by their failure to include third-party candidates; that independent and third-party candidates are excluded by imposing arbitrary polling criteria; and the possibility of additional nationally-televised debates being sponsored by anyone other than the CPD is eliminated by "agreements among the CPD and the two major party nominees forbidding participation in other debates or joint appearances."

Collyer judged antitrust law had no relevance to the situation, and that many of the ills the plaintiffs complained of were of their own making, not the debate commission. "Plaintiffs in this case have not alleged a non-speculative injury traceable to the Commission," wrote Collyer, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. "Plaintiffs' alleged injuries are wholly speculative and are dependent entirely on media coverage decisions. Furthermore, because the commission was a private institution and not a government body, the commission was not subject to First Amendment obligations and, therefore, could not violate the amendment."

Furthermore, she stated, the alleged injureds' "failure to receive media coverage and to garner votes, federal matching funds, and campaign contributions--were caused by the lack of popular support of the candidates and their parties sufficient to attract media attention....Plaintiffs have not alleged a concrete injury traceable to the Commission, and thus they lack standing," the judge added. A decision chock full of Catch 22s.

Media, Do Your Job!
Media has failed to do its job of fully informing and educating the public about election choices and issues. The media should step up and do its journalistic job, and cease acting as a subsidiary of the two-party system. Even some media figures are questioning the process in 2016 that has narrowed everyone's choice to the least of evils between the two most unpopular candidates in recent history. It is necessary to expand candidate choices and media has the ability to introduce more candidates to the electorate, and to reject the arbitrary constraints applied by the two major parties.

The Need to Open Up the Electoral Process with Approval Voting

Coloradoan Frank Atwood, a long-time advocate of Approval Voting, cites three necessities for opening up the electoral process:

1) Debate access
2) Approval voting and
3) Ballot access, including the need to address voter suppression laws and voting machine susceptibility to hacking.

By permitting affirmative votes for more than one candidate, Approval Voting would open up the electoral process for voters beyond the choice of least of evils, as well as bypassing the "spoiler" effect, where a vote for a preferred candidate risks electing the least preferred candidate. Voting for more than one candidate levels the field for candidates, provides more candidate choices, and a more accurate account of voters' candidate preferences, while opening up the electoral process to independent and third party candidates.

Atwood notes that Approval Voting, distinct from "ranked voting," permits a "yes" vote on as many candidates or options as appear on a ballot, and has been used in local elections. In 1990, Oregon used approval voting in a statewide advisory referendum on school financing, presenting voters with five different options and allowing them to vote for as many as they wished. Atwood's website ApprovalVotingUSA.org links to The Center for Election Science, which provides evaluation of various voting methods. Watch a short video that illustrates the concept of Approval Voting.

Atwood is currently working to introduce Approval Voting at state and local levels. He is conferring with the Colorado Secretary of State's office about proposed legislation that would set up instructions for optional use of Approval Voting by statutory municipalities and special districts, should they choose to use it.