Will Debates Inject Ideas Into Election Coverage? That’s Debatable

After weeks of watching media rehash Clinton and Trump campaign talking points of the day, Americans can be forgiven for wanting to see some ideas injected into coverage of the presidential election. For some, debates are a natural opportunity to possibly pull candidates off script, force them to answer questions they didn’t write themselves. But, activists are saying, debates that include only the two major party candidates are far less likely to do that.

As FAIR founder Jeff Cohen notes in a recent column, the Commission for Presidential Debates that runs the show, though sometimes mistakenly described as “nonpartisan,” is in fact vehemently bipartisan — really a sort of corporation run by the two major parties, and funded by powerful interests like oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and finance. CPD rules, Cohen says, don’t aim so much at eliminating “nonviable” candidates as preventing outsiders from ever becoming viable.

In charge of debates since the 1980s, the CPD makes no bones about its intent to use its role to secure a Republican/Democrat duopoly. So much so that when they took over fully in 1988, the League of Women Voters, which had been running debates, pulled its sponsorship, saying, “The demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”

Describing the deal that party chairs Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk had worked out as a “closed-door masterpiece,” League President Nancy Neuman said,

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 honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

Contrast that statement with that of Paul Kirk, now CPD chairman emeritus. Asked about broadening debates beyond the two major party candidates — to include, perhaps, Green Party’s Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson, who will be on the ballot in nearly every state — Kirk scoffed, “It’s a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States.”

Just recently, the Commission announced that the threshold for inclusion is based on public opinion — that’s to say, public opinion polls. Candidates must get 15 percent in polls conducted by five national organizations the group names. But there again, as journalist and activist Sam Husseini pointed out, the polls themselves have a way of tamping down interest in independent and third-party candidates.

The question they ask is generally a variant of “if the election were held today, for whom would you vote?” — which is subtly, but importantly, different from asking people open-endedly who they want to be president. As it is, these polls sort of replicate the bind the voter is already in — especially at a time when record high numbers of people call themselves “independents,” and in a race in which many voters’ main reason for supporting one major party candidate is that they are not the other.

Of course, debates are only as enlightening as the questions — and the follow-ups to those questions — from moderators. And who will those be? That, too, is for the CPD for decide. An August 24 op-ed in the Washington Post, from Fusion’s Alexis Madrigal and Dodai Stewart, notes that in 2012, all four moderators were white people over 55, and, well, that just isn’t what America looks like.

“Young adults between 18 and 33 are the most racially diverse generation in American history,” they write:

Forty-three percent are non-white. Large numbers…date outside their race. They believe in a gender spectrum. About 68 percent of those young, non-white people believe government should provide healthcare for all.

Young people are also less likely to vote. “Could it be because they don’t see themselves as important to the electoral process? Could it be because they’re not included in the important conversations?”

Opening up presidential debates is by no means a solution to an electoral process that leaves many people feeling frustrated, angry and voiceless. Keeping those debates narrow and insular — and then pretending they reflected public concerns — is, however, most certainly part of the problem.