For 16 years after the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees declined to debate during the general election. The Federal Communication Commission mandated that televised debates include all candidates, but the Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t risk engaging those from minor parties. However, in 1976, the two major parties discovered a loophole: as long as debates were sponsored by outside groups, the minor parties could be excluded, and the television networks could still cover the events as newsworthy. Since then, debates between the Democratic and Republican nominees have become a highly anticipated feature of the general election.
Yet the ensuing presidential debates, not surprisingly, have typically elicited more posturing than substance from the nominees. Ignoring the moderator’s question or an opponent’s challenge is to be expected from participants. Instead of meaningful debate, we are often subjected to slogans and soundbites. Campaigns in general are designed as spectacle: winning is accomplished by provoking the electorate rather than by educating them.
Furthermore, contrary to both Democrats’ and Republicans’ propaganda, the two parties, in practice, aren’t much different from each other. Although both parties claim they espouse fundamentally different philosophies of governing, the primary difference is more a matter of rhetoric than of policy.
Consider, for example, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. When Barack Obama was campaigning, he promised progressive healthcare reform, and, indeed, an early version of the ACA included a public option that would have established a government-run insurance agency. Although the bill never outlined a single-payer system like those in most developed countries, many perceived the public option as a step toward such a system. However, Democratic legislatures eventually capitulated to demands to drop the public option, and Obama signed the bill without it.
According to Democrats, the ACA is nonetheless a great progressive achievement, and according to Republicans the bill is a socialist disaster. In reality, the ACA represents a political milestone for centrism and compromise. One of the bill’s defining provisions, the state-run health exchanges, was actually an idea first championed by conservatives. Therefore, Democrats’ touting the ACA as a progressive victory is misleading, but so is Republicans’ maligning the bill as socialist.
Whether the ACA was, or is, a success is beside the point. My concern is keeping Democrats and Republicans honest about their purported progressivism or conservatism.
Hillary Clinton claims to be a progressive, but her record in the Senate and her relationships with big business suggest centrism. Donald Trump appeals to conservatives or at least a sizable faction of them but the incoherence of his platform makes discerning what he actually believes or would practice impossible.
The Democrats’ charade of progressivism and the Republicans’ corresponding charade of conservatism need to be challenged. One way to do so would be to include minor parties in the presidential debates.
Imagine Green Party candidate Jill Stein challenging Clinton on the environment, or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson challenging Trump on, well, anything. The Democratic and Republican nominees, now and in the future, would be forced to clarify their positions and cease projecting false images of themselves if they were forced to acknowledge minor-party candidates.
Even Trump, as a self-proclaimed outsider, shows little courage and sincerity if he is unwilling to face challenges from minor-party outsiders.
If nothing else, Democrats and Republicans can’t deny they have this in common: a steadfast commitment to the political status quo.
Bradley Bethel is a former teacher and currently a documentary filmmaker who lives in Carrboro. His film “Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal” is screening at festivals this spring.