Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bread and Circuses, Part 5: Not You, Tom

My friend who said it was silly to call the debates a circus defended himself by saying, “It’s what we have to go on besides their records, and we are all smart enough to sift through the BS.” Obviously he didn’t mean by that first part that the debates are all we have to go on, since we also have campaign speeches, for example. But just because it’s one more piece of propaganda the two parties are giving us doesn’t mean it’s worth anything. The debates are much less significant than candidates’ records, and they’re totally unworthy of the weight that’s put on them by people who don’t know any better.

That leads us to the second part of my friend’s argument. I agree that people should be, and most people are, “smart enough to sift through the BS” in the debates themselves. But I hope I’ve shown that the BS goes deeper, to the debate system itself. And I’m not blaming people for being unaware of the BS in the system--the CPD has been pretty successful at remaining in the background. Even Bill Maher, whom I applaud for devoting his closing monologue this past Friday to criticizing the debates, failed even to mention the CPD and instead put the blame on the debate moderators and the choice of questions.

Well, the moderators are chosen by the CPD. It’s the moderator’s job to choose the questions for the “town hall” debates, but of course they’re going to make the choices that are going to get them invited back to moderate another debate four years later--it’s a big deal for a journalist to do one of these things. So Maher’s problems really begin with the CPD.

And that’s what I mean when I say that the debates are a circus. Now, by that, I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t care how a potential president handles himself in a circus. But you should know that that’s what you’re getting. It’s just a play. There’s no accountability; the two parties have teamed up to make sure of that.

Someone asked me the other day why some other organization doesn’t just take it upon itself to organize a debate and invite more than just the two major-party candidates. Four years ago, the answer to that question would have been that the candidates were under contractual obligation not to participate in non-CPD debates. This time around, that’s apparently not the case, as McCain has agreed more than once to participate in debates that various groups wanted to organize involving more candidates than just him and Obama. Obama, however, despite having expressed his willingness to debate any other candidates in the past, has turned down the opportunity every time. We can’t be sure that McCain and Obama aren’t just playing politics, though, because the CPD refuses to make public the debate contract signed by the candidates.

In closing, I want to mention a point I heard Matt Gonzalez (Nader's running mate) make recently. He pointed out that Joe Biden's poll numbers when he was seeking the Democratic nomination were lower than Nader's are now, but apparently Biden was still considered a "viable" candidate and he was allowed to take part in the primary debates. Still have any doubt that the two-party system is at fault here?

Bread and Circuses, Part 4: You Can Be Anything!

That’s what they tell us when we’re kids. And in the spirit of idealism, I want to pretend it’s true--well, in a way. So let’s pretend there are two candidates running for President of the United States. One endorses commonsense positions on political issues. The other “plays politics,” saying and doing politically what he thinks will get him in office and keep him there. You have to choose which of these two guys you want to be. What’s your answer?

Oh, did I mention that the first guy is running for the Green Party, while the second is running for the Democrats or Republicans (take your pick)? Does that change your answer?

What if I add the following? The first guy is honest and cares about people. He got into politics to help people. The second guy isn’t downright evil, but he’s not above using deception to achieve political goals. And he doesn’t really care about people; he just got into politics because he likes power. You’re probably more inclined now to say you want to be the first guy, but I bet there’s still a slight inclination to go with the major-party guy. Otherwise you probably feel like you’re wasting your time.

Doesn’t that show that there’s a problem with this system? I mean, it’s no wonder most politicians act the way they do. They’re always up against choices like the one I just gave you, and often political expediency trumps personal values. Now, I know that there are a lot of reasons why someone might sometimes compromise values for a larger political goal. I get that. But why should the two-party system be that kind of goal, that kind of reason? What is it that’s so inherently great about having two parties that makes it OK to play politics like that?

Coming up next time: the final installment of the “debate circus” series.