With the first of three presidential debates set to air this Wednesday October 3 at 9:00 pm EST, viewers need to understand that the spin zone begins well before the pundits throw in their two cents after the debate.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is the nonprofit corporation behind the presidential and vice presidential debates since 1988. It may seem like an innocuous enough title– its name appears non-partisan, independent, and most voters may not even question its origins and funding. However, much like the rest of the U.S. electoral process, the two mainstream political parties with their corporate backers dictate the structure of the debates to such an extent that it damages the democratic process.
Drowning Out Third-Party Voices
With heavy ties to the Republican and Democratic parties, it’s no surprise that the CPD implemented an arbitrary rule to keep out third-party voices. Under the leadership of co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., former Republican National Committee Chairman and current President and CEO of The American Gaming Association, third-party candidates must have at least 15 percent support in at least five national polls to debate.
Considering the U.S. public often bemoans the corporate-backed two-party system dominating the public discourse, the presidential debates would likely be the most opportune time to reverse that trend. But since the corporate establishment doesn’t support third-party candidates, the corporate-owned mainstream media isn’t about to give those candidates a platform. It is so difficult for third-party candidates to meet that 15 percent rule and gain traction in the MSM echo chamber that mainstream candidates never have to contend with a third-party presence.
In conjunction with the Citizens United ruling in 2010, it seems corporate power has never had such a stronghold over the democratic process. According to the Sunlight Foundation, 78 percent of the approximately $465 million in outside funds raised for the campaign can be directly traced to the 2010 ruling. This creates a perfect storm for the rise of a corporate plutocracy. Basically, in order to penetrate the mainstream marketplace of ideas, a candidate needs a lot of money. As candidacy requires larger and larger sums of money, it becomes harder and harder for a candidate to separate their actions on the campaign trail or in office from the bidding of their powerful donors. It would read like a conspiracy theory, except for all this information is readily available and the rise of corporate power is already all too obvious to voters. The CPD is just one more channel through which corporate money and power can influence the electorate.
Is It Still a Debate?
As civil rights activist and lawyer Connie Rice explained in an interview on the Tavis Smiley Show back in 2004, the CPD-run debates do not stick to the format of a true debate:
A debate is a head-to-head, spontaneous, structured argument over the merits of an issue…Under the ridiculous 32-page contract that reads like the rules for the Miss America Pageant, there will be no candidate-to-candidate questions, no rebuttal to your opponent’s points, no cross questions or cross answers, no rebuttals, no follow-up questions — that’s not a debate, that’s a news conference.
Rice is referring to the contract President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry signed prior to the 2004 debates. The introduction of contracts controlling everything from topics to be discussed to camera angles to be used was not implemented without controversy. Before the CPD took over, the truly independent and non-partisan League of Women Voters refused to bend to Democratic and Republican pressures to draw up a contract prior to the 1988 presidential debates. In fact, they withdrew from participation in the debates in protest with President Nancy M. Neuman saying at the time:
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.
This year, the CPD is not even releasing the details of the contract to the public. This decision has caused 18 pro-democracy groups including Open Debates, Common Cause, and Public Citizen among others, to issue a statement calling for CPD to make the details of the contract public. After all, the debates are for the benefit of the public, not the two dominant political parties. This level of secrecy only further exacerbates the already egregious track record of the CPD’s monopoly over the presidential debates.
Essentially, the American voter is now in uncharted waters in terms of corporate dominance over the electoral process. So as you watch the candidates debate over the next few weeks, just remember that it has already been corporate approved.