John Buell

Beware of the Bipartisan Menace

The big theme after the election has been bipartisanship. Americans, it is said, want the parties to work out differences and get things done. Yet this concept means something different to the media than to the electorate.

The general public would like to see constructive and fair airing of differences and as wide a consensus as possible. But this does not mean pursuit of a compromise grounded in exclusion of significant dissent, even majority opinion. To the media, bipartisanship means that Democrats are supposed to move closer to Republicans, as the latter stand their ground. And both parties are to collaborate in excluding all who disagree with the large and growing number of issues on which the corporate media and the leaders of the two parties collaborate.

This form of bipartisanship is an artifact of financial power, collaboration of the corporate media, electoral rules, and the relative absence – at least until OWS — of active grass roots movements. The Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates provided a perfect representation of this process in action. The negotiations over a “grand bargain” to avoid the “fiscal cliff’ are a continuation of this truncated process.

The October debates were sponsored and regulated by the “Presidential Debate Commission.” As George Farah of the organization Open Debate pointed out on Democracy Now!, that organization’s name belies its corporate origins. The Presidential Debate Commission is not a government body chosen or in any way accountable to the electorate. Its funding comes from some of the wealthiest corporations in the US. The body took over the functions once carried out by the League of Women Voters. The League had a history of seeking at least relatively open Presidential debate, with even such minor party candidates as John Anderson (1980) being invited.

The Commission currently maintains that it is democratic in that it does not formally exclude third party candidates. Nonetheless, it has set a threshold of 15% of voter support in the public opinion polls as the minimum required for admission.

The Commissions justifies its requirement on the grounds that hundreds of candidates seek the presidency every year. This argument is clearly specious. A more reasonable procedure would be to admit to the debate all candidates who are on enough state ballots to potentially win the presidency. The two parties have already made ballot access so difficult in most states that this hurdle would eliminate all but a very few minority party candidates.

An alternative rule would be to ask voters whom they wished to see included in debates. In 2000 the debate commission excluded Ralph Nader from the debates on the grounds that he was well under 15% in the polls. Yet polls also showed that more than 60% of the electorate wanted him to participate in the debate.

With discontent with both parties so intense today, I suspect that voters in overwhelming numbers would have liked to hear from Green, Constitutionalist and Libertarian parties. As this list suggests, broadening access would bring both right and left voices into the process and on some issues suggest surprising areas of agreement.  It is of course this broadening of political agendas that elites resist. Third parties have played a major role in enactment of progressive taxation, social security, abolitionism, rail regulation among other.

It is no wonder of course that third party candidates have low numbers in the polls now. This reflects the Catch-22 inflicted by the corporate duopoly. Low voter support is a natural consequence of the political invisibility inflicted on minor parties by debate rules, states ballot requirements, and our winner take all electoral system.

What were the fruits of this “debate” process? As much as it may have highlighted the differences — surely real — between Romney and Obama, the debate served to reinforce the consensus that governs in the Beltway. Glenn Greenwald is surely right in maintaining that there are no neutral moderators. The most honest moderation would acknowledge where one was coming from in an effort to stimulate more honest and informed debate.

Such moderation was not forthcoming. Greenwald correctly criticized Martha Raddatz’s questions of the VP candidates on Social Security, Medicare and Iran. In the former case, she presented as “fact” the impending bankruptcy of Social Security and portrayed Iran as our greatest national security threat. Greenwald reminds us that the case that Social Security is going bankrupt is controversial to say the least. And that Iran, even with a few nuclear weapons, would be not just a threat but the greatest seems absurd given our huge nuclear arsenal and delivery capacity. And if we are looking at threat possible aimed at us, the old Cold War nemesis Russia would be a more plausible nominee.

More subtly, even the vocabulary framing these questions is problematic. Can governments that create and control their own currency go bankrupt? And if the Federal Reserve can afford to throw 800 billion into investment banks and their executive bonuses, why should ordinary citizens be compelled to retire later in life so that Social Security can take in a few more billion? Contrary to right wing discourse, the US is not Greece. The language that the piggy bank is empty, to which even Obama too often resorts, only reinforces a right wing agenda and should be resisted.

As for national security, the wounds may be even deeper. The role that nationalism and a range of fearful scenarios have played in reinforcing each other has been a powerful driver of our history and has damaged our politics both at home and abroad. There is an old saying that politics should stop at the water’s edge. To the contrary, the bipartisan failure to contest current foreign policy objectives degrades our politics and endangers our future. Iran is demonized, while our media and their corporate sponsors exclude the escalating and life changing phenomena of climate change from our debates.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2013

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2012 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652