Tobin founded the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and Beckerman founded Open the Debates. Both groups advocate for reducing the influence of the two major political parties. An earlier version of this piece was published by Independent Voter News.
Last week's presidential debate was an exhausting production that played into the divisiveness of our country, rather than focusing on solutions.
For a dozen years, we have been sounding the alarm on the control of these general election debates by the Republicans and Democrats, while creating alternative platforms that serve the people and improve our electoral system.
In March, we staged the first-ever cross-partisan presidential debate during the primaries. Eighteen candidates representing 10 political affiliations from across the political spectrum came together to demonstrate that real political debate is possible in this incredibly diverse nation. Grounded in respectful and constructive dialogue, these candidates articulated their competing ideas, values and visions for the United States.
On Thursday, at least five presidential contenders will join us in Denver for another open presidential debate. With the Commission on Presidential Debates reeling from its obviously poor stewardship of the process so far, Thursday's cross-partisan gathering will be an opportunity for the nation to advance a much more meaningful political discourse — one that represents our deep yearnings for a more perfect union.
While the commission claims to work "for the benefit of the American electorate" in arranging this year's three presidential and one vice presidential encounters, the only invited participants are the Republican ticket, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, and the Democratic ticket, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
This brazenly ignores the overwhelming will of that electorate to open the debates to new ideas, fresh voices and more choices. Three out of four voters want to see all ballot-qualified candidates included.
At a time when voters are thirsting for more choices, it is absurd to keep Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen and Green nominee Howie Hawkins off the stage. And Wednesday night's debate should have included their respective running mates, Spike Cohen and Angela Walker.
Objectively speaking, there are four tickets on the ballots in enough states to win the election, and yet the debate commission has decided to appoint itself as gatekeeper standing between voters and their choices — and assuring just two of those tickets have a shot.
Beyond debates, polls consistently show the American people ready to move beyond divisiveness and find common cause. Public Agenda, USA Today and Ipsos found in their groundbreaking Hidden Common Ground report that 92 percent of Americans think it is important to move beyond divisiveness — and 89 percent saying it is important to support candidates that are working toward unifying the country. In the same study, 65 percent said one important solution is to make it easier for third-party and independent candidates to win office.
It is sobering that the desires of the public at large are so thoroughly thwarted with barely a voice of dissent in the main media ecosystem.
It is often said that our country is on the line in the coming election. Without meaningful debate, and free and fair elections, we will continue to witness the unraveling.
Yes, the First Amendment secures us the freedom to speak up as citizens, voters, donors, candidates and, increasingly, as social media pundits. But nowhere in the Constitution is our right to be reasonably informed about our actual ballot choices. Yet it is a foundational principle of healthy self-government that voters should have access to information about our choices.
When a sprawling media apparatus obsessed with short-term profits fails to provide voters fair and robust information, the underpinnings of our republic are eroded. We are subjected to a thriving politics industry composed of special-interest actors that have adopted one side or the other of a two-headed monster. The public interest is simply not invited to the party.
In their new book "The Politics Industry," Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter lay out a devastating analysis of today's politics: "Much of today's system is a self-serving, self-perpetuating private industry composed of gain-seeking actors who write their own rules. They compete to grow and accumulate resources for themselves — not necessarily to serve the public interest — and create artificial barriers to prevent new competition from threatening their hold on the industry."
Instead of acknowledging the deep systemic problems that have disrupted both the illusion and reality of the United States, the political establishment has worked overtime to insulate their brands from accountability to the people.
With all the suggestions about how the Commission on Presidential Debates can prevent a repeat of what happened last week, the simplest shift would be to listen to what a supermajority of Americans are asking for. Including third-party and independent candidates would explode the false binary narrative that dominates and artificially limits our political discourse. The boxing match would gain texture, substance and depth that the two parties intentionally keep hidden under the rug.
Including third-party and independent candidates would also be the surest way to entice non-voters and independents to tune into these important forums for resolving our differences as we move forward together.
If we want to heal and unite a hurting nation, we must first seek to listen, to understand, and to calmly and respectfully debate our differences.
Out of the ashes of the most recent two-party debates, we hope something of real service to the nation may arise from Thursday's far more inclusive debate.
Visit IVN.us for more coverage from Independent Voter News.
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Beckerman is the founder of Open the Debates, a cross-partisan group that advocates allowing more third-party and independent candidates to participate in campaign debates.
In 1858, the country was divided. Abraham Lincoln opened his campaign for the Senate in Illinois with a powerful and controversial speech quoting Jesus: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." He added, "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."
Incumbent Democrat Stephen Douglas engaged Lincoln in a defining series of seven debates focused on the issue of slavery and its expansion to the western territories. The debates jolted the nation, drawing crowds of tens of thousands and widespread national coverage. While Douglas won the Senate race, the debates catapulted Lincoln to the Republican nomination for president in 1860 — and the pivotal role in saving the nation.
As we seek to exit another dark period of disunity without fraying the "bonds of affection" and "mystic chords of memory" that Lincoln believed unite us, we would be wise to look to the nature of our political discourse and the political debates that shape it.
On the one side, President Trump's Republican Party is shutting down debate altogether. It has canceled seven primaries and refused all calls for debates. His two major GOP challengers, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, are left to find sympathetic media and create their own public relations operation. In other words, the playing field is steeply slanted against them.
On the other side, the Democratic Party is having its own exclusionary debates. While their field has been praised for its diversity, the party has managed to accommodate over 20 voices while still being indefensibly exclusionary, arbitrary, biased and secretive.
Andrew Yang, the lone person of color who made it as far as the sixth debate in December, said the demographics on the stage were not a coincidence, but a result of the racial makeup of the fewer than 5 percent of Americans with the discretionary income and interest to donate to political campaigns. And now, with the Democratic National Committee set to decide on Friday who will get to debate in Des Moines in the final days before the Iowa caucuses, Yang is likely to get dropped — entirely because of invitation criteria largely reliant on polling, despite almost no early state polls being released since mid-November.
Of course, the Democratic debates have been lambasted for plenty of reasons beyond the invitation criteria. Criticism of the moderators, the substance and style of the questions, and the absurdity of the format has been widespread. The idea of 10 people in snippets of 30 seconds or 1 minute not only landing zingers and media hits but also tackling some of the biggest challenges facing our nation? It is ludicrous on its face.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, in an August interview, said, "You shouldn't even call them a debate. What they are is a reality TV show in which you have to come up with a soundbite and all that stuff. It's demeaning to the candidates and it's demeaning to the American people. You can't explain the complexity of health care in America in 45 seconds. Nobody can."
In contrast, the Lincoln-Douglas debates started with a 60-minute opening statement, followed by a 90-minute rebuttal and then a 30-minute rebuttal by the first speaker. The candidates addressed each other directly. There were no moderators and no limits on what could be said. They were centered almost entirely on slavery, the single issue fracturing the nation at the time.
While we are not calling explicitly for Lincoln-Douglas-style encounters, the very nature of today's political debates needs a serious overhaul. We desperately need to inject new ideas, new voices, new formats and new approaches into our lifeless debate process. Instead of relinquishing control of our political debates to the two parties along with self-appointed gatekeepers like the Commission on Presidential Debates and the TV networks, we should be asserting our rights to construct a people-powered process that serves our collective needs as a free nation.
We can choose to live in a democracy, or we can choose to live in a reality TV show — where the contestants get voted off the island well before We the People get a say.
During the horrific Civil War, Lincoln delivered his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, strengthening a sense of unifying national purpose that has far outlived his era: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
While those powerful words were a rallying cry for American democracy, the idea of government of, by and for the people has never truly been attained. They are merely a symbol of what we aspire to as a nation and what we must come together to fight for.
At this time of great political upheaval, it is critical that we the people reinforce the aspirational principles that have gone furthest in uniting us. We must lean heavily on those ideals that have brought us together in common cause, even when it is clear that those ideals have never in our history been fully realized. If neither our debates nor our leaders are, like Lincoln, calling forward the "better angels of our nature" then it's time we scrap both and go back to first principles.
Beckerman is the founder of Open the Debates, a cross-partisan group that advocates allowing more third party and independent candidates to participate in campaign debates.
Are you sick of our political discourse yet? I know I am.
Are you tired of being trapped in a two-year vortex of nauseating presidential politics every four years?
For better or worse (okay, definitely worse), presidential campaigns capture the energy and attention of voters and leave us feeling powerless to fix a completely broken political system. Candidates that aim to fix the system — think John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein — get shut out of the main conversation.
There have been countless efforts to hold the self-proclaimed Commission on Presidential Debates accountable to produce fair and inclusive debates. But it is a private corporation created by the Democratic and Republican parties, and it has the political establishment's blessing to maintain a duopoly on presidential debate participation. The courts, so far, have obliged.
If we are ever going to succeed at opening up the presidential debates to more voices and better choices, we need to do two big things that will take the decision-making out of the hands of some untouchable front-group for the two parties:
First, we need to organize the 46 percent of Americans who consider themselves political independents, the 68 percent of Americans who think we need at least a third major party and the 76 percent of voters who want open debates.
Second, we need to create a national organization that can build a grassroots, cross-partisan movement to effectively challenge exclusionary debates everywhere they occur.
Former Speaker Tip O'Neill was best known for the adage that "all politics is local." While some argue that national politics can often be more important and influential in people's lives and political realities, the truth is that the core of all of our politics and political discourse is human interaction, influence and decision-making.
And when the system, as Nader put it, is rotten to its core, it shouldn't be surprising just how rotten the political conversation has become.
What we need in this country, and what a huge majority of us are open to, is political transformation. That starts with you — in your community, your town, your local political scene and your local social scene. It starts with us — all of us committing to rise above the rotten political discourse, to come together across the political spectrum and across ideological, geographic, economic, racial and religious divides to fix a rotten system.
The modern political system is designed to keep the voices of the We, the People out of the mix. When candidates put themselves forward as an option, they should be given a forum and a level playing field to get their ideas across. When media and establishment gatekeepers stand in the way of voters trying to get informed about all of their ballot choices, you have to ask yourself why. And you have to ask yourself, "What am I going to do about it?"
Here's the good news: After a whole slew of exclusionary forums, debates, and media coverage in this year's mayoral race in Nashville, the two most recent forums were opened up to all candidates on the ballot, and the resulting coverage reflected that. In Salt Lake City, meanwhile, when the first mayoral debates were slated to leave out half the field of eight candidates, the candidates themselves (including the front-runner) protested and the debate hosts relented.
Indeed, it is local, grassroots action supported by national organization that is the key to breaking through the fortress of protection that the two major parties have built up around themselves. We know we can win locally. And we believe we can grow this movement from the ground up through local wins and organizing, in addition to building a national vehicle for fair, robust and meaningful debates.
After seven years of dabbling on the sidelines, railing against the corrupt Commission on Presidential Debates while begging it to open up the presidential debates to more voices, Open the Debates is now raising and spending money to create that vehicle. We are now a fiscally sponsored project of Mediators Foundation and we are taking on the issue of exclusionary debates in a way that can transform our political system and open it up to new ideas, fresh voices and better choices.
I invite you to join with us. We aim to put inclusive, informative and engaging debates at the forefront of the reforms that are gaining serious traction like ranked-choice voting, fair districting, open primaries, clean elections and even proportional representation.With just 1 in 10 Americans thinking the two-party system is working even fairly well, the time is now to spark political transformation that works for all of us.
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