BY HUGO TORRES
With a first chapter titled “Debate Cartel”, HLS 2L George Farah provocatively begins his new book “No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates” and argues that the current presidential debate system is corrupt and anti-democratic. Weaving anecdotes with policy arguments, Farah manages to keep the book both informative and entertaining while making a convincing argument for reform to the current debate system.
Dubbed “the Superbowl of politics” by Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., who co-chairs the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the broadcasting and subsequent media coverage of presidential debates reach an audience in the tens of millions and influence the choices people make in voting for president. Farah begins by noting the importance of this influence, recounting the 1960 presidential debates when Richard Nixon showed up to the debates “underweight, pale, and needing a shave.” Wearing a suit that blended into the background and refusing makeup, Nixon was completely overshadowed by his charismatic (and tanned) rival, the photogenic John F. Kennedy. The rest, as they say, is history.
The parties learned from their mistakes however, and after a brief period where the nonpartisan League of Women Voters ran the debates, the system shifted to control by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. This bipartisanship, as opposed to the previous nonpartisanship, resulted in a format that heavily favored the two major parties. While the League offered “protection of the integrity of the format, rejection of excessive candidate control, and transparency,” the CPD instead gave the parties what they wanted: presidential debates entirely under their control. Farah recounts the road to the CPD, explaining the incremental changes that took place from each election season, and highlights alternatives that existed and thrived prior to the current system.
Farah argues that the current restriction on third-party candidates is particularly worrisome, with the requirement that candidates poll at 15% of voter being seemingly reasonable on its face, but in fact being merely a means of chilling third party movements from ever gaining mass appeal. The current threshold is “far higher than necessary, robs Americans of their voting prerogatives, may deprive would-be presidents of the chance to reach voters…[it] undermines the democratic process and should be replaced with a screening mechanism designed to fulfill the aspirations of the electorate.”
As a result of being controlled by the two parties, the public interest has suffered. According to Farah, “The CPD’s takeover has produced excessive candidate control, the loss of transparency, the exclusion of popular candidates, the manipulation of formats, and silence on many important national issues.” This situation goes largely unremedied because the public remains unaware. Farah notes that most Americans know very little about the organization, with most believing it to be a neutral federal agency. This ignorance, largely unremedied by the national media, leads to apathy and inaction.
Farah points out at the end of his book that hope is not lost. The national media and others are beginning to point out the flaws with CPD and reform movements are gaining steam. Noting that when the 2000 Mexican election commission instituted reforms that allowed numerous candidates to participate, none other than Pat Buchanan praised their election procedures and suggested Mexican election observers be sent to the United States. This situation, Farah argues, damages the credibility of the American democratic system. To work towards effective solutions, Farah describes a new organization, the Citizens Debate Commission, that seeks “to regain control of the presidential debates” for the citizenry. For those who share in that goal and those who are concerned about democratic accountability, Farah’s book proves to be an invaluable read.