Lame Rules for Presidential Debates: A Perfect Microcosm of US
I was on Democracy Now this morning along with George Farah discussing the ways these debates, designed to cast the appearance of fostering vibrant exchanges, are actually intended to constrict the range of debated views as much as possible. My segment (and the transcript to it) can be seen here,
but it was the commentary of Farah - who is a genuine expert in the history of presidential debates - that I found revealing.
He described how the two political parties in the 1990s joined forces to wrest control over the presidential debates away from the independent League of Women Voters, which had long resisted the parties' efforts to shield their presidential candidates from genuine surprise or challenge. Now run by the party-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates, these rituals are designed to do little more than " eliminate spontaneity" and "exclude all viable third-party voices". Citing a just-leaked 21-page "memorandum of understanding" secretly negotiated by the two campaigns to govern the rules of the debates, Farah recounted:
Gawker's John Cook has an excellent breakdown of the 21-page memo. In his piece, entitled "Leaked Debate Agreement Shows Both Obama and Romney are Sniveling Cowards", Cook details how the rules imposed on these debates demonstrate that, above all else, "both campaigns are terrified at anything even remotely spontaneous happening."
Under this elaborate regime, the candidates "aren't permitted to ask each other questions, propose pledges to each other, or walk outside a 'predesignated area.'" Worse, "the audience members posing questions aren't allowed to ask follow-ups (their mics will be cut off as soon as they get their questions out). Nor will moderator Candy Crowley." The rules even "forbid television coverage from showing reaction shots of the candidates".
All of this means, as Farah put it:
Making matters worse still, the Commission is run by lobbyists and funded by large corporations. As Zaid Jilani writes today, the two Commission co-chairmen are former GOP Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and former Clinton spokesman Michael D. McCurry. Fahrenkopf is one of the nation's leading lobbyists for the gaming industry, while McCurry advises a long list of corporate clients including the telecom industry.
The debates are paid for by large corporate sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch Companies. As Jilani writes, "in the past, the tobacco industry, AT&T, and others have all been sponsors." And as Farah describes, with all that sponsorship comes the standard benefits:
Meanwhile, the moderators were selected to ensure that nothing unexpected is asked and that only the most staid and establishment views are heard. As journalism professor Jay Rosen put it when the names of the moderators were unveiled, using terms to describe those views that are acceptable in Washington media circles and those which are "fringe":
All views that reside outside the narrow confines of the two parties are rigidly excluded. Anyone who might challenge or subvert the two-party duopoly is rendered invisible.
Lobbyists who enrich themselves by peddling their influence run everything behind the scenes. Corporations pay for the process, which they exploit and is then run to bolster rather than threaten their interests. The media's role is to keep the discourse as restrictive and unthreatening as possible while peddling the delusion that it's all vibrant and free and independent and unrestrained. And it all ends up distorting political realities far more than illuminating them while wildly exaggerating the choices available to citizens and concealing the similarities between the two parties.
To understand the US political process, one can just look to how these sham debates are organized and how they function. This is the same process that repeats itself endlessly in virtually every other political realm.
Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national
security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional
lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at
Salon. He is the author of
How Would a Patriot Act? (May 2006), a
© 2012 Guardian/UK
Full Town Hall Debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney met for the second time in a town hall debate moderated by Candy Crowley at Hofstra University on October 16th, 2012.
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