American Pragmatism At Its Worst
By A. D. Freudenheim

1 October 2000

It happens that, this election year, there is one issue that unites some American voters further to the right with those further to the left: backers of Buchanan, Hagelin, Browne, and Nader (and a few unnamed others) are united in their desire to see these candidates participate in the presidential debates this October. Many voters think, correctly, that the addition of these candidates would add some unexpected intellectual energy to the mix by challenging Bush and Gore to push beyond their broken-record announcements. The difficulty (the news media would have us all believe) lies clearly with the Commission on Presidential Debates: the "non-profit, non-partisan" group which has been charged by the Republicans and Democrats with organizing the debates since 1987. The Commission requires that a candidate must be capable of securing at least 15% of the electorate - as determined by aggregating the most recent popular polls - to qualify for participation in the debates. Since none of the aforementioned candidates have reach the 15% mark, they will not included.

The Commission is a paper tiger, and the problem is much bigger than they and we would like to acknowledge. A creation of the two parties-in-power, the Commission acts as a useful foil for whichever candidate is perceived as the weaker debater. This year, Bush pushed back on Commission proposals, attempting to win points by attacking Gore on a new - and weak - credibility issue, only to concede to the Commission's original debate plans. Since the Commission's leaders come straight from the two dominant parties and many of their close allies, there's little danger when the candidates push them around - they would never truly attack the hands that feed them.

The quagmire in this debate issue is not a trap set by the Commission; unfortunately for us, their 15% benchmark (almost) makes sense. The real problem lies with us, American voters, and is a reflection of more than 200 years of simple pragmatism. Mostly ignorant of the representative democracy at work even in presidential elections, we do not understand why we should vote for a candidate who is likely to get only 15% of the vote. If they can't win, why bother voting for them? The way the current system works, those voters are right. (Click here for a walk-through on the election process.)

It's an anti-intellectual position - but many pragmatic views are just that. The pragmatic perception is that involving Nader, Buchanan, and others in the debates won't change the outcome of the election. We do not live in a parliamentary democracy, where low-scoring parties can tip the balance of power; the Reform party, Green Party, and others do not have candidates on the ballots for the House, the Senate, or local elected office in every state in the U.S. While our system does not automatically lock out "third" party representatives (and indeed, we have had, over the years, a few "independents" elected to Congress), it does not truly have a role for them either. Certainly not at the presidential level.

Again, we're to blame - not the Commission on Presidential Debates, and not the Republocrat party. The course of American history is changed in some small way with every presidential election, and the evidence suggests that this is how we like it: small changes. We could vote for these "outsiders," but they don't have enough popular appeal. We could allow the outsiders to debate, offering them the chance to broaden their appeal - but since they won't win, why bother? Even if they won, they'd be party-less candidates, with no legislative backing. What frightens us most is that they might make it to office, and then challenge our complacency on any number of issues, just as they now challenge Bush and Gore.

Americans created this cycle, and we're the only ones who can break it, by voting our conscience - regardless of how un-pragmatic it may be.

Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired!