Did you know that a few days ago Jill Stein, the chosen candidate for the Green Party, announced the beginning of her presidential campaign? Did you know that the Peace Party and the Libertarian Party also have candidates running? Do you know anything about their platforms and policies? If you do, congratulations! If you don't, don't feel bad. It's probably because, as the race for the 2016 election intensifies, you are one of many U.S. citizens that are once again denied their democratic right to determine their own political affairs.
The Role of the Media
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that "Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely". In a society that is so information-rich such as our own, the information industry and the media have a responsibility to inform the people about their options as they go to the ballot box. The six companies that control over 90% of the U.S. media, however, have spectacularly failed to adhere to this responsibility. Rather than serving the public interests, these companies often favour the candidates that their owners support or have economic interests associated with their victory.
The content and emphasis of their coverage are among the most powerful factors in determining how voters perceive the candidates and the issues. Studies have shown that broadcast media dedicate most of their coverage to the competition between the candidates, rather than providing an explanation of issues and the candidates' stances on them. Eager to attract viewers, broadcasters focus on dramatic moments that highlight candidates' mistakes, attacks on opponents and suggestions of scandal or problems. This is also a technique to create imaginary divergences out of minor issues, while not demonstrating that candidates on both sides of the aisle are eerily similar when it comes to international trade, foreign policy, military intervention, surveillance, and many other core issues.
Jill Stein, third parties and the court case.
Another aspect of the U.S. elections that disadvantages third parties is the national candidates' debates, where most Americans inform themselves on the political choices available. The Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization in charge of these debates, is a private corporation founded and owned by a former republican and a former democrat senator. The purpose of the debates, other than offering the spectacle of discordance between Republicans and Democrats, is the complete exclusion of third parties from the national electoral platform. The candidates from both sides of the aisle choose the moderator, agree on the debate formats, and set standards for attendance which, surprise surprise, always disqualify third parties, and thus disqualify dissenting or opposite opinions to those advocating the status-quo. Not only are they being theoretically excluded, they are also physically barred from attending. When Jill Stein attempted to peacefully force her way into the debate, she was arrested and detained until well-after it was over.
Third-parties have not taken kindly to this. In 2012, after being initially excluded, they had their own debate, but no television network bothered broadcasting it. More recently, they have began to pursue a little publicized court case against The Commission on Presidential Debates. The Green Party, initially a pursuant in these proceedings, has also filed their own independent lawsuit. According to Time Magazine, the suit alleges that the restrictive policies of the debates, "have fostered a duopoly in American politics that has made it impossible for a third-party candidate to win the White House".
The Case of Bernie Sanders
One of the most clamorous candidates in the race, currently, is the formerly independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Having campaigned for decades outside the binary political arena by running as an Independent, he decided to join the presidential race as a Democratic candidate. A similar example, albeit with some radical differences, was that of Sen. Ron Paul during the 2012 elections. Although a self-stated Libertarian, he was forced by circumstance to run under the Republican party. It appears that for radicals, and those who do not confirm to the two ideologies battling in the field, there are two choices. They can either compromise their ideology towards the middle and run under the auspices of the dominant ideology closest to theirs, or they can suffer from media oblivion. Either strategies benefit the dominant centre parties.
Without a law to reform party funding or media coverage, third parties will never gain the visibility they require to make a mainstream political impact. This has severe consequences on U.S. democracy: when there are only two main contenders in a political arena, election campaigns often turn into a race to the bottom. One must be perceived only as slightly less "bad" than the opponent to secure a vote, and the multiplicity of voices of the citizens are drowned out by the shouts of the two colossal beasts. It's time for David to win against Goliath. Will we finally see third parties be "allowed" to contribute to the national discussion? Probably not, but that doesn't mean we can't inform ourselves about alternatives to the two-party system that the U.S. is currently enamored with.