Protesting the debates

The frame of political discussion in the United States has steadily narrowed over the past year, as the election has crowded out attention for almost anything else.  Tonight the scope of politics will be limited to a small stage in Denver, where the major party candidates will hold a joint appearance, mentally rifling through prepared answers and canned ad libs.  Outside the camera frame, activists will be working hard to grab the spotlight and bring attention to their own issues.

When you go to vote in most states, you may be surprised to see more names than “Barack Obama” and “Mitt Romney,” although those other candidates have gotten precious little attention from mainstream media.  Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein have done the best in securing access to the ballot: Stein will be a choice for voters in 37 states;  Johnson and the Libertarian Party will be on the ballot everywhere–if a few lawsuits work out.

They won’t be on stage, however, and all third party candidates together are unlikely to poll more than 1 percent of the vote.  Third party candidates rarely* influence the election or the political debate, and they’ll tell you it’s because they’re excluded from the debates and media coverage more generally.  Debate organizers and journalists explain they don’t generate enough attention to merit attention.  You can jump into that loop anywhere you want.

So the debate will retread familiar ground with familiar candidates, each well-prepared, disciplined, and determined to avoid saying something embarrassing.  Governor Romney, trailing in the polls, will look for an opportunity to deliver a memorable zinger but there’s unlikely to be much new information in an event staged to influence a few undecided voters in one of a half-dozen states.

Nonetheless, national attention and hundreds of journalists are in Denver today because of  the debate.  This is an apparent opportunity activists can stomach squandering.  The Greens and Libertarians will demonstrate outside, demanding access to the debate and the campaign more generally.  The Greens are behind a campaign called Occupy the Commission on Presidential Debates and is circulating petitions calling for a much lower threshold of support for candidates to qualify for inclusion in the debates (1 percent in polls, rather than the 15 percent the commission demands).  Gary Johnson is suing for inclusion in the debates.  Using the forces of the market, Governor Johnson’s supporters have written to the debates sponsors, and at least two, Phillips Electronics and the YWCA, have withdrawn their support for the debate.

The media mash around the debate is also an opportunity for activists with even weaker prospects for getting to the stage.  Occupy the Debates is working to promote a broader debate on the country’s problems and potential solutions, organizing protests and rallies in Denver, and promoting dialogues and meetings nation-wide.  From its statement of purpose:

Occupy the Debates, the People’s Dialogue, seeks to demonstrate the disconnect between the presidential candidates of the two corporate parties and the people of the United States whom they are supposed to represent…
 Occupy the Debates rejects the pay-to-play structure of the dominant system and recognizes that candidates already shedding light on populist solutions will not be invited to the podium. Therefore, in order to expand the dialogue, Occupy the Debates encourages local Occupy’s to organize activities the debates. Among the activities being planned are canvassing the community to hear their views, teach-ins, truth-telling sessions, general assemblies and conferences to discuss issues of concern and possible solutions.

Occupy Denver is organizing events, including protests, to draw attention to a foreign policy debate that’s been filtered out of the mainstream discussion.  (Both Johnson and Stein would agree.)

In activist life, this is about getting a few lines in a news story or a brief picture and sentence in a broadcast report, all to suggest a broader story than each candidate’s canned applause lines.  It’s an uphill struggle.

* Ralph Nader consistently claims that his candidacy didn’t matter; it didn’t cost Al Gore the 2000 election, and that there wasn’t much difference between Vice President Gore and George W. Bush anyway.  His audiences don’t generally believe him.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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