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Bush v. Gore is only part of the debate

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed nearly 170 years ago, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” He was explaining then that when a majority public opinion has formed in America, there is little room for exploring other points of view.

That prescient observation becomes all the more poignant today when minority points of view are smothered not only by majority opinion, but also under mountains of money from special interests.

De Tocqueville would find evidence for the case he made in this year’s political season with the blocking of “third party” candidates from the first of three televised presidential debates. The allegedly nonpartisan commission in charge of the debates, headed by former top Republican and Democrat party officials, ruled last January that for a third party candidate to enter the debates he or she would have to gather at least 15 percent support in five national polls. That is a not-insignificant figure, given the strong two-party history. It is a figure, however arbitrarily arrived at, that serves both major parties nicely. The ruling means that the views of third party candidate Ralph Nader do not get aired in prime time.

Green Party Candidate Nader has been consistently drawing 5 to 6 percent in the polls. He could very likely have a seat in the lower chamber in a parliamentary system, but his chances are almost nil in our republican system -- unless he would get the national exposure a televised national debate could provide.

Consequently, the scope of issues being placed before American voters is extremely narrow, and it is only within that skinny band that debate generates any differences.

Because other candidates were excluded from the debates, viewers were denied the challenges Nader and others would bring to the economic, political and social assumptions that underpin the positions of Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush. Nader -- agree with him or not -- provides a fresh perspective and solid questions about how our political system works and is failing to work.

Using his position papers, consider what Nader might have added to the familiar back-and-to between Bush and Gore:

  • The top 1 percent of the richest Americans have wealth equal to the combined wealth of 95 percent of other Americans: “It used to be said a rising economic tide lifts all boats. Now a rising economic tide lifts all yachts.”
  • Twenty percent of American children live in poverty; in the Netherlands that figure is 3 percent.
  • The minimum wage today is lower, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than in 1979.
  • Today’s worker works 160 hours longer per year than 25 years ago.
  • Bill Gates’ wealth equals the combined wealth of the poorest 120 million Americans, or 45 percent of our population. “This is a failure of the political system to defend the people.”
  • Fewer than one in 10 workers belongs to a trade union in the private sector.
  • Two million Americans are in prisons, 500,000 more than in communist China, which has a 1.3 billion population.
  • Forty-seven million people work for less than $10 an hour -- this in a decade of sustained economic growth. “With a wage like that, people can’t be considered employed, despite the fact that they have jobs.”

Nader has called for:

  • Public financing of all public campaigns: “The biggest single obstacle to honest, just government action -- government of, by and for the people -- is the corruption of special interest money in our election campaigns. No one should have to sell out to big business in order to run a competitive campaign.”
  • A crackdown on corporate tax breaks: “Increasingly, the citizens are seeing the emergence of an enormous double standard where a giant, powerful corporation is given a 10-year tax-free holiday, is given free land, free water and free site preparation for an expanded factory, while families, small businesses and children suffer the burdens and pay the tax freight for the bosses from Stuttgart and Detroit. A big and powerful corporation can bring a town to its knees and receive huge subsidies just by threatening to move elsewhere.”
  • Taxing corporations: “In the 1950s, the corporate income tax was 25 percent of the federal outlay; it’s now about 6 percent or 7 percent. This is in a period of record corporate profits, record stock market prices and record executive compensation. The corporations are not contributing their fair share to the tax pool. So that leaves the burden on, largely, middle-income and lower-income Americans.”
  • Ending corporate bailouts: “Under capitalism, corporations have a right to succeed and a right to fail, not the right to succeed and the right to go to D.C. for a bailout.”
  • Universal health care. “The people in Canada stumbled upon something 30 years ago. It’s called a universal human right: health care, and preventive health as well. If they can do it 30 years ago we can do it now.”
  • Foreign aid: “The U.S. should rein in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and demand that loans be conditional on human rights and labor rights records, social and environmental impact statements, and the providing of basic health and education.”
  • End trade sanctions against Iraq: “The way a dictator gets power is by convincing the people there is an enemy [as U.S. trade sanctions have helped Saddam Hussein to do]. If Saddam Hussein were in charge of American foreign policy towards Iraq, he would do exactly the same thing as we have.”
  • Lower the military budget. “Military spending should be cut by 50 percent over the next 10 years, with increases in spending for social programs.”
  • Reforming gun laws: “You have to be licensed to drive a car, and a car is not presumptively assumed to be a weapon. The same should be true of guns. Guns should be required to have gun locks.”

One can understand the reasons offered by the debate sponsors that to present substantive debates requires limiting participation to substantive, viable candidates. Nader has shown he is such a candidate.

Under the current rules, the substance of our national debates has been diminished.

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000