There are many signs that tell you when a democracy is in trouble.
There are two vital signs that tell you when the trouble is serious. One
is when over half the electorate boycotts national elections because the
system is so corrupt that they believe their participation makes no
difference. The second is when debate on the critical issues of the day
is so controlled that it stifles genuine dialogue, predetermines the
outcome of elections and distorts the will of the American people.
Those danger signs are glaringly present in our political culture.
The lawsuit filed Monday against the FEC by a cross-section of American
voters, is a direct challenge to that culture. It is a challenge to the
corrupt two parties — and one institution constructed expressly to
service them — the Federal Election Commission. I’m thrilled to be a
co-plaintiff in this action.
Seventy million or more Americans will watch the televised
presidential debates this fall. The debates are widely regarded as the
most important events of the presidential campaign. But as of this
moment, those debates in the hands of the Commission on Presidential
Debates — will be a high profile commercial for two party values. If
allowed to go forward on their current track, they will narrow the
dialogue on trade and foreign policy and will make a mockery of the
popular belief that our political system must be reformed.
As someone who has sued the Commission on Presidential Debates
several times, I can tell you there is plenty to object to — legally
and politically — about the Commission’s structure, tax exemption,
guidelines — even its name — which helps it masquerade as a neutral
governmental body when it is in fact a partisan non-governmental
corporation run by the former head of the Democratic National Committee
and the former head of the Republican National Committee. But the CPD is
not the target of the new lawsuit. The target of the suit is the Federal
Election Commission — itself a thoroughly bipartisan institution –
which adopted the regulations that create a “safe harbor” for the CPD’s
exclusionary and partisan activity. The FEC created a loophole in its
debate regulations in 1996 which explicitly violates the Congressional
statutes governing campaign expenditures and contributions.
In passing the enabling legislation, Congress directed the FEC to
exempt corporate and labor expenditures in connection with federal
elections if — and only if — the activities funded by those
contributions support nonpartisan activity and promote voter education
and participation. But the FEC put in place a regulation which violates
both the letter and the spirit of the law — a regulation which allows
the CPD to raise and spend money to conduct presidential debates — not
as nonpartisan activity — but to support the candidacies of particular
candidates — namely the Democrat and the Republican. This partisan”
loophole” encourages the influence of corporate special interest money
on the electoral process — while keeping the American people out. It
must be closed. The lawsuit asks the court to close it.
Over the course of the last ten years, something very explosive has
occurred in U.S. politics. Millions of Americans have voted for
independent candidates. Millions have voted for structural political
reforms from term limits to ballot access to campaign finance — all
reforms which chip away at the castle walls which protect the two party
system. A third of the electorate considers itself independent. Forty
seven percent of Americans say they want an independent option in the
But the electoral system — closely held and carefully guarded by the
two parties — continues to define itself in bipartisan terms and
continues to equate bipartisanship with nonpartisanship. They were never
equivalent in the abstract. But now, the American people have made that
Some will still try to tell you that this kind of talk of political
partisanship and corruption is simply left rhetoric. It isn’t. Political
corruption is as mainstream a concern as taxes, education and the
President’s sex life. Everyone in America knows our system is corrupt.
Oh, yes — we’re corrupt, the two parties say. But there’s nothing you
can do about it. That’s the Bush/Gore message to the American people.
That’s the CPD message to the American people. That’s the FEC message to
the American people. You might consider yourselves independents, but
sooner or later you’re going to have no choice but to come into the two
party fold. Americans aren’t buying that message. Well over half the
American people in recent polls named two independent candidates they
believe should be included in the debates –Pat Buchanan and Ralph
Nader. And they should be included. The new lawsuit against the FEC is
not about the candidates; it’s about the voters. It’s about our
democracy. It’s about the American people, standing outside the gateway
to political power, demanding to be let in. My hope is that the lawsuit
breaks open the lock on that gate.