A Taste of Their Own Medicine
For political junkies, this election cycle has been remarkable. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders caught the experts off guard and has led to endless analysis and speculation about what these insurgent campaigns mean to the future of our two major parties and the country itself. The 2016 election cycle will be studied for years to come and lead to fundamental changes within both the Republican and Democratic parties.
For a political Independent, last week had to be the high point so far. Trump’s surrogates took to the Sunday morning talk shows to describe how the GOP rules were rigged. Trump himself, in speech after speech, echoed the same theme — culminating in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Thursday. This follows significant discussion on the Democratic side about how the Democratic super delegates tip the scales in a manner that’s anything but democratic.
As an Independent, all I can say is, “Welcome to our world.” Democratic and Republican politicians have been writing rules for two centuries that disenfranchise Independent voters while cementing in advantages for the duopoly that controls our politics. In 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed into law a redistricting plan that gave his Democratic-Republicans an advantage over their rival Federalists, an era of rule-rigging was ushered in. It has continued — unabated — ever since.
While much of the chicanery is intended to give an advantage to one of the major parties over the other, disenfranchising independent-minded voters is also a primary goal. Now that more Americans self-identify as Independents than either Democrats or Republicans, this isn’t a small group that’s being written out of our democratic process.
Every time members of the ruling duopoly get a chance to re-write the rules, they take full advantage. Even “good government” reforms are used as Trojan horses to slip in provisions that benefit the duopoly. The secret ballot that was new to America in the late 1800s was supposed to end the practice of ruffians intimidating voters into supporting their preferred candidate.
It also allowed politicians to write the rules for how those ballots were designed. In state after state (including my home state of Kansas), the dominant party wrote rules that prevented “fusion” tickets, where more than one party nominated the same candidate for office. This had the effect of disenfranchising minor parties that used to team up with each other or with one of the major parties to get their candidates elected. The net result was that minor parties never thrived again in America after the turn of the century.
In 1974, with Americans’ disgusted by the image of Richard Nixon accepting $2 million in cash from a single donor, limits on campaign contributions were enacted: $1,000 for each primary for federal office and another $1,000 for a general election. Political action committees were limited to $5,000. But the political parties themselves could receive up to $25,000—provided they were a “major” party. Practically speaking, this meant Republicans or Democrats. For minor parties, the limit was $5,000. So even at the height of their reform zeal as Watergate was unfolding, Washington policy makers were careful to protect the duopoly – giving themselves a fundraising limit that was five times as large as minor parties.
That disparity has only grown worse over the past four decades. Major parties can now accept up to $830,000 per year from a single donor. This new limit was established in a backroom deal in 2014, without public hearings, and hidden in the deep recesses of a bill intended to avert a government shutdown. The limits for an Independent candidate without a party to spend on their behalf: $5,400 for every two-year election cycle.
The duopoly also controls access to the presidential debate stage. In 1988, the League of Women Voters said it would no longer run the presidential debates because the candidates were demanding terms that didn’t foster substantive debates and, according to their president, “the League [had] no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
The duopoly was only too happy to step into the void, forming of the Commission on Presidential Debates. The CPD is supposed to be non-partisan. It’s actually bipartisan, which is a whole different deal. Made up of eight prominent Democrats and eight prominent Republicans, the CPD has established debate access rules that make it all but impossible for anyone but a billionaire to run for president outside the two-party system. Is it any wonder that the only two credible Independents to consider running — even in a year in which voters are clamoring for an unconventional candidate — are the billionaire former mayor of New York and a retired Marine general who has the backing of an anonymous group of billionaire conservatives?
Rigging the rules continues to be the two major parties’ instinctual reaction to any electoral challenge. What Trump voters are now experiencing, as the Washington establishment uses every tool at its disposal to stop them, is not new to this election cycle. The ability to control the rules of the game is why Congress has a 15 percent approval rating and a 94 percent re-election rate. The abuse of power allows the ruling duopoly in Washington to avoid accountability and ignore the genuine needs of the American people. In this year when the American people are so dissatisfied with their limited choices, it’s also why we are suffering from a crisis of legitimacy in this country — as over half of Americans say they would never consider voting for Hillary Clinton and a whopping 63 percent say they would never vote for Donald Trump.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Trump protested the sleight-of-hand by Colorado’s GOP establishment to deny him delegates by raising a more sweeping objection to politics-as-usual. “Let me ask America a question,” he wrote. “How has the ‘system’ been working for you and your family?”
This is the right question. And while I empathize with Trump and Sanders supporters who feel the scales are tilted, if the candidates themselves are really interested in leveling the playing field, I’d invite them to support real reforms that treat every voter and every candidate the same. If you truly want to demonstrate your commitment to fairness, get the leaders of your party in Congress to come together right now and support a real reform agenda that serves all Americans, not just Democrats and Republicans.
A good start would be to change campaign finance laws to allow Independent candidates who choose not to be subservient to party leaders and the special interests that fund the parties to receive the same amount from donors as the parties themselves (hopefully a number far lower than the indefensible $830,000 per year). Next, let’s change the composition of the Federal Election Commission to add three non-partisan members to the three Democrats and three Republicans that oversee our campaign finance laws. Finally, we could disband the Commission on Presidential Debates and re-empower the League of Women Voters to run the presidential debates in a non-partisan manner.
If the candidates who now feel slighted by their party rules are not willing to put their heft behind real reforms that empower all Americans, then their complaints about their respective parties and “rigged” rules sound like a lot of whining and hollow campaign rhetoric — yet another example of politicians who embrace high-minded ideals, but only when it benefits them.