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Let’s Debate “Basics”

July 4, 2000

In 1968, major-league pitchers, led by Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, were so dominant that the team owners feared that the health of the game (read: paid attendance) was in danger. Hitting was correspondingly anemic: Carl Yastrzemski won a batting crown with a measly .301 average. Since fans pay to see hitting, the owners changed the rules to favor the batter: the strike zone was shrunk, the pitching mound was lowered, and designated hitters sprang into existence.

Today, of course, the batters are going ape. No home-run record is safe, and as of this morning a dozen players are hitting over .350.

The lesson is that the outcome of a game depends not only on the performance of the players, but on the rules they play under. To control the rules is to control the results.

This applies to politics too. That’s why we have a Constitution: a set of fundamental conditions that limit outcomes. No matter what party wins an election, there will be no total concentration of power, no massacre, imprisonment, or expropriation of the losers. As James Madison put it, our Constitution is “established by the people and unalterable by the government.” That’s the theory, anyway. (Nobody told the Supreme Court.)

[Breaker quote: How the 
media may decide the election]The crucial events in our elections are often battles that occur long before election day, battles in which the voters have little to say. This year the presidential election may be decided by the ground rules for televised debates. Will the debates be confined to the two “major” candidates, or will they include such “minor” candidates as Ralph Nader of the Green Party and Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party?

Nader and Buchanan are both excellent speakers and both would insist on discussing issues George Bush and Al Gore would much rather avoid. Naturally, the two giant parties don’t want to give any dwarfs the chance to embarrass them.

The big media agree with Bush and Gore. They are hostile to participation by smaller parties. This seems odd, since the media usually profess sympathy for underdogs, protestors, minorities, and dissenters. They usually promote “new ideas,” “inclusiveness,” “pluralism,” and “competing views.”

But not this time. Two parties seem to be quite enough, thank you. The New York Times, the pompous pipe-organ of the Establishment, has called for excluding minor parties from the debates, sniffing with disapproval at Nader’s “misguided crusade.”

Nader responded with a letter to the editor denouncing the two “lookalike parties” and the Times’s own “disdain for genuine competition.” A front-page headline in the Times that same day underlined his point: “Gore and Bush Agree on Basics, But Differ Sharply on Details.” Maybe it’s those bipartisan “basics” that need to be challenged.

“Bipartisan” is not a synonym for “unanimous.” It’s more like a synonym for “duopoly.” If two giant corporations dominated an industry the way the Democrats and Republicans dominate politics, colluding to exclude smaller competitors from the market, there would be federal antitrust action in a flash.

In the marketplace, the consumer is sovereign, choosing among countless options for most products. But in politics, the voter is supposed to be content with only two options, less and less distinguishable. Just when Mexico has finally achieved a two-party system, under American supervision, the United States is moving toward a virtual one-party system, with two “lookalike” parties agreeing on “basics” while squabbling about “details.”

The presidential debates would obviously be much more exciting if they were opened to real competition. Not only Nader and Buchanan, but Howard Phillips of the Constitution Party and Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party should participate. They, too, are both forceful debaters who would challenge the corrupt premises of the two-party system and convert the campaign to a discussion of fundamental principles.

Nader, Buchanan, Phillips, and Browne have other things in common: they are self-made men who don’t need others to write their speeches and feed them punch lines. They aren’t candidates because their daddies were politicians, but because they have their own philosophies and principles. They want to talk about “basics.”

Maybe the new Mexican government should send a delegation to supervise this election, ensuring that the American voter has some real choices.

Joseph Sobran

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