Our handcuffed politics: What the arrest of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, tells you about America

Tom Bissell

It’s never pleasant to be reminded that your country is not what you want it to be--and is much less than what it aspires to be. I’m speaking of an event that took place at the edge of last week’s (otherwise excellent) debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. What happened was that the Green Party candidate for president, Jill Stein, and her running mate, Cheri Honkala, showed up to make a point about the closed nature of our two-party political system only to be summarily arrested, hauled off to a detention center, handcuffed to chairs, and kept for several hours. Point made, I guess.

Friends, neighbors, countrymen, and countrywomen, I’d like you all to think about that. In the United States of America, the representative of a major political party--a party with wide representation around the world, moreover--was shackled to a chair for reasons no more compelling than her political affiliation.

Obviously, the story of Dr. Stein’s arrest is somewhat more complicated than government thugs menacing a kind, gentle Green. Something as huge and calibrated as a presidential debate has rules about who can take part, and there can be no doubt that Dr. Stein and Honkala knew they were flouting those rules in showing up on Long Island. They did something provocative to make a point, yes. But the response to their provocative act was akin to treating a termite problem with napalm.

It might be helpful to take a look at the rules that govern our presidential debates. Rule 1: The candidate must be constitutionally eligible to hold the office of the President of the United States. Rule 2: The candidate must “have achieved ballot access in a sufficient number of states to win a theoretical Electoral College majority in the general election.” Rule 3: The candidate must have achieved “a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations.”

These obvious strictures are the work of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which on paper, at least, sounds like an altogether bookish, high-minded outfit. When the Commission is dutifully thanked at the beginning of every debate, I’m always tempted to imagine some nobly ancient board of directors, sitting around a white table in an airtight underground lair, nodding demurely at the acknowledgment. In fact, the CPD was created in the 1980s and is mostly staffed with Democrat and Republican functionaries. By accident or design, which is to say by design, the rules the CPD concocted to determine who can take part in presidential debates are so wildly and obviously gamed to favor our two establishment parties that only one candidate, H. Ross Perot, has managed to muscle his way onto the debating dais since the CPD was created.

Remember the endless Republican debates held during primary season? A lot of conservatives complained, at the time, that entirely too many candidates were invited to take part, including hopefuls who were consistently polling around 2 or 3 percent. Beyond that, the Republican debates were far more raucous (and mean) than any of the CPD-sanctioned debates have been so far. Why might this be? Well, the other important function the CPD performs is to ensure that nothing too embarrassing occurs to our chosen pair of candidates during the debates, which means allowing both sides to submit long, no-brown-M&Ms-style lists of demands. Given all this, it’s amazing that the Romney-Obama debates were spirited and interesting at all. As for who exactly funds and underwrites the CPD, an ostensibly non-profit organization . . . well, that story is a bit more complicated, weird, and depressing.

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Yet I’m unable to forget about two women handcuffed to chairs for the high crime of belonging to the wrong party. Our current political system not only permits but practically mandates such a gargantuan overreaction, and that our news media largely neglects to report on this outrage is sad and more than a little shameful. Imagine, as a thought experiment, an ideologically outlying Iranian presidential candidate suffering the same fate, and think of what, say, Fox News would make of that. I don’t agree with the hippie-dippy theorem that ours is a two-party corporate police state--anyone who buys this, I submit, has never been to an actual police state--but sometimes I wonder if we’re slowly drifting toward a nation run not by Democrats and Republicans but controlled by Democrat® and Republican™. This year’s Republican effort to keep off the ballot Gary Johnson, the chosen candidate of the Libertarian Party, the third-largest political party in the country, has been particularly gruesome to watch.

Those who say that there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans are not paying close enough attention. But one way in which the parties are cheerfully similar is the sneaky, subtle, conscience-shredding lengths both have gone to in order to secure their dominance of our system. We joke--and, I admit, I frequently joke--about the inadvisability of voting for a third-party candidate. We call it a “wasted vote,” as though a citizen expressing her preference in a representative democracy could ever be considered a wasted vote.

Few Americans, I think, desire a brawling European-style parliamentary system in which Greens ally themselves to right-wing populists and Christian Democrats ally themselves to whoever hates them least to come together to do anything useful--though it’s hard to see why, exactly, that’s any worse than a two-party system in which the bed-wetting threat of filibuster can be enough to grind the gears of government to a halt. What, in the end, is there to fear from opening up our debates to more third-party candidates? Is the real worry that votes will be wasted--or lost? No party terrified of honest competition deserves to win, and any country willing to tolerate a handcuffed candidate deserves whatever government it gets.