How to Peacefully Protest the Commission on Presidential Debates

This is the first essay in a three-part series. In this essay, we will discuss peaceful means of protesting the policies of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which are geared toward ensuring that the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates do not have to debate anyone else. The second essay will make a philosophical case for forceful action, and the third essay will detail the campaign of a hypothetical future third-party presidential candidate who makes use of the tactics described in the first and second essays.

In the weeks leading up to every United States presidential election, a series of debates between the candidates are held. When the current series of regular debates began in 1976, this was handled by the League of Women Voters. By 1987, the Republican and Democratic parties decided to take over control of the debates by creating the Commission on Presidential Debates. This organization has served to marginalize any challengers to the political duopoly and their two presidential candidates, setting arbitrary and capricious standards which have excluded all other presidential candidates except one since the CPD was formed.

There have been many efforts by third-party candidates to gain access to the debate stage, but the barrier of 15 percent support in polls which can be manipulated to produce the result of excluding third-party candidates has stymied the direct approach. Protests outside of the venues have fallen on deaf ears, lawsuits against the CPD and the duopoly candidates have been dismissed on spurious grounds and with timing convenient to the political establishment, and attempts to enter the venues by the excluded candidates have only resulted in their arrests and detainment.

While the use of force to remedy this situation would be justified, as will be argued in the second essay, there is a peaceful method of protest which has yet to be tried and could shame the CPD and the establishment press into opening the debates without resorting to the use of arms.

First, let us consider some facts which will be useful in determining the best course of action. The CPD holds its debates in auditoriums located on university campuses. Tickets to the events are typically only available to students and faculty of the hosting university rather than members of the general public, and are usually distributed through a lottery system. Third-party candidates are disproportionately supported by young people, and university campuses have a high concentration of the youngest people who are eligible to vote.

With these facts in mind, the goal should be for supporters of third-party candidates (or anyone else who is opposed to the CPD’s exclusionary policies) to get their hands on as many tickets as possible. This is best organized by third-party groups at each university, as they will have a better idea of how to fulfill this goal than any outsider could. But in general, all third-party supporters should enter the ticket lotteries, win as many as possible, then make an effort to buy or barter for tickets from other people who win them. Once the tickets are in the hands of as many third-party supporters as possible, these people need to have an organizational meeting to discuss the following plan:

  1. At the meeting, the participants should number themselves in a way that does not follow any recognizable pattern, such as going alphabetically by last name, following seniority as students, going alphabetically by major, etc.
  2. At the debate, everyone should be dressed in a neutral fashion. Wearing clothing or accessories which indicate support for third-party candidates is a good way to get removed from the premises before the protest can begin.
  3. Once everyone is seated in the venue and the debate begins, everyone should wait until the first candidate is giving his or her first answer. At some time while this is occurring, the person numbered first should begin heckling the performance.
  4. The heckling should consist of speech that is on topic and must not constitute violence or threats toward the CPD or the candidates. There are many statements which could be shouted by a heckler; “Let (insert third-party candidate’s name here) debate!,” “Open the debates!,” “The CPD is rigging the election!,” “Stop perpetrating the duopoly!,” are just a few examples.
  5. This should go on until security physically removes the heckler, at which point the heckler should offer no resistance beyond the point of going limp and making security carry them out.
  6. The interval between hecklers will depend upon how many people are available for the protest, but there would ideally be a wait of two minutes or less between disruptions.
  7. If a person does not heckle on time or within the next 30 seconds, the next person in order should begin heckling.
  8. If the candidates or the moderator address the issue being raised by the protesters, the hecklers who take their turns afterward could refute whatever is said rather than use the sort of statements outlined in step 4.
  9. Any request made by the moderator, candidates, or anyone else to stop heckling should be ignored.

The result of a successful implementation of this plan will be to disallow the CPD and the two major parties from being able to perform their quadrennial charade by causing nearly constant disruptions throughout. In the process, tens of millions of Americans will hear the involved parties being relentlessly mocked by angry voters while being informed of the true nature of what they are watching.

There are several counter-measures which may be used both during and after such a protest. All of these will make the CPD and the major parties look heavy-handed and opposed to free speech and political freedom, but they will probably attempt these measures regardless, so let us consider them. The easiest would be to run the live broadcast with a delay in order to censor out the hecklers. This would be very obvious and cause everyone watching to wonder what the establishment press does not want them to hear, but it would prevent the hecklers from getting their message out in the moment. This may be countered by people with smart phones and other recording devices posting their accounts of the events taking place in order to avoid media censorship. Another countermeasure could be to empty the audience and continue the debate in an empty auditorium. This would allow the CPD, the moderators, and the candidates to continue their propaganda in peace while making the rest of the audience more angry at the protesters, but it would cause an even greater uproar afterward as alternative media personalities interview those involved and raise awareness of what happened. It would also be difficult to hide this tactic from those watching at home. A third measure would be to charge protesters with various trumped-up criminal charges in an effort to make an example out of the protesters. This could have a chilling effect on future efforts, but only if those organizing similar protests at other CPD events allow it to. As long as everyone obeys the fourth step of the plan in terms of engaging in no threats or acts of violence against anyone, any criminal charges should be dismissed as running afoul of the Bill of Rights. Fourth, the protesters could face sanctions from the universities they attend. This could have much the same effect as potential criminal charges, and would also be likely to fail for the same reasons. Finally, the CPD, the moderators, and/or the candidates may decide to hold all future debates without an audience. This would effectively end this method of protest, but it would signal to those who oppose the presidential debates in their current form that all peaceful avenues have been tried and failed, meaning that the use of force would be the only form of protest remaining.

This concludes the plan for a novel type of peaceful protest against the CPD. While the plan will not be easy to execute and there is no guarantee of success, it is best to exhaust all peaceful methods before resorting to force when one is presenting a case in the court of public opinion.

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