This is the second essay in a three-part series. In this essay, we will consider the philosophical case for using forceful means to protest 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 first essay discussed a peaceful method of protesting the policies of the CPD, 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, which was co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul G. Kirk, the Republican and Democratic national chairmen at the time. In 1988, the League of Women Voters announced their withdrawal from debate sponsorship, saying in a statement that
“…the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
The CPD has controlled all presidential debates involving Republican and Democratic candidates since 1988. At a 1987 press conference announcing the commission’s creation, Fahrenkopf said that the commission was not likely to include third-party candidates in debates. Kirk said that third-party candidates should be excluded. A third-party candidate has only been invited once; Ross Perot was allowed to debate in 1992 because both major-party candidates believed that his presence was in their self-interest and would help to draw support away from their major-party opponent. Perot was excluded when he ran again in 1996, and finished with less than half of the votes he earned in 1992. In 2000, the CPD established a rule that for a candidate to be included in the national debates he or she must garner at least 15 percent support across five national polls. This arbitrary and capricious standard has kept all third-party candidates from debating since its inception.
There have been many efforts by third-party candidates to gain access to the debate stage. The direct approach of trying to reach 15 percent in national polls has obviously been tried by all, with universal failure. The American election system encourages two parties, the media enables the exclusion of alternative voices, campaign financiers donate to the two major parties to maintain their corrupt bargains with the state, ballot access laws are rigged against third parties, and the pollsters either exclude the names of third-party candidates or ask about them after focusing on a two-candidate match-up which will not appear on the ballot. This creates an uphill battle to reach 15 percent which has proven too difficult for any third-party candidate since Perot, and it likely requires the billions of dollars that he had available. These factors together create a Catch-22: A third-party candidate needs to be in the debates to get the polling numbers needed to be in the debates.
Some candidates have realized the absurdity of this setup and tried to fight against it. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that corporate contributions to the CPD violate the Federal Election Campaign Act. The FEC ruled that they do not, and the D.C. Circuit Court declined to overrule the FEC. In 2004, Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik and Green Party candidate David Cobb were arrested in St. Louis, Mo. when they attempted to enter a debate to serve an order to show cause to the CPD. In 2012, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the CPD, the Democratic National Committee, and the Republican National Committee in D.C. Circuit Court, citing the Sherman Act and claiming “illegal conspiracy or contract in restraint of trade.” The injuctive relief was denied, and the case was eventually dismissed in 2014 due to lack of jurisdiction. Also in 2012, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala were arrested by Hofstra University campus security when they attempted to enter the debate site. They were handcuffed and detained in a warehouse for eight hours before being released. In 2015, Johnson, Stein, the Libertarian Party, and the Green Party filed suit against the CPD, DNC, RNC, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, claiming violation of anti-trust laws. The case was dismissed in August 2016 on spurious reasoning, leaving an insufficient amount of time for an appeal.
Efforts to bring down the CPD by going after its sponsors have been similarly fruitless. While such efforts did lead to BBH New York, YWCA USA, and Philips Electronics withdrawing their sponsorship of the 2012 debates, no meaningful impact was made. As the CPD is only important every four years, it is difficult to maintain public engagement long enough to organize an economically significant boycott of the CPD’s corporate sponsors. Even if it were possible to effect such a boycott, the CPD is mostly funded by a small number of private donors who would be unaffected by a boycott in any meaningful way because their identities are hidden.
There have also been debates organized by Free and Equal which invite the most prominent third-party candidates along with the major-party candidates. But as part of the memoranda of understanding that major-party candidates make with each other, they have always agreed not to engage in non-CPD debates with other candidates. All non-CPD debates since the CPD was founded have featured third-party candidates only, and accordingly receive almost no press coverage.
Resorting To Force
It is clear that this problem is not going to be solved in a passive and peaceful manner. Just as government will not hold government accountable because it not in their self-interest to do so, government will not hold accountable a non-profit organization that serves the interest of those who control the government. If the CPD is to be brought down and its sorry excuses for debates either opened to third parties or shut down, a more active and forceful response is required. An active but peaceful method of filling the live audience with anti-duopoly hecklers was detailed in the first essay and is certainly worth attempting, but it is the sort of protest which the CPD could easily prevent in the future by further restricting the audience or holding its events without an audience. As such, let us make a philosophical case for a protest which resorts to force.
In order to justify the use of force within a libertarian moral framework, it is necessary to show that an act of aggression is being perpetrated and that the use of force in question defends against that act of aggression. Let us begin by laying out the facts of the case:
- The CPD holds debates between presidential candidates.
- Its criteria are clearly designed to exclude third-party candidates and produce a head-to-head presentation of the two major-party candidates.
- All available evidence shows that a candidate must appear in these debates in order to win a presidential election.
- Peaceful efforts to include third-party candidates have been stopped by force.
- The President is the chief executive of the United States government, wielding immense power and influence over both the American people and the rest of the world.
- The United States government, like any government, is a group of people who exercise a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area.
From these facts, it is clear that the CPD controls who gets to give orders to those who initiate force in American society, as well as who does not. Namely, only Republicans, Democrats, and those with enough money to run without either of the two parties gets a chance to do this. All others are excluded, and history shows that this exclusion is backed by violence. Involving oneself in third-party politics for the purpose of electing a president who will lessen the acts of aggression that government agents commit against people is unlikely to be the most effective method of defending oneself against the state, but it is a legitimate pragmatic option in a democratic statist system with a population that is unwilling to revolt. These defensive efforts are met with force by government agents who enforce the will of the CPD, DNC, and RNC. Further, the CPD and those who enforce their will act to silence the political speech of some people while amplifying the political speech of other people within a system in which there is no legitimate justification for doing so. Because such force is levied against defensive efforts, it is aggressive in nature, meaning that defensive force used against it is morally justified.
Next, we must consider which targets for this defensive force are legitimate and proper, concerns about organization, tactics and likely responses, and some potential objections.
Legitimate and Proper Targets
This is a case in which some legitimate targets for defensive force are not proper targets. This is because using force against them is within the bounds of the non-aggression principle, but doing so would not accomplish the goal. For example, using force against major-party presidential candidates is certainly justified as self-defense for other reasons, but doing so would be counterproductive in this case. The primary objective is to put third-party candidates on the debate stage for a proper discussion that informs the American people about all of their options, and this objective would be undermined by using violence against any presidential candidate. Neither would the secondary objective of shutting down CPD events be served by using force against the major-party nominees, as the DNC and/or RNC could simply substitute a new candidate and continue as before.
Likewise, using force against debate moderators, establishment press members covering the debate, or administrators of the hosting university would harm the cause. Even though they are complicit in acts of aggression against third-party candidates and their supporters, using force against them would make the protesters appear far less sympathetic to the American people. The legitimate and proper targets are the CPD board members, the debates themselves, and those who use force to protect them. The use of defensive force should be limited to them if at all possible. This would only become difficult in the event of a counter-offensive against the protesters in which major-party candidates, debate moderators, establishment press members, or university faculty decided to participate. Government agents are almost certain to disallow them from doing so, making this a dismissible concern.
A third-party candidate who has been excluded from the debates by the 15 percent rule but has enough ballot access to win the election and is constitutionally eligible to serve as President would have to be involved in any successful plan for forceful action. This is because it would be all but pointless to hear from a candidate who cannot win and serve, and fruitless to use force to place a candidate in the debates if the candidate does not wish to be so placed. An effort independent from any campaign to organize such an effort would be unlikely to result in anything other than a visit from federal agents to the organizers of said effort. But the candidate cannot be too involved. The candidate needs plausible deniability in order to avoid criminal charges, disavow anyone who goes off script, and be able to become President without having to worry about immediate impeachment.
A forceful protest would have to be organized outside of publicly available channels such as social media platforms, as using non-clandestine communications would alert government agents and result in the protesters being raided and arrested before they could begin. Plans would need to rely primarily upon existing groups near the area of a protest (such as local militia organizations) as well as campaign activists who are not officially connected to a campaign. This is because bringing in large numbers of armed people to a location from elsewhere would arouse suspicion, and involving official campaign staff is likely to get the candidate charged with crimes. Finally, such an effort would need to be planned several months in advance in order to get participants organized, mobilized, and familiarized with the specifics of the operation.
Tactics and Responses
A forceful protest against the CPD could take several forms. The most direct approach would be for a third-party candidate to march on a debate site with a group of armed supporters, declare that they are entering the debate site to place the candidate on stage, and indicate a willingness to escalate the use of force as far as necessary to accomplish this goal. The two most likely responses to this approach would be a violent skirmish in which the third-party candidate and many other people are injured or killed, or the cancellation of the debate due to the security risk being presented. Which one of the two occurred would depend on whether the security forces believed they could win a battle with the protesters. Further debates would be under much heavier guard to make sure that no other candidate attempts such an effort. As such, the direct approach strategy may be crossed off the list.
A second strategy would be to occupy the CPD offices in Washington, D.C. for the purpose of shutting down the CPD at the source. This would involve holding CPD personnel captive inside their headquarters and demanding open debates as the condition for their release. This approach is also very likely to go awry. Resistance on the part of the CPD personnel could very easily result in bloodshed, as could ignoring the protesters’ demands. If this were the only activity undertaken by protesters, then the debates could proceed as planned, putting the protesters in a position of either having to back down or escalate to harming the CPD personnel. This method would also be a public relations nightmare, as no one likes people who take hostages. The most likely response would be a SWAT raid that exterminates the protesters, followed by an establishment media demonization of all third-party candidates. As such, the office takeover strategy is also unviable.
A third method would be to occupy debate venues in advance for the purpose of shutting down CPD events unless they abolish the 15 percent rule and open the debates to all candidates who meet the constitutional eligibility and ballot access requirements. The CPD typically chooses three presidential debate sites, one vice presidential debate site, and an alternate site to use in case one of the former four becomes unusable for some reason. An armed occupation of all five sites for the duration of the debate season would require a few hundred people at each site and provisions to last three to four weeks. More protesters would need to be ready nationwide in order to prevent any hastily scheduled alternatives from having a venue, but given the amount of planning that is required for construction and security, these are not events which could be moved easily. Unlike the former two methods, the protesters would be in a defensive rather than an offensive posture once in position. This method also does far more to stop CPD activities because it targets said activities directly.
While it is true that government agents could overpower the protesters, doing so would needlessly spill a great amount of blood and give them some very negative press. Given the history of standoff incidents and the retaliations which have resulted from them, government agents tend to be more reserved about such confrontations than they once were. Thus, the most likely response by the CPD would be to cancel the debates for the election cycle, with the next most likely response being to give in to the protesters’ demands. Of course, the establishment media would have every reason to demonize the protesters, so there would have to be eloquent and reasonable public speakers among the protesters who could clearly articulate their objectives, why they are resorting to forceful means, and refute establishment media lies and fallacies. The rise of alternative media is certain to make a positive narrative easier to craft.
The first objection which may be raised is that the CPD is a private organization, and therefore its members have the right to admit or exclude whomever they want. This is an autistic response, as it completely denies the context of the situation. Neither the CPD, the DNC, nor the RNC are free market entities that operate by providing goods and services through voluntary means. These are organizations that are used by the elite to maintain their stranglehold on state power and the unfair advantages that they gain therefrom. While the CPD is considered a private, non-profit organization for legal purposes, it should not be regarded as a private organization for the purpose of determining what its members should be allowed to do because it is an instrument used by those who control the government as a means of perpetuating that control.
Second, some will argue that using force against the CPD violates the non-aggression principle. This stems from the proportionality of force doctrine and the immediate danger doctrine, two perversions of libertarian theory which were introduced by leftist entryists. If a defender may not use any amount of force necessary to stop an aggressor, then all an aggressor need do to get away with immoral behavior is to use force in such a way that the defender cannot use enough force to stop the aggressor. If one may only use force in a situation of immediate danger, then people are left without a way to recover stolen property, stop someone who hires hitmen, defend themselves against state aggression, or do much of anything about criminals who can obfuscate responsibility. With these fake libertarian theories rebutted, the facts of the case discussed earlier clearly demonstrate that the CPD is an aggressor.
A third objection is that all of the above uses of force described in the previous section can result in multiple felony charges for each protester. This is true, but it is no argument against such strategies. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail,
“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
Just as government will not hold accountable itself or a non-profit organization that serves the interest of those who control the government because it is against their rational self-interest to do so, it is also in their self-interest to criminalize methods of protest which are capable of meaningfully challenging the establishment. Note that should a third-party candidate win a presidential election because his or her supporters resorted to force to stop the CPD from hosting exclusionary debates, the powers of the Presidency could be used to grant a full pardon to everyone involved. The only caveat is that the candidate must maintain a degree of distance from the protesters, as failure to do so could lead to impeachment proceedings.
A fourth concern is that presidential elections do not seem to change the course of the nation very much. Regardless of who wins, the deep state continues as before because there is no rational incentive for a politician to rein it in. In the current framework, this is true. But political campaigns can function as an outreach method for anti-establishment movements of all types because people give more weight to someone who is in the running to have a position of political authority over them. People who would normally never be listened to can gain a platform for their messages by running for office. That being said, it is likely that altering or abolishing the presidential debate structure would allow for different kinds of presidential candidates to win elections, some of whom may eschew realpolitik to rein in the deep state for ideological reasons.
Fifth, one may wonder why we should go after the presidential debates when there are bigger fish to fry. After all, liberty requires revolution, so why not try to end the state now? The answer is that the manpower and resources to succeed in such an endeavor are not yet available. The number of people required to stop the CPD would probably be a thousandfold less than the number of people required to abolish the United States government, and we must work within our means if we wish to be successful. That being said, a large conflagration begins with a single spark, and using force to attempt to stop the CPD could achieve this regardless of the end result. If the protest is successful, then those who would address their grievances by direct action will be emboldened. If government agents crush the protest, then many people will be angry and willing to seek retribution. Either outcome is favorable for a more broad revolutionary movement.
Finally, there is the objection that the use of force to gain debate access does not bear thinking about because no candidate is willing to do it. Unfortunately, this is true at the time of this writing. There are only two third parties of significance in 2016; the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. Addressing a grievance by force of arms is not the style of the Green Party. The 2016 Libertarian ticket consists of moderate ex-Republican governors, not revolutionaries who would be willing to resort to forceful tactics. The Constitution Party and other small third parties lack the voter base and popular support to mount such an effort, even if they were willing. It is thus clear that we should expect to see no armed protests in 2016, and the CPD will get away with their shenanigans once again. But as this may not always be the case, the third essay will consider a hypothetical future election in which there is a third-party candidate who decides to force his way onto the debate stage.