Look who's acting like the Microsoft of politics
by Steven Hill and Rob Richie
For the past year we have watched the U.S. government's attempt to apply
anti-monopoly laws to the business practices of Microsoft. Ever since the
Sherman Antitrust Act was passed a century ago, it has been widely accepted
that domination of a market by a handful of private corporations can be bad
for business, bad for consumers and bad for the nation.
The same is true in politics, yet the Department of Justice gives the
Republican-Democrat duopoly a free ride. The problem is that, unlike
corporations that are regulated by government, the Democrats and Republicans
themselves make up the political laws and regulations. The fox is guarding
the hen house. Two recent examples clearly demonstrate the problem.
Last month the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) established
criteria for who would be permitted to participate in televised presidential
debates this fall. Who controls the Commission? Why, the Democrats and
Republicans. Not surprisingly, the criteria established are so severe that
the only minor party or independent presidential candidate who might have
qualified in the last sixty years was George Wallace in 1968.
The CPD would require candidates to have at least 15% of the vote in five
national polls a week before a debate. Ross Perot would not have qualified
in 1992 despite ultimately winning 19% after he was included in the
televised debates. Neither would John Anderson, independent presidential
candidate in 1980. Using this criteria, Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota
would have been barred from participating in their televised gubernatorial
The CPD would have us believe that the debates are not about serious
discussion regarding our country's future by credible candidates, but only
about choosing between candidates who can win. Yet even this standard is a
canard. Jesse Ventura's poll numbers did not rise until voters could
contrast him with his competition via Minnesota's televised debates.
It's not only minor party or independent candidates that are excluded by
the monopoly practices of the Democrats and Republicans. Sometimes their
political machines try to eat one of their own. Thus, we had the recent
indefensible attempt by the Republican Party of New York, which supports
George Bush, to bar front-runner John McCain from the New York state ballot.
Since New York is our third-largest state and an important prize for any
candidate, the brazen practices of these machine Republicans could have
affected the right of Republican voters all across the country to nominate
their presidential candidate.
It took a federal lawsuit and popular pressure for the Bush forces in New
York to back down. But what that sorry episode proved is that, just like a
Microsoft or Rockefeller's Standard Oil, far too many political bosses will
stop at nothing to defeat their opposition.
It doesn't end there. Next year incumbent politicians will collude to use
redistricting -- the decennial practice of re-drawing legislative district
lines -- to guarantee themselves safe seats and re-election. Behind closed
doors, the incumbents will use increasingly sophisticated computer
technology and census data to draw their own districts, effectively
handpicking their voters before the voters have a chance to pick them. Even
campaign finance reform won't be able to crack the fortress created by these
Who is being hurt by all this? We, the voters, that's who. Because it
results in voters -- political consumers -- having less and less choice at
the ballot box. Voters are being denied opportunities even to hear other
candidates' ideas and policies. Monopoly politics prevails in state after
state, where safe noncompetitive districts, uncontested races and unbeatable
incumbents are becoming the rule. Lacking sufficient choice, voters are
becoming increasingly alienated and turning out to the polls in fewer and
Monopoly politics is no way to run our elections. The government
regulates big business, but who will regulate the monopoly practices of the
duopoly that runs the government?
[Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy
and Steven Hill is the Center's western regional director. They are
co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more
information, see www.fairvote.org, call 301-270-4616 or write to: PO Box
60037, Washington, DC 20039.]