Breaking the American Duopoly

By Justin Lee

“Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”

– James Madison, Federalist No. 10


The American duopoly is a defining characteristic of U.S. politics, as integral to our internal affairs as federalism and the separation of powers. It’s no secret that third party politics are third rate in the eyes of the establishment. Independent voters can’t vote in most primaries,[1] elections in the states are winner-take-all, unaffiliated candidates face ballot access hurdles, and superdelegates were created to strengthen establishment influence over the presidential nominees. But perhaps most detrimentally, presidential candidates who are neither Republican nor Democrat cannot in any practical sense participate in the presidential debates, essentially being excluded from the national political discourse.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a bipartisan organization formed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Republican National Committee (RNC) that oversees the presidential debates and establishes debate guidelines. These guidelines include the automatic acceptance of establishment party candidates and strict qualifying conditions for third-party candidates.[2] Through these restrictions and the CPD, the two parties have effectively regulated the American political conversation, and “critics from across the political landscape have expressed their outrage that the gatekeepers for the most important and prestigious political debates in our national life are none other than the two competing teams”.[3]

“The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become a format that defies meaningful discourse. They should be charged with sabotaging the electoral process.” 

– Walter Cronkite on the CPD

“I think the very concept of an elite commission deciding for the American people who deserves to be heard is profoundly wrong.” 

– Newt Gingrich

“Where did these people come from to be final arbiters of free speech?” 

– John Culver, former senator and CPD director

But then, in 1992

Independent candidate Ross Perot, against all odds, managed to meet the strict conditions of the CPD to become the first third party candidate in US history to participate with both parties in the presidential debates. It was a stunt that caught both the electorate and the party candidates by surprise, and on the debate stage he “made Bill Clinton and George H.W. sweat, bringing up issues that were bipartisan failures”,[4] such as how both parties were running up the national debt. Neither candidate was ready to address such questions, and Perot “according to the polls, bested both Bush and Clinton in the first debate”,[5] ultimately winning 19% of the popular vote despite dropping out mid-campaign. The fixture of the American duopoly was, for the first time in a long time, up in the air.

Until 1996

Immediately following the Perot shakeup, the CPD raised the requirements of third party qualification even higher, to a point where no other third party candidate in US history could have ever met them, not even Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose campaign.[6] The CPD excluded Ross Perot from the 1996 presidential debates on its new qualifications. And despite lawsuits and the efforts of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, there hasn’t been another third party voice in the debates ever since.

Until 2016, that is.

One of the most striking characteristics of this election cycle’s pool of presidential candidates is their lack of affiliation with any party. Bernie Sanders is the longest serving independent congressman in US history. Donald Trump was once a registered independent who supported both Clinton and Romney and has made threats to run independently. Ben Carson was also a registered independent, and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz is certainly no friend of the establishment. And they all found an insultingly simple way around the establishment’s determent of third party candidates: join the establishment. They’ve adopted party labels they don’t identify with (revealingly making the switch around 2015) in order to express their non-establishment voices in the campaign.

“We did have to make that decision: Do you run as an independent? Do you run within the Democratic Party?” … in terms of media coverage, you have to run within the Democratic Party.”

                                                                                    – Bernie Sanders

And as a result, the issues of this election have widened further in scope than any before. Because “The issues that are burdening the country right now are bipartisan in nature, so by default those become the ones that the two parties agree not to bring up”.[7] And therein lies the most dangerous symptom of the American duopoly: How does the electorate register that they would like to see change on an issue when both parties agree on that issue?

These bipartisan issues are what Sanders and Trump have capitalized on and even agree on. For example, “Both stridently denounce free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the new Trans-Pacific Partnership… Establishment Democrats and Republicans, by contrast, have rarely seen a free-trade pact they didn’t like”[8], and the new public discourse on FTAs has pressured Hillary to recently change her long held stance on the TPP.[9]

Trump and Sanders are also “both skeptical of the establishment consensus about America’s role as the world’s policeman”,[10] while, in practice, the foreign policy actions of Republicans and Democrats rarely differ.

And “Perhaps most significant of all, Trump and Sanders both portray traditional politicians as bought and paid for by powerful monied interests… The system is rigged, these insurgents say. Your elected leaders are working for themselves and their puppet-masters. They couldn’t care less about you”.[11] Suddenly, candidates are calling our their other fellow candidates on their political financiers, behavior that was unheard of in the past bipartisan debates.

It takes a Perot to start the discussion on debt, or a Bernie Sanders to talk about campaign finance reform, and whether or not you identify with these independent candidates, they have played a crucial role in widening the scope of our political discourse in a way that establishment candidates haven’t been willing to.

Liberty cannot exist without choice. Two choices to represent an infinite variety of interests is not political freedom. In an antiestablishment year, either the establishment must undergo reform or the electorate must throw off its party chains and reclaim American democracy.


[1] “Primaries.” FairVote. N.p., Feb. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.


[2] Diamond, Larry. “Ending the Presidential-Debate Duopoly.” The Atlantic. N.p., 8

May 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <


[3] Gerzon, Mark. The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan

Divide. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2016. Print.

[4] Carlin, Dan, prod. “The Cynicism Defense.” Episode #186. Common Sense with Dan

Carlin. N.p., 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

[5] Sumner, Mark. “All This Has Happened Before.” Daily Kos. N.p., 19 Apr. 2009.

Web. 7 Mar. 2016. <>.

[6] Carlin, Dan, prod. “Martian Perspectives.” Episode #301. Common Sense with Dan

Carlin. N.p., 6 Feb. 2016. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

[7] Carlin, Dan, prod. “The Cynicism Defense.” Episode #186. Common Sense with Dan

Carlin. N.p., 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.


[9] Jr., C. Eugene Emery. “Hillary Clinton says she didn’t endorse the TPP trade

deal until it was actually negotiated.” Politifact. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.t