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Greenwald writes: "Wednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney underscored a core truth about America's presidential election season."

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver. (photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver. (photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The US Presidential Debates' Illusion of Political Choice

By Glenn Greenwald, Guardian UK

07 October 12


ednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney underscored a core truth about America's presidential election season: the vast majority of the most consequential policy questions are completely excluded from the process. This fact is squarely at odds with a primary claim made about the two parties – that they represent radically different political philosophies – and illustrates how narrow the range of acceptable mainstream political debate is in the country.

In part this is because presidential elections are now conducted almost entirely like a tawdry TV reality show. Personality quirks and trivialities about the candidates dominate coverage, and voter choices, leaving little room for substantive debates.

But in larger part, this exclusion is due to the fact that, despite frequent complaints that America is plagued by a lack of bipartisanship, the two major party candidates are in full-scale agreement on many of the nation's most pressing political issues. As a result these are virtually ignored, drowned out by a handful of disputes that the parties relentlessly exploit to galvanise their support base and heighten fear of the other side.

Most of what matters in American political life is nowhere to be found in its national election debates. Penal policies vividly illustrate this point. America imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation on earth by far, including countries with far greater populations. As the New York Times reported in April 2008: "The United States has less than 5% of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners."

Professor Glenn Loury of Brown University has observed that these policies have turned the US into "a nation of jailers" whose "prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history". The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik called this mass incarceration "perhaps the fundamental fact [of American society], as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850".

Even worse, these policies are applied, and arguably designed, with mass racial disparities. One in every four African-American men is likely to be imprisoned. Black and Latino drug users are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned at far higher rates than whites, even though usage among all groups is relatively equal.

The human cost of this sprawling penal state is obviously horrific: families are broken up, communities are decimated, and those jailed are rendered all but unemployable upon release. But the financial costs are just as devastating. California now spends more on its prison system than it does on higher education, a warped trend repeated around the country.

Yet none of these issues will even be mentioned, let alone debated, by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. That is because they have no discernible differences when it comes to any of the underlying policies, including America's relentless fixation on treating drug usage as a criminal, rather than health, problem. The oppressive system that now imprisons 1.8 million Americans, and that will imprison millions more over their lifetime, is therefore completely ignored during the only process when most Americans are politically engaged.

This same dynamic repeats itself in other crucial realms. President Obama's dramatically escalated drone attacks in numerous countries have generated massive anger in the Muslim world, continuously kill civilians, and are of dubious legality at best. His claimed right to target even American citizens for extrajudicial assassinations, without a whiff of transparency or oversight, is as radical a power as any seized by George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Yet Americans whose political perceptions are shaped by attentiveness to the presidential campaign would hardly know that such radical and consequential policies even exist. That is because here too there is absolute consensus between the two parties.

A long list of highly debatable and profoundly significant policies will be similarly excluded due to bipartisan agreement. The list includes a rapidly growing domestic surveillance state that now monitors and records even the most innocuous activities of all Americans; job-killing free trade agreements; climate change policies; and the Obama justice department's refusal to prosecute the Wall Street criminals who precipitated the 2008 financial crisis.

On still other vital issues, such as America's steadfastly loyal support for Israel and its belligerence towards Iran, the two candidates will do little other than compete over who is most aggressively embracing the same absolutist position. And this is all independent of the fact that even on the issues that are the subject of debate attention, such as healthcare policy and entitlement "reform", all but the most centrist positions are off limits.

The harm from this process is not merely the loss of what could be a valuable opportunity to engage in a real national debate. Worse, it is propagandistic: by emphasising the few issues on which there is real disagreement between the parties, the election process ends up sustaining the appearance that there is far more difference between the two parties, and far more choice for citizens, than is really offered by America's political system.

One way to solve this problem would be to allow credible third-party candidates into the presidential debates and to give them more media coverage. Doing so would highlight just how similar Democrats and Republicans have become, and what little choice American voters actually have on many of the most consequential policies. That is exactly why the two major parties work so feverishly to ensure the exclusion of those candidates: it is precisely the deceitful perception of real choice that they are most eager to maintain. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+44 # futhark 2012-10-07 19:48
So, what will you have to drink? Coke or Pepsi? After all, there ARE differences and you DO have a choice. What more could you ask for in a democracy? ;-)
+14 # brux 2012-10-07 23:14
> What more could you ask for in a democracy? ;-)

A say in actual values not just a billionth of a vote in a who's the most alpha male on display. This thing of getting representation in our government by voting for guys who do not do what they say they will anyway is not working.

Right now there is just no way to square America's role in the world against the responsibility of a government to its people. This is the penultimate compromise that needs to be made, and we are not ready to even think about that.
+6 # wantrealdemocracy 2012-10-08 12:04
Democracy can not co exist with fear. For democracy to function the people must vote out of their hope that their vote is for improving conditions in our nation. If we vote for the 'lesser' evil that is what we will get. If we vote for a candidate who supports war, we will get more war. If we vote for a candidate who does not support our civil rights, we will lose our civil rights. If we vote for a candidate who supports torture we will get more torture. Ignore the two party corporate puppet show. Be brave, have courage, and VOTE FOR WHAT YOU WANT. (that's the only way you can make improvements --through determination and overcoming fear )
+5 # DLT888 2012-10-08 16:14
It is true. It ALL the citzenry would have awakened in the last 'election' and voted for the TRUE democratic fully-African-A merican candidate -- that would have been Cynthia McKinney. Imagine the shock that election night, if they realized the people had awakened and were no longer buying the 'show' and voted for true democracy in a candidate! Instead of blaming those who have the guts to vote for a true democrat, why doesn't eveyone join them and make that candidate win?
+23 # 666 2012-10-08 05:56
"what more you could you ask..."

how about a walmart-brand cola? (probably made in china [from an exported us job], using us subsidized corn syrup made from monsanto gmo pesticide-ready corn grown on a corporate farm, that adds millions to the health care costs of this country)
+16 # davidhp 2012-10-08 08:24
More choice. Both of the two corporately sponsored parties support never ending war and maintaining our economic system which favors the rich. Democracy must allow more choices. Their are major differences between the views of millions of Americans and the party platforms for both the republicans and democrats.
+13 # carpepax 2012-10-08 10:15
If you live in a swing state, and you believe that Barack Obama is the lesser evil, you should vote for him. If you do not live in a swing state, however, you should vote for the third-party candidate of your choice.

We need the third-party movement to grow but we cannot if we are all afraid we'll be "throwing away our votes."

It will take a third-party candidate(or candidates) getting about 10% of the vote for the one major two-faced party to wake up and smell the impending doom it rightly deserves.
+1 # Jorge 2012-10-08 23:37
Well said Carpepax. In California Obama will win easily so let's get started with voting for third-party candidates (Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party represents Progressive values, stop the wars, etc. You can hear him on Norman Goldman radio on Wednesdays). Maybe the 2016 "Debates" will include real alternatives (4 or 5 candidates from different parties).
+3 # carpepax 2012-10-09 13:07
I may vote Dr. Jill Stein for president but am open to considering other progressive candidates. She emerged as closest to my views in a survey I took.
+13 # She Cee 2012-10-07 22:20
What a country we live in. It's all a lie. And most people buy into it, hook, line and sinker. We have no democracy. What we need is Jimmy Carter to monitor the elections.

And a comment on Mitt cheating at the debates. How many of you saw the Romney slight of hand as he approached the podium? Sneaking a piece of paper from his right trouser pocket and placing it on the podium where he could read it.

It was clearly visible and not one comment from the media. Surely they are not blind. It is on Utube for all to see.
+5 # pernsey 2012-10-08 11:28
Quoting She Cee:
What a country we live in. It's all a lie. And most people buy into it, hook, line and sinker. We have no democracy. What we need is Jimmy Carter to monitor the elections.

And a comment on Mitt cheating at the debates. How many of you saw the Romney slight of hand as he approached the podium? Sneaking a piece of paper from his right trouser pocket and placing it on the podium where he could read it.

It was clearly visible and not one comment from the media. Surely they are not blind. It is on Utube for all to see.

Rachel Maddow addressed the paper from Mitts pocket it was later revealed to be a tissue that he wiped his brow with later. Now you know I cant stand Mitt, but I dont want to be witch hunting if the things are already proven to be false. Unlike Mitt I wont just blatantly lie, so as much as it sickens me to defend the maggot, it was a tissue.
+6 # MindDoc 2012-10-08 15:47
Exactly so. Crib notes. Bush OTOH was wired with remote receiver and earpiece (well documented) and never called to task. One might argue Bush was too uninformed and incoherent to go on public TV and debate without such 'insurance'. One might also note that Romney isn't dumb like W (though he's as deaf to real life for most people). Romney is just sneakier, since his days as school bully and prankster.
+2 # Athena1943 2012-10-07 22:21
*Please watch this video.. There is no question that it was not a handkerchief that Romney tossed on the podium once you see this..
0 # MindDoc 2012-10-08 19:01
The actual note - clearly - in slow-motion. (No handkerchief!)
+13 # Spence 2012-10-07 22:36
So why do we vote for either one of them?
+15 # brux 2012-10-07 23:11
I start to think that maybe Obama does not want to win, or win with an overwhelming landslide ... because if he did, and had a democratic congress he would have no excuse not to move to the left and get some things done ... and that is not what the "corporatocracy " wants to happen.

The "corporatocracy " wants a divided electorate arguing with each other so there is a reason they can excuse not doing anything.

Obama never was of the left, a liberal or progressive. He lost his passion as soon as he whipped up the people to vote for him, and I expect that perhaps he "exists" to keep the democrat's hope up. We swing back and forth which bolsters a frustration for everyone that the government is phony that the game is rigged and this is all for show anyway and Obama, or Bush or Romney just play a part to keep our eyes in one place while the "corporatocracy " does what it wants with the country and the world.
+4 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2012-10-07 23:27
What were the [political currents like during the Great Civil Rights Movement?
What were the political currents like during WW2-Japanese being "hauled off" and segregated from the rest of society? Now we have to fight a new war- there are those who want to destroy Democracy. The brave and courageous keep on going, never give up the fight to save the kind of Democracy that cannot be bought out by the Plutocrats, the Republicans. The cynical say, "good luck."
+6 # cassandrapt 2012-10-07 23:34
Sorry Glenn - I disagree. Much as we would like more from the dems, the two parties are NOT the same. I hope you don't get a chance to find that out. Think of the Supreme Court with two possible appointments in the next four years that could solidify the right for a generation and wipe out the social justice gains made in the past 50 years. It's bad enough as it stands now. Think of Medicare, Medicaid, and social security. Remember George W? Can you honestly say that we would be in the same fix if Gore had been president?
0 # cynnibunny 2012-10-07 23:37
I disagree. However, I believe it has become policy for Democrats lately - Obama especially - to not talk about the good work that they have done. It's as if they're ashamed of the Health Care reform, the significant changes to bank fees, the one bailout that helped workers (and also helped the companies they worked for), and their careful approach to the Arab Spring. Obama is respected worldwide (with the exception of Netanyahu, the war mongering Israeli PM).

But hush, hush, if we tell 'them' we've done this, we may start another Occupy movement, as if regular people deserve a Government that supports them. That's my theory, and I don't think it's a good one.

We need a fighter, someone who will fight for the average American (not the $200,000 and up wage earner that Romney calls middle class). We need someone who cares about the survival of the American Dream, and that means the possibility of it's reality, not burdening the middle class and the poor with taxes and fees so that the rich can trickle down their spare change....
+12 # Human Right 2012-10-07 23:49
We voted for Obama & change
What they got was a president who took the entire defense department bureaucracy of a previously discredited administration into his administration inclusive of the Generals, Secretary of Defense and all the rest ( this has never happened before); then gave us more phony war. While president Obama was receiving the “Nobel Peace prize” he simultaneously and successfully defended the architect of torture in a San Francisco federal court. In addition, he sidetracked attempts of the ACLU to remove the illegal overseas prisons and never gave even a feeble attempt to close the infamous Guantanamo prison. He has never tried to return our revered habeas corpus or remove the immoral, illegal, Patriot Act. As this is written he has placed ill advised military intimidation and economic sanctions over innocent Iranian people and continues to fund the illegal Zionist settlers three generations removed from WWII, (many from New York) in the Middle East. Recently Obama signed a law (National Defense Authorization Act) making the “Patriot Act” permanent and the USA is now officially a military/police state with the habeas corpus long gone.
0 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-10-10 06:55
All true, and I am disgusted.
But the other choice is way worse.
+11 # beeyl 2012-10-07 23:57
Glad to see Glenn Greenwald's moved on (and up) from Salon, and still writing depressing articles that hold our government accountable to the truth.
+4 # Vardoz 2012-10-08 00:39
There is a difference- health care for more saving more lives, cancer screening for women, preventative care, health coverage for catastrophic illness, WIC, CHIP food stamps,a vote for the Violence against women act, choice for women, college funding, more teachers, big bird, more green jobs, more jobs, lower taxes, exemptions for small businesses.
R & R are against all these things. Obama is flawed no doubt. How much power he has over the military is not clear. But Romney, Ryan and Rove will cause death by cuts.They want emergency room health care, the poor and elderly to die in the gutter.
Samuel J telling us how it is.
+4 # unitedwestand 2012-10-08 01:10
Totally in agreement and disgust over the prison situation in this country, and the obvious militarization of our police departments, who have no regard for people's civil rights.

I do know that one party in the running has not hidden their agenda to destroy Democracy itself, while purporting to want to spread it to the world. I also know that they want to destroy every social program that gives people an even chance in life, wether it is healthcare, education or basic equality.

We the people do have a lot of work to do when we have an opportunity to make some changes, but sometimes I fear it may be too late. How do we change the mind set of people that we don't have to bomb other countries to stay strong, or that when everyone prospers, all will live better lives with less crime, less fear maybe less health problems? How do we stop the mega, monster corporatocracy from being so greedy, and our media being on the take and not present truthful news?

A choice has to be made and a protest vote is foolish, as for sure we will get the party that will set us back even further.
Like President Obama said, "we don't want to relapse."
-2 # Oracorf 2012-10-08 01:43
The real problem being the voting system.

A one round one vote system establishes a winner take all situation, thus freezing out more varied political candidacies.

Continental Europe two round system at least allows a variety of view points to emmerge. What destroys things there is the "boogey man" politic that demonizes the extremes, and guts all other parties' access by ridiculing their marginal status.

The only good vote is a "useful" vote - a vote that can win -and freeze out extremes. When people start thinking that way, everyone loses.
+2 # gtigerclaw 2012-10-08 03:12
# futhark - "Coke or Pepsi!" the real issue is that your choice is illusional when it comes to your future. Presidents and political parties are simply a label on the same generic product manufactured by Banksters.

Political parties are about dogmatic and idealistic beliefs, but in the end there is no real choice. Read Edward bernays' "Engineering of Consent."
+8 # Artemis 2012-10-08 03:43
Another great Greenwald piece.
+6 # Cadeau 2012-10-08 05:23
Glenn, you are absolutely correct. Thanks for drawing it to our attention.
+8 # cordleycoit 2012-10-08 05:46
We the people did not appoint Fox News the right to mind control the news. The growing simplification of the American Civic Mind is now part of the problem. Logic is banned from the education system, philosophy is studied in comic books as the philosophers became unintelligible and have raised the jargon level above comprehension. Yes they are doing it for self defense but our public intellectuals are either rock dull or meaningless. We need to rethink thinking.
+7 # JayS 2012-10-08 06:31
I'll drink none of the above thank you. I will vote for Jill Stein Green Party and a Green New Deal.
+3 # GGmaw 2012-10-08 06:53
Greenwald is wrong about no differences in the parties - the justices picked for the Supreme Court are examples of the differences in the Rethuglican party and the Democratic party. The current privatized penal system is a disgrace perpertrated by ALEX and the Republican party - the more prisoners, the more profit. Drone attacks to rid the world of terrorists are much better than McCain's proposed six new wars. Obama has resisted Israel's bombing Iran.
+2 # jlohman 2012-10-08 07:36
I see. A choice between black and dark grey. Let's keep the third parties out of it, otherwise too much choice is bad. :-)
+8 # CesareBorgia 2012-10-08 07:48
I think the biggest problem with our two party system is the hype and exaggeration surrounding the presidential office. The fact of the matter is, they can talk all they want about there "plans for the future," but they have very limited impact when it comes to influencing policy and services. The robber-barons run this country.
+5 # MidwestTom 2012-10-08 07:51
Missing from this article was a discussion of the role Wall Street plays in our political system, and why they do not want anything controversial to come up a debate. Any true debate by our leaders should include how we arrived at the economic mess that we are in, and who is responsible. We spend billions determining who is responsible an almost everything else, but not about this mess.

If you watched some of the early Republican debates you saw Ron Paul constantly bring up real issues, only to see the others totally avoid any discussion. I remember him asking the question,"if Chinese troops occupied the United States, would you be happy about it? He then went on to say that we should withdraw our troops from all of the middle eastern countries. No response from the others on stage. Apparently real issues are best discussed behind closed doors.
+2 # LeeBlack 2012-10-08 07:53
Would you say there would have been no difference between a George W. Bush and Al Gore; between George W. Bush and John Kerry?
+5 # pernsey 2012-10-08 11:35
Quoting LeeBlack:
Would you say there would have been no difference between a George W. Bush and Al Gore; between George W. Bush and John Kerry?

There would have been a huge difference, because GWB was a complete idiot, and Gor and Kerry were not. We dont need Mitt to continue Bush's idiocy in the white house. The republicans have obstructed, fillibustered, and said NO to almost any real good the president has tried to do. We need an overwhelming dem majority, with no blue dogs to get any real progress going in this country. Teabaglicans have all but ruined any progress, any good, or any recovery this country could have had by now.

OBAMA/BIDEN in 2012 with a majority of dems in the house and senate.
0 # MidwestTom 2012-10-08 08:31
The reason that the twp parties agree on most subjects, and the reason that they avoid discussing serious issues is the makeup of the electorate.

At a time of every close elections the majority ofn the contributors on this blog argue that every possible voter must be given the right to vote. This at a time when the Pew Research Institute has should that 9% of American voters do not know who is now President, and an total of 21% do not know who is President and which party controls the House and Senate. Since all votes are supposted to be counted equally, each party must appeal to the least knowledgeable possible voter.

The debates would look considerably different if there were awareness qualifications to vote. Maybe limit it to only those who filed income tax returns. Without voter reform, expect more and more avoidance of real options.
+11 # mickeynow 2012-10-08 09:57
Way too many people pay attention to the dog and pony show debates and make decisions on our nation's problems based on that show. I fear for a nation that lives on faux reality shows.
+6 # medusa 2012-10-08 11:16
We're all living in the same place, but we should still refuse Mitt Romney, who seems to think nuclear war is acceptable, and that having civil relations again with Europe is a failed foreign policy.
In the debate he looked hostile, sneering, and false.
Can anyone tell us what has caused Obama to step back from what he campaigned to do?
+1 # Regina 2012-10-08 16:51
He didn't "step back." He's been blocked by the brat pack of obstructionists dedicated to "make Obama fail" even if the country failed with him. And in their financial finagling, we actually went over a cliff once. The congressional tantrum -- for which the brats keep getting their salaries and benefits -- has actually been pushed back, notably with the ACA, and other measures that did get through. And the Senate did block some of the more stupid House actions. We need a Congress that will work and earn its keep, as well as a President whose IQ is above 10. Mitty-boy does not qualify, he's only a front for whoever will hand him this prize, which he's been lusting for for several election cycles. He thinks he's entitled to it, like royalty.
+1 # Old Man 2012-10-08 12:04
We the "People" are in real trouble in this election. Watching the Tonight show, the Jay walking segment the average person can not identify the President on the one dollar bill.
Introducing a third party will really confuse them.
The problem with the debate system in place is: That both parties have agreed on the questions. This should not be allowed.
0 # JSRaleigh 2012-10-08 12:10
What credible third party candidates?
+7 # Billsy 2012-10-08 14:26
These so-called debates have long been a joke, ever since the league of women voters lost control of the process to the two political parties that have locked up our electoral system. I turned the first one off after 15 minutes of meaningless dithering re: taxes. Until we get to see ALL the presidential options including Freedom, Justice, Libertarian, Socialist, etc. parties in a format controlled once again by the voting population NOT the political parties. then I intelligent voters wil choose to ignore them. Don't be fooled by the the beltway crowd into believing they have any importance or merit. They are a disgusting sham. To dare to suggest that someone "won" a debate by spewing out lies and obfuscation reveals a total lack of integrity on the part of the mainstream (lame stream) media.
+1 # brux 2012-10-08 17:43

Imaginary screenplay scene from TV's West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin - President Jed Bartlett reminds President Obama how to debate - VERY GOOD!
0 # MindDoc 2012-10-09 01:47
Imaginary screenplay scene from TV's West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin - President Jed Bartlett reminds President Obama how to debate - VERY GOOD!
Yes, agreed - a very good (and *fun* read, from the NY Times.
It's on the money (no pun intended). Really a fine analysis and how-to learn and push 3 simple words, next debate.

Short-url version to the article:
+1 # Corvette-Bob 2012-10-10 10:21
Boy there alot of comments regarding this matter which I believe has a great deal to contribute to the national discussion. I believe that our political system is an utter failure to address the issues and the method to address the needs to correct the various problems.
If you want outrage you should have seen the Frontline piece dealing with the prison system in Louisiana. They have by far the highest rate of imprisonment of their citizens in the world, many of them for non violent crimes. Why is this ??? The reason is that they have a for profit penal system which pays the local sheriffs money for each person that they put into jail. So they are grabbing the poor bastards off of the street to send them to jail so that money will be paid to their local law enforcement agencies.
I beginning to believe that it is best to be less informed so that you can preserve your sanity.
+1 # Corvette-Bob 2012-10-10 10:38
What will happen under a Mitt Romney Presidency:
Affordable Health Care would be repealed and the uninsured would receive health care at their local ER when seriously ill
Medicaid would be slashed substantially and the poor would receive health care at their local ER
Woman's Health Care would be slashed with the elimination of Plan Parenthood and health care would be provided at local ER
Medicare for those under 55 would be by voucher
Roe -vs- Wade would be reversed and abortions made illegal except in limited numbers in the most liberal states
Iran would be attacked resulting in a land war with a country 5 times larger and power as Iraq.
Military budge would be increased by reversing previous cuts and the additon of $ 2 trillion over 10 years.
Tax cut of 20% so that taxes for the top 1/2 would be lower than the bottom half due to social security taxes
Inheritance taxes would be eliminated resulting in greater concentration of wealth amount the rich and the elimination of foundations
Global warming would not be addressed, alternate energy gutted, polution control for coal would be eliminated
In attempt to balance budget due to war, military expenditures and tax cuts would gut social programs and "entitlements"
Huge deficits which will make us think fondly of George W. Bush
0 # Phillybuster 2012-10-10 13:16
Corvette-Bob, You're absolutely correct. But other than the issues you listed, Romney and Obama are exactly the same. ~snark~

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