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 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 60 years was George Wallace in 1968.
The CPD would require candidates to have at least 15 percent of the vote in five national polls a week before a debate. Ross Perot would not have qualified in 1992 despite ultimately winning 19 percent 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 that state's televised gubernatorial debates.
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 political monopolies.
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 fewer numbers.
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.