But there are also strong connections between the adaptability and competitiveness of its political institutions and the outcomes they produce. Globally, the United States ranks 14th in education, 19th in quality of infrastructure, 26th in child well-being, 26th in life expectancy, 33rd in internet download speeds, and 44th in healthcare efficiency, but first in one thing—the rate of incarceration.
Nowhere is openness, innovation, and competition more sorely needed than in presidential politics. If competition is good for the economy, why shouldn’t it be good for the political system as well? If economic markets thrive when there are low barriers to entry, why shouldn’t the political marketplace—democracy—benefit from the same principle?
Two-thirds of Americans say they wish they had the option to vote for an independent candidate for president. But any alternative to the 162-year-old duopoly of Democrats and Republicans is blocked by the system the two parties have created. Leave aside the huge hurdles of organization and funding that independents must scale to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot across the states. Even more formidable is the obstacle imposed by a crucial but little known and unaccountable gatekeeper, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Members of this unelected and unaccountable commission have established a rule that makes it impossible for an independent, nonpartisan, or third-party ticket to gain access to the general-election debates. In the contemporary era, these debates have become such a dominant focus of political attention that no candidate (and particularly not a third one) can become president without participating.
Even if a third-party candidate does not manage to use the debate as a springboard to the Oval Office, his or her presence on the stage might reshape the conversation. With a third-party candidate in the race, both Democrats and Republicans would have a strong incentive to speak to the issues propelling that candidacy.
The CPD requires candidates for president to average over 15 percent in five polls (which they reserve the right to select, and which are open to manipulation) taken in September, just days before the debates. Since 1960 not one American who had not participated in a major-party primary has ever polled over 15 percent less than two weeks before the debates. (Ross Perot was polling in the single digits when he was permitted into the debates under an old rule.) For a candidate who has not run the gauntlet of the two major-party primaries, new research demonstrates that getting to that level of support in the polls by mid-September might require an expenditure of nearly $270 million. No independent campaign has ever spent, or ever will spend, that kind of money without knowing that its presidential and vice-presidential candidates can stand on the stage of the debates in the fall with a fair chance to compete.