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The presidential debate, viewed from the left

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Robert Scheer: "Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama because he was more energetic in distorting the significance of their miniscule differences."

In a 1998 book titled “The Common Good,” Noam Chomsky wrote:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

Over the weekend, two lefty journalists looked back at Wednesday’s presidential debate, suggesting that Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama agree on most fundamental issues but, because of the limited spectrum of acceptable opinion, are able to make their small differences look vast.

Writing for Truthdig, Robert Scheer wrote that “Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama because he was more energetic in distorting the significance of their miniscule differences.”

Take the health-care issue, for example. It’s true, of course, that the Obamacare program was based on the model that Romney championed and signed as governor of Massachusetts, but which Romney now denounces and pledges to repeal and replace with a less-intrusive version that he declines to describe with much specificity. But a debate about whether Obamacare is exactly like Romneycare or only very much like Romneycare becomes the excuse to not even discuss simpler, stronger alternatives like a Canadian-style single-payer system, which, Scheer asserts, would be a much better approach to covering everyone at lower cost:

It is absurd to depict this rhetorical stew of superficial nitpicking by two candidates with a proven record of subservience to the Wall Street bandits responsible for wrecking our economy as a meaningful exercise in democratic governance. Both would rather talk about anything but Wall Street’s financing and control of both parties and chose instead to dwell on their nonexistent differences over health care reform.

Writing for the British-based Guardian, Glenn Greenwald uses different examples to make a similar case that the Tweedle-dee Tweedle-dumness of the two major American parties rules out any discussion of isues that, from a global perspective, are key elements of what the big thinkers like to call American exceptionalism.

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.”

Scheer and Greenwald run through more examples of the issues that don’t get discussed and mock the current meme that the Dem/Repub election presents a stark choice between two fundamentally different approaches to governing America.

And I should mention that the ideological and especially libertarian right also features many issues and arguments far more radical than anything Romney would support.

Channeling the Chomsky point from the top of this post, Greenwald argued:

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.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/08/2012 - 11:28 am.


    with intellectual integrity should register their outrage at this “Tweedle-dee Tweedle-dumness” by staying home on election day. I wonder if Chomsky and Scheer will.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/08/2012 - 02:54 pm.

      If this is true,

      then “rightists” should also follow your advice. Suggesting that “leftists” who vote have no intellectual integrity is well…hypocritical (or ironic?).

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/08/2012 - 11:33 am.

    Relevant questions

    Thanks for this, Eric. It’s the sort of story that ought to be on the front pages of newspapers across the nation, with headlines approximating “Both candidates avoid substantive issues.” Instead, because newspapers are curling up and dying like summer flowers in a hard freeze, we get stories of the latest sports results and other local trivia. Television gleefully collects the money for those election ads we all love to hate, but can’t be bothered, especially at the level of the local network affiliate, to actually inform viewers about anything of importance. “If it bleeds, it leads,” and lately, “If it blazes, it amazes,” are increasingly the mantra of local TV station personnel disingenuously labeled as “news directors.”

    That no one from any Wall Street firm has gone to prison for fraud, not to mention wrecking the national economy, is proof enough for me that Mr. Obama is either “in the pocket” of Wall Street interests already, or is too inept to bring them to heel. Mr. Romney, in true corporate form, celebrates profit in whatever form, and no matter how many are hurt in the process, so expecting him to challenge the influence of Wall Street on the national scene is delusional. He has the mind set of the Robber Baron, updated with 21st century technology.

    As a much younger man, I remember being offended by Alabama Governor George Wallace’s assertion that “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties,” but in 2012, it appears that the late Governor was on to something. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there are no differences at all, but both parties are increasingly “in the pocket” of financial and corporate interests that are, to be charitable, amoral, and largely uninterested in the welfare of the republic except as it relates to their quarterly bottom line.

    If, as Lord Acton asserted, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I’d argue that a corollary is something along the lines of “Wealth corrupts, and largely in proportion to its amount.” Granting corporate “personhood” via the Citizens United decision merely accelerates the process of money corroding both the foundation and the process of the republic.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/08/2012 - 01:00 pm.

    difference between and open mind and closed mind ?

    Which of the above two posts is willing to deal with the fact that either side in this election has a way to go to really to get to the issues ?
    I have to wonder if some posters here receive Koch stipends ?

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/08/2012 - 01:49 pm.

    I really am bemused by the idea that “there’s not a dimes worth of difference….”

    History is full of forks in the road, many of which are not perceived as such at the time.

    It’s generally a matter of bending the curve, not turning 90 degrees.

    The world is very rarely exactly what we want.

    I would like someone to explain how the segregated world of the 50’s lead to the day when there is a “colored” president, if there wasn’t a dimes worth of difference in the parties and policies

    Seems to me there are still a few “cubic acres” of dimes (ala’ Scrooge McDuck) in between potential presidents like Bachmann and Obama.

    You should know there are differences when the most important tactic in a debate is to blur the difference.

    “Not a dimes worht of difference…” is perhaps one of the best voter supression tool.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/08/2012 - 03:03 pm.

      I agree

      Calling the two main presidential candidates essentially the same is silly. While there may not be a gigantic gulf between them on many issues, they certainly are not the same. If they were, why vote at all? That’s exactly the problem. I’m ok with no giant chasm. But I’m not ok with making tiny steps in the wrong direction; they add up. Calling Obama a Wall Street Stooge is an exaggeration. He might be a Wall Street Sympathizer, but certainly there’s room for Wall Street to exist, and even reasonably profit. Romney isn’t a Wall Street Stooge, either, as that would imply that he’s taking orders from Wall Street. No, Romney isn’t a stooge, he’s a full-fledged Wall Street Supremacist. That is, Mr. Romney probably has a hard time understanding the existence of anyone or anything not directly funded by Wall Street. I’d much rather vote for a Wall Street Sympathizer than a Wall Street Supremacist.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/08/2012 - 03:51 pm.

      Mr Black has done a disservice

      By confusing two very separate ideas. Chomsky’s point is obvious but profound: For those who manage the public discourse, what is most important is policing the boundaries. Notice how the critical issues for whether our society and our world can sustain themselves – economies based on ever-increasing consumption, economic and political models that necessarily concentrate productivity gains among holders of capital, climate change and destruction of nonrenewable resources, mounting potential for global pandemic – aren’t ever discussed by our leaders or permitted to be discussed within mainstream media. “Not a dime’s difference” is entirely different, and stupid. There is always a difference between two evils … one will move civilization toward its collapse more quickly, and one more slowly. The latter always deserves our vote, because it better preserves the slim hope that a majority of folks will awaken and recognize the need to move, as fast as our feet can carry us, away from both.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2012 - 03:18 pm.

    Here we go again

    This is starting to sound like 1968 —
    Progressives were disenchanted with Hubert Humphrey and said that there was no real difference between him and Richard Nixon. Many of them dropped out of the process altogether and Nixon was elected.
    Something about those who are ignorant of history being doomed to repeat it?
    Let’s not.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/08/2012 - 03:36 pm.

    I don’t always agree with Chomsky, but he is right about

    the narrow spectrum of debate permitted in the mainstream media and in Beltway politics.

    I first noticed this back when El Salvador and Nicaragua were in the news on a daily basis. I saw countless televised debates where the topic was, “Should we come down hard on the Sandinistas and increase funding for the Contras or should we just keep imposing sanctions?” There was never any mention of a third option, namely leaving them alone to conduct their governmental experiment. They weren’t hurting anyone outside their country, and they were genuinely trying to reform their almost feudalistic society.

    I see the same type of narrow debates today.

    “Should we attack Iran for building nukes or just keep imposing sanctions?” (How about not hinting that they’re next on the “attack them and take their oil” list and not surrounding them with U.S. military outposts literally on every side? They might be less motivated to arm themselves.)

    “Should we raise the retirement age or cut Social Security benefits or partially privatize it?” (How about raising the cap on FICA assessments?)

    “Should we have Obama/Romneycare or just leave everything up to the free market?” (How about conducting a fact-based analysis of other countries’ health care systems and doing what Taiwan did, namely, taking the best features of the systems of several countries?)

    “Will we have to raise taxes on everyone, including the poor, or cut all discretionary spending except defense?” (Wait a minute! Why is cutting the world’s largest military establishment–larger than those of the next ten countries combined–out of the question?)

    “Do you want to vote for Romney or Obama?” (Why don’t the mainstream media let us see the minor party candidates or lesser-known contenders for the party nominations? Of course, these candidates won’t win, but they do bring up issues that the so-called “serious” candidates ignore. Maybe the major candidates would discuss these issues if the minor party terriers yapped at their heels enough.)

    Since politicians and pundits often argue vehemently within the narrow confines of permissible discourse, we can receive an exaggerated impression of free and open dialogue, but in fact, anyone who colors outside the lines of what the corporate media can tolerate will soon find himself either ignored or the object of ridicule.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/09/2012 - 08:15 am.

      Specific questions and proposals are OK. I think we saw a wide spectrum of ideas on the right during the primary debates that narrowed as the race finished.

      However, I think what is missing are the big questions which are only tangentially encountered in debate answers.

      They include:

      What are the role and responsibilities of individuals, society and government?

      What kind of protections/services do our citizens earn/deserve/require?

      What do we want out country to be like in 20 years? 200 years?

      What challenges are further down the road than the next election cycle?

      What should our outlook on the world be?

      And on and on.

  7. Submitted by Villafried Pareto on 10/08/2012 - 11:01 pm.


    Maybe they are targeting the mean or average of public attitudes and opinions (assuming that most issues distribute on a bell curve). They are just puppets to the polling data.

  8. Submitted by Barney Hedstrom on 10/08/2012 - 11:09 pm.

    Lights, Camera, Democracy!

    This post reminds me of the opinion piece by Lewis Latham in Harper’s way back in 1996. While I try not to engage in cynicism, at least not everyday, every four years or so I like to wallow in it for a while. I hope it’s OK to post a link?

    Fabius Maximus has a similar take on the “Debates.”

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/09/2012 - 06:48 am.

    Do leftists really believe

    …that Romney will not put Obamacare to the torch? Really?

    I’m unsure whether to laugh or take an Excederine.

  10. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 10/09/2012 - 12:20 pm.


    This is how political choices work in this country — You can drink Pepsi or you can drink Coke, but if you don’t want either, don’t complain about being thirsty.

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