Fringe Benefits

In 1992, Larry Agran ran for president. The former Irvine mayor's quest for the highest office in the land was considered almost as quixotic as fellow countian Bob Dornan's attempt four years later. In trying for the Democratic nomination, Agran was up against such national political figures as Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown. But Agran had years of experience (as a Democrat in heavily conservative Orange County, no less) forging unlikely coalitions from opposing elements-a talent that would have come in handy on Capitol Hill. Compare that with Dornan, whose usual method of dealing with disagreement is to call opponents commie homo traitors. And Agran has always seemed like a damn smart guy.But that didn't matter because no one would let him join the debates. Indeed, after Agran stood up in the audience at a debate in New York and loudly requested to be allowed to participate, he and a backer were arrested and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. (A judge eventually dismissed the charges.) But the time-honored practice of excluding fringe candidates from public political debates ensures that they remain on the fringe, and it ensures that the free choice of democracy is limited to a few candidates who are hand-picked by those in power. The paucity of choice was apparent in the July 31 debate between Gray Davis and Dan Lungren. The televised debate was held in San Diego and cosponsored by the California Manufacturer's Association and the California Federation of Labor. Some saw the sponsorship as a positive sign: two frequent adversaries coming together. But why shouldn't they come together when the opposing candidates are practically clones? Viewers of the debate were treated to the sight of two middle-aged white guys in virtually identical conservative suits wrestling over who was more moderate. Lungren-the Republican-bragged about his enforcement of the assault-weapon ban. Davis-the Democrat-held up Singapore, home of canings, hangings and other medieval punishments, as a model of criminal justice. Oh, sure, they took pot shots at each other. Davis boasted about his military service (Lungren was ineligible for the draft in Vietnam because of his bad knees). Lungren practically showed the childless Davis family pictures. But there was little real difference between the two. By the end of the debate-only the first in a series-I was longing for a wackmobile fringe candidate just to liven things up.But if the powers that be discourage open political debate, the Internet thrives on it. In response to the deadly dullness of the official debate, the Democracy Network ( has mounted a digital debate to give minor candidates a chance to speak out. The site took the debate questions, including those Lungren and Davis fired at each other, and posed them to the following gubernatorial candidates: Harold H. Bloomfield (Natural Law Party), Dan Hamburg (Green Party), Nathan E. Johnson (American Independent Party), Steve W. Kubby (Libertarian Party) and Gloria Estela La Riva (Peace & Freedom Party). You can read their responses online, along with a transcript of the televised debate, at Unlike Lungren and Davis, they espouse strong opinions. Take, for example, the moderator's question about the state's regularly scheduled budget crisis. Davis suggested not paying the Legislature and the governor until they passed a budget-a measure, Lungren rightly pointed out, that wouldn't cut too deeply into the pockets of all the rich politicians in Sacramento. Lungren did no better, offering weakly that he would “require adults to act like adults.” Whatever that means. But Hamburg proposed eliminating the two-thirds vote requirement for passing a budget, passing two-year budgets, and curbing special-interest lobbying during the budget process. La Riva suggested the real problem wasn't so much that the budget was perennially late, but rather that it amounted to corporate welfare. And Kubby, bless his Libertarian heart, said simply that he'd solve the problem by submitting a teensy budget. I'm not suggesting these ideas are feasible, or even necessarily desirable, but at least they're interesting.Pundits like to talk about what a boon the Internet is to the democratic process, but it's not really true-not yet. Sure, Netizens can make a small difference here and there. A House committee recently decided to postpone hearings on a pro-spam bill for one more week after being deluged with thousands of angry e-mail messages, at which time it passed the bill anyway. And, in perhaps the greatest triumph of digital democracy, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf (from the Howard Stern Show) beat out Leonardo DiCaprio in People magazine's online Most Beautiful People poll.But I don't fool myself into thinking it's going to make a difference here. Either Tweedledum (in the navy suit) or Tweedledee (in the grayish suit) will be elected in November. But in the pre-Internet days, fringe candidates didn't have a voice at all, and those who tried (like Agran) wound up being suppressed, often in brutally direct fashion.Democracy Net's digital debate is more a small, heartening act of rebellion. As modern philosopher J. Michael Straczynski once said, it doesn't matter whether you make a difference. What matters is that you try.Speak your mind to Wyn at wh****@sp*****.com

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