While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated at Hofstra University on Tuesday night, there should have been a third stool on the stage. Not for Clint Eastwood's empty chair, but for a rival whose ideas would have challenged the two major party candidates to step beyond their comfort level on a host of issues.
There was no third stool though. Instead of joining on the stage, in the auditorium or even on the campus, Jill Stein - the Green Party presidential nominee - found her seat in jail, arrested for disorderly conduct as she walked with 200 protesters down the road from the debate.
Stein's night in custody is a pretty simple metaphor for a problem in our presidential politics. Perspectives that would enlarge our political discussion are blocked from entreating mainstream discourse. When they can't be laughed off, casually dismissed or simply ignored, they get suppressed by police tactics that both major parties condone.
What would have been so radical about Stein's presence? She probably wouldn't have raced against the two men on stage to see who could go furthest in boasting about oil production. While the president skewered the Governor over the 47 percent, Stein may have asked the president where his plan has been for helping Americans facing foreclosure. While Romney chatted on about the engine of business, Stein may have asked about punishing the titans of Wall Street who had cost us so many jobs - a measure neither party has pursued in full. And as both men jousted over America's role in the Middle East and North Africa, Stein may have made the case that drone attacks, assassinations and undeclared wars are only imperiling us, not making us safer.
But you wouldn't think that a presidential candidate would voice those ideas if you only know about the Democrats and Republicans. You wouldn't realize that Rocky Anderson has made a real commitment to campaign finance reform with the Justice Party, or Libertarian Gary Johnson wants to transform marijuana laws. Because all of them have been shunted out of the public eye. Their ideas have been arrested.
Beyond the metaphor, though, it may be more disturbing that Stein herself was arrested for peacefully seeking to participate in our political discourse. The media blackout of third parties may ultimately be more insidious and effective at silencing them; but Americans should be outraged at the simpler act of arresting a legitimate candidate who was seeking to be heard. Even if you don't care about third party politics, this alone should have a chilling effect on your view of our democracy.
I am not a committed third party advocate, not convinced it's the fastest or most important way to create progressive change. I'm not opposed to more parties either, when they voice something that deserves to be heard, and when they take serious steps to organize their constituents. I think there are clear differences between Democrats and Republicans - though also too many issues where they agree too much.
It sounds like something out of a darker past or a dystopian novel to hear that presidential candidates are being arrested. You can be an idealistic radical and assert that this shows that the "system" is scared of their ideas, which is why they take such measures. But I feel that we should be more scared of a "system" capable of doing this to so little outrage or reaction.
I'd say that such a worry would make me sound like a Tea Partier…except those defenders of liberty haven't been outspoken for Stein, Anderson or Johnson either. In any case, even those Americans who plan to vote for a major party should be concerned. Americans who embrace relatively mainstream politics probably espouse the ideas of freedom of expression and the desire for a vibrant democracy. What's more mainstream American than that?