What Gary Johnson & Jill Stein Need To Do Before Complaining About The Debates

One of the biggest stories about Monday's presidential debate was who wasn't there. Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein both failed to make the 15-percent polling threshold necessary to take the stage at the debate. As a result, Johnson and Stein weren't invited to debate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, though both third-party candidates had plenty of choice words for their would-be opponents.

Stein tweeted throughout the debate, often using the hashtag #OccupyTheDebates after being escorted off the campus Hofstra University by police. Johnson, still smarting from his "What is Aleppo?" gaffe, ran an editorial in Wednesday's New York Times promoting his Libertarian ideas as a means for unity in an ostensibly polarized political climate. Both Johnson and Stein have complained about their exclusion from the debate. Johnson, who was much closer to the 15-percent threshold, promoted the hashtag #LetGaryDebate. Stein explicitly accused the Commission on Presidential Debates of fraud.

She's wrong. It isn't fraudulent to impose a threshold for candidates who can participate in a debate in order to keep the debate serious. Roseanne Barr ran for president in 2012, after all, and finished sixth. It would have been a distraction from policy to fill the stage with similarly unserious candidates who had no chance of victory. Moreover, the Commission on Presidential Debates has allowed third party candidates in the past — most recently, independent Ross Perot in 1992, who often polled well above 15 percent. The real reason neither Stein nor Johnson has earned a position at center stage lies in the problems with their own parties.

Neither the Libertarian Party nor the Green Party are very active at the local or congressional level. The reason neither party is taken seriously during the presidential race is not that Americans are unable to think beyond a two-party system, but that most Americans' other elected representatives belong to one major party or the other. Most Americans select from among the two major parties because they're familiar with those parties' work and platforms, and because they know how those parties have previously served them in elected office. Even Donald Trump, who is arguably the least-experienced presidential candidate in history, benefits from his party's history of working on behalf of its voters.

Neither third-party candidate is considered to have much of a shot of winning in November, with or without a presence on the debate stage, but that doesn't mean that both parties don't potentially have a lot to contribute to American political dialogue. Johnson in particular is right to criticize "partisan gridlock" and seemingly out-of-control government spending, as he does in his Times op-ed. The Green Party can arguably be credited for keeping the Democratic Party focused on sustainability and climate change.

All of these issues can be addressed, at least in part, at the Congressional and local levels. If third parties chose to expend their energy by recruiting respected local candidates for state legislatures, they'd be able to build up regional reputations and ultimately challenge Republicans and Democrats for Congressional seats.

An increased third-party Congressional presence might help combat partisanship, and would certainly improve their chances of ultimately claiming the White House. Without these efforts to implement change at the local level, though, third-party candidates for president should not expect to be taken seriously.