The “dad joke” has some serious competition.
The third Democratic debate in Houston was filled with rehearsed gimmicks, one-liners, and, of course, corny jokes. To top it all off, there were more loud previews, special soundtracks, and ‘voice-of-God’ intros than ever.
Such is the new norm in the age of Trump. Networks try to manufacture excitement with countdown clocks ticking away on screens, and pundits frame discussions in terms of a boxing match. All the while, productive discourse is made a secondary concern—the fundamental goal of each candidate is to squeeze in as many witty comments as possible.
However, the candidates themselves are not the issue. The notion that politicians have become more mean-spirited is based on an inaccurate reading of history. By romanticizing the past, we erroneously frame the political status quo as unprecedented and unsolvable. In reality, the issue lies with the policies and practices we explicitly choose to implement. Though the smoke and mirrors of our political debates may be irritating, a paradigm shift away from grassroots issues and towards sensationalism is the real, novel threat facing American democracy.
Political debates in the United States have always been spectacles. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson called John Adams “a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” During the 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, TV viewers thought the young, charming, and charismatic Kennedy “won,” while radio listeners thought the mature, disheveled, and sweaty Nixon “won.” In other words, showmanship has always been more important than substance.
If the temperaments of our politicians have not changed, what has? As it turns out, concrete policy changes and the rise of digital news have exacerbated the issues we face.
The DNC’s Fatal Choice
Faced with an overwhelming number of candidates vying for the 2020 nomination, leaders at the DNC decided that in order to qualify for the televised debates, candidates needed 65,000 total donors with 200 unique donors in each state (for at least twenty states). Tom Perez, chairman of the DNC, expressed his belief that the new threshold would ensure candidates “run grassroots campaigns.” While the DNC’s intention was reasonable, their solution is perhaps the most detrimental policy change the Democratic Party has made in recent memory.
Candidates spent their time this summer trying to qualify for the debates instead of focusing on thematic issues, and their efforts hardly benefit the electorate. Let’s call this for what it is: mass panhandling.
One cannot open Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook without seeing candidates scavenging for single-dollar contributions. Though their strategy may, in the short-term, mobilize a diverse group of potential donors, the long-term implications are damaging to the democratic process. Paradoxically, panhandling is quite expensive. Candidates are spending up to $60 in online advertising to earn $1 from a single donor. Not only is this desperate process wasteful and shameful, it also gives the upper hand to candidates who have the means to finance massive (and ultimately meaningless) digital campaigns. Perhaps more alarmingly, to require candidates to have many “grassroots supporters” on paper is to require them to further align themselves with corporate donors.
For example, Tom Steyer, the billionaire and former hedge fund investor, is what one would call a tier-three candidate. Nonetheless, he spent around $1 million on online ads and $4.3 million on television ads to reach the DNC’s arbitrary threshold.
There is something seriously wrong with that picture. Nonetheless, he was successful, and we will be seeing him on the debate stage in October.
Instead of focusing on his vision for the Democratic Party, he spent millions begging for small donations. That is not to say Tom Steyer has no theme that governs his campaign, but these concerns are all but irrelevant for now. The DNC fails to understand that running a grassroots campaign and having a broad voter network are not the same thing. What our candidates are gaining in breadth, they are losing in depth.
Figures like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who ran grassroots campaigns in early primary states (like Iowa and New Hampshire), would have no chance at the nomination in today’s political climate—their “main street” demeanor and unremarkable personalities would gain no traction. Candidates now need exceedingly broad voter networks, and to achieve this, not only do they panhandle, but they exploit the media. Controversiality, conflict, and overall quirkiness all allow candidates’ performances to be replayed and shared. And having a viral moment is perhaps the best way to earn many small donations (like when Kamala Harris jumped to second place and raised millions after the first debate). Even if her success was fleeting, the money and attention she shifted away from other candidates was anything but negligible.
Traditional grassroots candidates are undeniably boring. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign is perhaps most famous for being uninteresting and bland, yet he was able to defeat several key Democratic rivals, including John Edwards and Howard Dean, by focusing on localized issues. In previous debate cycles, sources like the Des Moines Register and the Quad City Times were the driving force behind the Democratic primary. While some may argue that it is time these so-called “early” swing states lose their disproportionate power in the Democratic primaries, the power has not shifted to the “people” or to the nation as a whole. Now, it belongs to the media and cable networks.
Now, George Stephanopoulos, Rachel Maddow, and Don Lemon run the Democratic primary.
The national media simply does not care about issues like renewable energy, or grassroots issues like labor and trade. Today’s debates seem to be all about healthcare phrased in confusing, convoluted packages. One candidate may support “Medicare for all,” another, “Medicare for America,” and a third, “Medicare for all who want it.” In any case, there is no more need for local knowledge. When politicians neglect thinking in terms of smaller constituencies, the American people’s trust in government declines. Candidates must now spend their time in national studios in Washington instead of in a bar in Iowa or a lodge in Wisconsin, and as such, national politics are growing distant from the realities of the working-class American voter.
Nonetheless, the DNC’s decisions are understandable; having more than twenty candidates on stage at once is confusing for the viewer and frustrating for candidates who have little time to express their policy initiatives. However, because candidates must now be interesting on television (which is very different from being interesting in a town hall meeting), they are incentivized to use one-liners and snarky remarks. Ultimately, these sloppy (and often incoherent) attempts to go viral are even more confusing for the viewer who simply wants to be informed on the issues.
Even as the primary enters a sort of sudden-death round and the debate stage narrows, candidates are still encouraged to deliver quick remarks. Lincoln and Douglas debated in 15-minute chunks, but the Democratic candidates get one minute to answer questions and 30 seconds to refute. Such a policy systematically hurts more eloquent (if less witty) orators. For example, Pete Buttigieg—a mayor—was able to gain significant traction in the Democratic primaries through his ability to speak to people. His calm personality and eloquent mannerisms stood out to voters; the Washington Post even likened him to a “young Barack Obama.” However, he has struggled in the televised debates because he lacks the ability to reduce his contentions down to sound bites.
Pete Buttigieg is the exception that proves the rule.
It simply is far more interesting to see Julian Castro and Joe Biden go back and forth about vague healthcare platitudes, or to see Kamala Harris speak directly to Trump in a snarky opening statement. These are not meaningful contradictions. Rather, they seem to be a part of a spectacle in the political version of “The Bachelor.”
Though this issue is not created by the DNC’s new rules, tier-two candidates now have more incentive than ever to try to go viral to secure their spot in the next debate. And all the while, CNN’s ratings and revenue increase exponentially as their footage is replayed to the sound of royalties and advertisements.
These rhetorical fireworks have also increased political polarization within the Democratic Party. Unless a candidate has massive name recognition (like that of Joe Biden), it is simply impossible to gain traction without taking more and more radical stances. That is not to say more moderate candidates do not exist; Warren and Sanders are not the only alternatives the Democrats have, but when the debate stage is as full as it is, the distinctions between the other candidates seem to fade into obscurity.
But again, the problem is not our candidates. It’s the system. Sure, the candidate pool seems to be quite progressive, and of course, many individuals have little opportunity to incorporate substance among the melodrama. A certain amount of spectacle is unremarkable, but a complacent DNC is concerning.
In other words, sensationalism may be inevitable, but policies that exacerbate it are not.
No matter what solution the DNC takes, there are more fundamental issues at hand. Perhaps it is time we stop placing so much weight on the political debate altogether. The “hype” around showdowns on the debate stage currently dominates the news cycle. Virtually everyone knows this; few would disagree that a problem exists. Nonetheless, focusing on “fundamental” problems distracts from what we can do right now.
There will always be existential issues in politics, but dwelling on them will not do us any good. Let us start by rescinding this foolish new Democratic policy. Next, the DNC should push for a strategy that more heavily relies on polling. Though it may make for worse TV, the Democrats should embrace a crowded debate stage—at least for a while. Then, based on fluctuations in polling data, the DNC should gradually narrow the debate stage (even if this means allowing for more debates); the “sudden death” qualifications imposed to slash the candidate pool are simply unnecessary. The caprice of the American voter is undeniable, but it does not come without excuse; there is little substance behind the smoke and mirrors of the 2020 debates. Thus, not only should we trust the American voter to view and process more information-dense debates, but we ought to adjust the debate stage according to polling data produced by such viewership.Taking this step will not require a massive overhaul of the status quo. But until Tom Perez takes action, the needs of the people will not be heard over the sound of failed punchlines and broken Spanish.
Categories: Domestic Affairs