Commentary: I did not watch the second round of Democratic presidential debates, and I am no poorer for it.
CNN brought 20 contenders to Detroit Tuesday and Wednesday nights for what may as well have been a pillow fight: 10 candidates on stage at a time, impossible time limits that prevented substantive answers or debating propositions, a format bound to force candidates to wrest attention and earn social media clips by means of spectacle.
In short, I expected little better from CNN than what NBC delivered with its shoddy back-to-back 20-candidate debates in June, and I declined to believe that engaged citizenship required me to watch the farce play out live. Caring about politics does not necessitate bolstering CNN’s ratings and exposing oneself to its advertising.
(Read my proposed format: We deserve real presidential debates)
Besides, there would be plenty of commentary by political journalists to read in the morning — or on Twitter.
Reading that coverage assures me my nights were more profitably spent dining with friends amid real conversation, reading a few pages of a thoughtful book, meditation and rest.
The journalists hosting the event predictably demanded conflict over thought, framing questions (some nodding to policy, others personal) to encourage the candidates to take shots at each other.
This obsession with personal combat was also reflected in CNN’s analysis of its own event. For example:
“The question … is whether Biden was damaged by the number of attacks he faced. Even though he fended off many of them, their sheer volume could plant doubts about one of his strongest assets – his perceived electability – in the minds of Democratic primary voters.”
Political journalism is doing the public no favors reifying this nonsense about electability. The Democratic Party, one of two parties dominating our republican democracy, will (someday) select from this mass a candidate. That nominee will presumably be electable: they will appear on the ballots and have access to money required to campaign across the country and persuade voters to support them.
The language of much churnalistic analysis was steeped in metaphors of combat: candidates “clashed” and some marginal figures “broke through.” Joe Biden’s “Obama shield” was pierced, I’m told. Kamala Harris was “wearing a target.” (Perhaps a bit off-key at a time when Democratic women of color are facing high-profile threats of violence?) Sanders and Warren were "under siege," fending off centrist “attacks.”
This is not how a healthy democracy selects officers. This is grift.
On the positive side, the large Democratic field offers the party’s voters a possible opportunity to make meaningful choices as far as challenging President Donald Trump in 2020.
The crowded field includes men, women, people of color, and a sufficient variety of policy proposals and ideological commitments to help primary voters make some clear choices: Shall the party endorse a progressive platform with bold proposals to address burning crises after the election, or shall it run with a more conservative figure who will “fight” Trump without disturbing capitalist power too much?
Once that is decided, they may choose who would be the best communicator for that agenda, who could also run the executive branch and serve as president with a divided congress.
The open secret, of course, is that these decisions are held as too important to be left to voters. Your choices are narrowed for you by celebrity journalists who serve as gatekeepers of permissible discourse, large donors and corporate lobbies, and the professional class of political-media specialists who manage campaigns and advise candidates.
I do not know whether we have been left with the politics we deserve, but demanding nothing better, we get the politics we ask for.
Desert Sage enjoys hearing from readers and listeners at email@example.com.