Political debates are, for me anyhow, a bit like the movie Napoleon Dynamite. Let me explain.
Some of you might be too young or too old to fully appreciate the empty momentum with which Napoleon Dynamite swept the cultural landscape of the young suburban idlers at the time of its release. Maybe you were in a better cultural milieu and were spared. I wasn’t. I was at ground zero, Napoleon Dynamite-wise. I was living in Saratoga Springs, NY, 94% white as of the last census. I was going to high school at the time. I had no interest in the film when it came out; I was too busy proselytizing the American independent film movement and generally being cinematically insufferable.
I’m not saying I am or was above engaging with Napoleon Dynamite here; though of course the subtext of such a claim is that I was and am in fact above engaging with Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon Dynamite didn’t care. It was going to weasel its way into my consciousness and drag me toward the shared cultural zeitgeist, lyger reference by lyger reference, “Vote For Pedro” t-shirt by “Vote For Pedro” t-shirt. My unkempt curly hair led to frequent comparisons of my younger self to the fictional Mr. Dynamite. I refused to see the film out of principle. The sheer number of quotations and discussions of it into which I was roped left me fairly sure that not only had I heard every scrap of dialogue the film had to offer but also likely scenes that were deleted from the film proper or could only exist in alternate universe cuts of the film. I was sure every bit of quoted dialogue I’d heard, if run end to end, would have run to Tarkovsky length.
To put it concisely, I had seen more of the film for my not having seen the film. I had no desire to watch the film. I still have no desire to watch the film.
I hate listening to politicians talk. As the sort of person who will sometimes throw on anthropological recordings of field hollers to unwind, the mechanical formality of the coached political speaker reaches my ears with the same paranoiac abrasive blandness as muzak. Something sinister is going on. With the muzak it’s implied, with the political speaker I can spot exactly where the paranoia is justified and it makes the experience that much less pleasant. If I’m at a bar I become that frustrated guy screaming at the TV during the football game, except in my case the political debate is put on in a bar so the people normally screaming at the TV during the football games can be quiet and ponder it and feel like they’ve put in their three hours of secular Hail Marys. Nobody comes out of this looking good.
Nothing of importance is ever said at a debate, especially at this point in history. The days of Lincoln-Douglass are over. We don’t have two master orators going at it for 6 hours. That I would tune in to. Instead we have a version of The Dating Game where the moderator, unlike Chuck Woolery, doesn’t realize how much of it is bullshit and takes himself far too seriously for it to be at least fun as cynical gallows humor. A Chuck Woolery hosted debate would’ve been horrifying for the fact it would’ve been more honest; even in the pointless spectacle of a presidential debate, essentially a game of hot potato played until one or several of the parties makes a faux-pas that has little bearing on anything besides its own self-referential self-importance, the rigged conclusion has to be sent out. CNN, who hosted the recent Democratic Party primary debate and probably shouldn’t have been declaring winners, nevertheless had the following headline with the following contradictory viewer poll up on their website within hours of the debate’s conclusion:
Like Napoleon Dynamite, a quick sweep of the internet in the hours after the debate left me with probably more debate than actually happened and showed what the actual desires of the groups running the debates were. The highlights reel was described over and over. Sanders said the e-mail thing was unimportant and shook hands with Clinton. Chafee and Webb failed miserably. Anderson Cooper apparently was trying to make the debate “not about the issues” at points, whatever that means, and the media couldn’t stop tripping over themselves to say how polished Clinton seemed. Sanders said something about guns that didn’t connect with the party line, and this was repeated ad nauseum so that the shittiness of the banks didn’t have to be discussed as much.
I don’t feel like I missed anything. Nothing was revealed to me besides the existence of Chafee and Webb, which was just as soon made irrelevant by their effectively being knocked out of the race. The articles I read didn’t suggest anything was lurking under the surface that would’ve shown me anything. And reading the articles only took me about 20 minutes and didn’t make me scream at inanimate objects in public or go Van Gogh to my ears with an ice cream scoop.
Insofar as the debates are pretty much about voters “deciding” they like one of the candidates and the interest in the debates is largely in seeing how these politicians make themselves “likable”, given that maybe 1/20th of the electorate tunes into these things to begin with, the actual thing that the analyst desires from watching the debate-to see how the rest of the electorate will respond-can be gotten just as well from seeing where the spin falls in the hour or two after the debate.