Note to Dems: Your Television Debates Stink
Democracy suffers as a dying medium makes one last bid for relevance

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 10 September 2019

Thursday’s installment of the Democratic Party’s multinetwork debate fiasco promises more than just another night of bad television; it’s a lesson in bad democracy.

It’s almost as if media conglomerates and party officials responsible for the debates are strategically preventing candidates from discussing important issues or demonstrating political effectiveness. The whole process has almost nothing to do with the grasp of issues or executive competency. Instead, it has everything to do with the demise of the television medium.

If the debates are attempting to demonstrate anything, it’s the dominance of television in American society — as if mounting a last desperate stand against the tube’s inevitable surrender to the internet. Making matters worse, the Democratic Party seems more than okay with the idea of shaping its candidates and their messaging to fit the needs of television spectacle, out of a misplaced belief that well-produced TV can return the party to a golden age of political normalcy, emotional storytelling, and human connection.

Take the stirring opening of the first debate on MSNBC. Dramatic music — essentially a mix of NBC-branded medleys — plays as curiously low-resolution images of the candidates float by. But they’re not just low-res; they contain hints of 1990s video artifacts. The backgrounds are a variation on scan lines, unrealistically vertical ones, but unmistakably a nod to the glory days of picture tubes.

Then a sweeping crane shot passes over the audience à la American Idol, but instead of landing on the judges, it finds the moderators.

Elizabeth Warren got to make the first opening statement, but it was nearly impossible to focus on her face, let alone her message. MSNBC had seen fit to put a TV monitor behind her head, displaying another low-res video image, this time of a deconstructed American flag. The image itself was flickering with “moire” patterns — those swirling optical illusions that sometimes show up on TV when someone wears stripes.

Could NBC’s engineers really be so incompetent, I wondered? Don’t they know the basics of shooting video of video? Of course they do. The moire pattern and occasional flickering served to remind us that we are watching a TV show. This debate is happening on television, not the damn net. That’s why there are TVs everywhere. Any clip that later turns up on YouTube will still remind the viewer that the real action happened on TV. And as if to underscore this primacy of the television broadcast over the live event in the room, the second of the MSNBC debates had to be halted because control room audio began feeding through the house speakers. Like an “official time-out” in football — often little more than a lucrative pause during which to show a few ads — the reality of politics was halted in obeisance to television production. In fact, the debates’ debt to television sports had become immediately apparent as day two kicked off, when Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, apparently warming to their roles, had started things off with banter reminiscent of a pay-per-view prizefight, chumming it up for the cameras as the candidates quietly awaited them.

As if to demonstrate how television really works, CNN’s pair of debates the following month eschewed the video fetishism in favor of the sort of “human drama” more typical of Olympics telecasts. “Tonight: a fight for the heart of the party,” the announcer began, framing the proceedings. “Senator Bernie Sanders determined to seize his second chance at the nomination […] going head-to-head with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Longtime friends fighting for the same cause — and the same voters.”

Moderators urged candidates to challenge one another and pushed for conflict under the pretense of establishing “clarity,” when everyone knew the actual goal was Real-Housewives-style melodrama. The object seemed to be to maximize the possibility of landing a zinger that would spread on social networks and news recaps.

The bigger problem here, though, is that the demands of the television format end up shaping not just the debates but the election itself, nudging voters to place a premium on a largely meaningless skill: how well a candidate can evince a complicated idea while coming across on television in a compelling way. When television’s subject becomes the medium itself, candidates are measured by their ability to meet the environment’s demands. This means being able to establish “rapport” on TV, to speak through the lens to the imaginary people on the other side, to defend oneself in a staged fight without looking mean-spirited (especially if you’re a woman), and to unleash a few memorable one-liners that don’t appear too rehearsed.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, postdebate coverage — including deconstructions by late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert — focused almost entirely on candidates’ television skills. Colbert seemed intent on ridiculing whatever remained of the real people on the debate stage, by pointing out their incompatibility with the ethos of television. Buttigieg had complained that the gun control debate had been going on since he was a kid, which was, Colbert teased, “almost three weeks ago” — meanwhile jutting his hip out in an uncharacteristically homophobic caricature of an impatient millennial. He got a cheap laugh about the candidate’s age and sexuality, at the expense of the real issue of gun violence.

Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow has done not one but two shows dedicated exclusively to illuminating how the television debates work so well for the candidates. She pulls their names out of a hat, and then proceeds to share at least one “great TV moment” for each. Yes, everyone got a zinger. A memorable line. A moment of television intimacy. See? The medium really does work.

Colbert is a comedian and Maddow is a news analyst, but they’re both in the same business: grabbing an audience on TV. Who better to critique the candidates’ media chops? The problem is the candidates are not running for TV host — they’re running for President.

Then again, the current occupant of the White House essentially ran for both and won. But he did so not by adhering to traditional TV’s established rules of connection and rapport, but by violating all of them in favor of reality TV’s replacement dictum: be as compelling as a car crash. That’s part of what makes Trump so refreshing to his admirers. He will never feel our pain. For some, Trump’s signature brusqueness is far more real and engaging than competitive empathizing and social signaling. He spouts nonsense, often seemingly invented on the spot. He won’t even tell coherent stories with beginnings and endings. Every wrong thing he does, on some level, delights those of us who are sick and tired of television’s cultural dominance.

Andrew “I came from the internet” Yang understands this dynamic better than most. Someone on Reddit asked him if he would be willing to “break the fourth wall” at the debates, and Yang did just that. During CNN’s second debate, he explained how the only coverage he’d gotten after the first debate was about the fact that he didn’t wear a tie. “We’re up here with makeup on our faces and rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show,” he said. “It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.”

What Yang gets, and what the Democratic party and purportedly neutral news media need to understand, is that American voters no longer want a TV performance. Television has been at the center of our lives, our economy, and our political machinations for too long. TV is no longer in service of democracy; democracy is in the service of TV. This happened for two main reasons. First, back in the Reagan era, television stations were relieved of the obligation to provide balanced news and public affairs as a condition for holding an FCC license. As news went from a legal requirement and prestigious loss leader to a potential revenue source, its value as entertainment — and its ability to deliver eyeballs to advertisers — took precedence over any civic duty. Second, from the Democratic Party’s point of view, television still offers the best chance to unite and mobilize Americans around shared values. Unlike the net, where rumors and deep fakes spread unchecked, television is still run by big corporations who have some accountability — if not to their audiences, then at least to their advertisers.

But by allowing television to shape our perception of the candidates and the electoral process, the DNC has unwittingly surrendered its values to those of the tube, as well. And its candidates are paying the price.

To be sure, with 20-plus candidates vying for attention, the DNC has quite a challenge. But the early focus on big television debates has made TV everyone’s central concern. Campaigns must focus entirely on whatever criteria the party has decided to use in picking its debate participants, such as placement in two or more polls and grassroots fundraising. Naturally, television coverage of the campaign then focuses on these metrics, reinforcing them over everything else. It’s no longer about bottom-up, local engagement. It’s not about creating opportunities for civic participation. Instead, it’s the equivalent of the television advertising industry’s infamous “Q-rating:” who’s got the best brand recognition.

As a Democrat, I understand the yearning to return to that warmer, fuzzier era of leftist television. Norman Lear’s sitcoms of the ’70s — All in the Family and The Jeffersons — were synonymous with progressive values, and watched by nearly everyone. In the dark years of Bush, The West Wing gave us a Democratic fantasy of hope, wisdom, and compromise. Even Murphy Brown’s brilliant one-liners gave us the vicarious thrill of watching a progressive woman take down powerful hypocrites. Too bad neither Martin Sheen nor Candace Bergen is running (although West Wing actor Richard Schiff has apparently made an endorsement).

Memo to Democrats: yes, Kennedy may have beaten Nixon in 1960 because he was better suited to a “cool” medium and knew to play to the camera, but the television era is over. We are in a digital age, now, characterized less by linear, emotional storytelling, and more by nonfiction modes — whether false rumors or true facts. Young women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Greta Thunberg are as well-suited to the digital era — to YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter — as JFK was to the TV age. And that’s for the best: The issues we face are just too real and intractable and upsetting for a television medium that insists on gift-wrapping every complex thought in a happy ending, and measuring success in Nielsen ratings.

I believe that’s the real reason a TV-obsessed DNC won’t even let the candidates do a standalone debate on climate, as many wanted to. It’s not suitable for television! And it’s not just unsuitable because such a debate would be boring. It’s because climate change is a real, never-ending, chronic problem. Climate change isn’t something we “win” so much as something we learn to deal with. It doesn’t fit the format. There’s no room for a heartwarming, inspirational story about “when I was a little girl…” when you’re talking about the Amazon on fire. The opportunities to deliver those truly devastating zingers dwindle when everyone is discussing how to avoid species extinction.

If the Democratic Party wants to move beyond the spectator republic of the television era, it will have to transcend the entertainment values of television, and embrace the more barrier-free, issues-centered, personally engaged values of the Internet. Democracy in a digital age will be participatory: our bodies in the street, doing civic engagement or even civil disobedience. “Digital” refers to the digits, the fingers, after all. It’s a hands-on medium, demanding hands-on approaches.

Sure, television is fighting for control of the democratic process, as are the big money institutions still aligned with TV and the rest of our monopoly industries. TV keeps saying, “don’t normalize Trump.” They’d love nothing more than to bring back the emotional coherence of Bill Clinton, whether you bought it or not. Cory Booker has made a valiant effort to pick up that mantle, yet we can feel its obsolescence every time he widens his eyes and stares into the camera as if a moment of pretend eye contact is enough to establish true rapport.

If Democrats want to win, they’re going to have to accept the fact that television and its values may not be the solution to their woes, but the cause of them. Instead, they must come to grips with the fact that Americans of all political persuasions are sick and tired of the way TV and the neoliberal institutions it supports are trying to dictate how we think about the world, as well as how we’re supposed to dig ourselves out of the mess they created for us. We don’t want drama, hand-holding, or the zingers — certainly not at this early stage in the campaign.

Have the courage to dispense with the manufactured drama and even risk boring us with the issues. Treat the public like adults. Let’s see if any of the candidates can rise to that challenge, and compel us to see the world as they do.

TV’s values are obsolete. The more adamantly this medium tries to assert its relevance and centrality, the more desperate it appears. And if Democrats want to return to power, they’ve got to stop playing by television’s rules and start engaging with us for real.