Entry from October 16, 2008

I skipped last night’s “debate.” I skipped the previous one too. And the first one. Oh, and also the vice-presidential debate watched by more Americans than any vice-presidential debate in history. When nearly 70 million viewers tune in to watch two aspirants to the office that one of its holders once described as being “not worth a pitcher of warm spit,” it ought to be a tip-off that what they’re watching is not a real debate. Instead it’s a celebrity game show designed precisely to garner these kinds of ratings. The contestants’ job is not to inform or persuade you, it is to make you like and trust them and to dislike or distrust the other fellow. How seriously, in those circumstances, can you take anything they say?

The supposed debate is also inseparable from the “post-debate analysis” for which its purpose is increasingly just to provide the occasion. That is to say, the real stars of the show are, and are meant to be, the journalist-commentators who come on the air beforehand to tell us what the candidates “have to do” and then come on again afterwards to tell us whether or not they did it and what it all means. As, increasingly, with political discourse in general, the actual dialogue between the candidates is almost completely drained of genuine content. Opportunities are given them to say nasty things about each other, but these, too, have no meaning until they are submitted, later, to analysts who will pronounce authoritatively on whether what was said was “effective” or “landed a punch” that the other guy was unable to shake off.

Here’s how Dan Balz sums up for us the outcome of last night’s affair in an “Analysis” piece in today’s Washington Post:

This debate may have been McCain’s strongest performance of the three, but it was also an example of how Obama has used the encounters to try to show that he has not only the knowledge of the issues but also the temperament and the judgment that voters are looking for in a successor to President Bush. In the end, given the overwhelming desire for change in the country, that may be enough to keep him in the driver’s seat. McCain will have to continue to press his case relentlessly in the final days to change the shape of the campaign.

Apart from the initial faint praise for McCain, what is there in this passage that could not have been written before the debate ever happened? Even his saying that it was Senator McCain’s strongest performance was completely foreseeable. All the Obama code-words — knowledge, temperament, judgment, change — are inserted in the correct order, and the conclusion is precisely the one that was intended by the media consensus well before the parties had even chosen their candidates.

Well, we were all sort of used to that. But what makes the alleged debates particularly unbearable to me now is that they have moved beyond this secondary stage, this meta-debate between the partisan pundits, to a tertiary stage. For the pundits have become stand-ins for the candidates, who thoughtfully but unnecessarily provide their own “spin” as to what their encounter with each other is supposed to portend. The on-air and morning-after print pundits are now merely the unofficial versions of these official spinners pretending to be independent analysts. George Stephanopoulos is working for the Democrats just as surely as he was when he was in Bill Clinton’s “War Room.” Therefore, we also need an army of bloggers and what Tim Cavanaugh in a brilliant article in the current number of Reason calls “front-porch semioticians” to analyze the analysts, and to explain to each other what the comments on the comments mean — as if we didn’t already know!

Mr Cavanaugh’s point is that “we are all postmodernists now.”

The mainstreaming of pomo thinking has been largely a stealth project, something Americans do without committing overt acts of academia. We thought we were trying to clear away the cobwebs of shoddy analysis and elite hypocrisy, but all along we were bringing the tools of critical thinking to the masses. Go into any bar in the country, and you’ll find somebody unpacking the assumptions in someone else”s text.

The sport of the debate, and of politics generally, is thus like that of reading detective novels. Your enjoyment lies in uncovering the hidden meanings in the innocuous pronouncements of the candidates with only the clues supplied by the debate impresarios and pundits who are allowed to stand in for the author of the story. It is a collaborative exercise, like a video-game, and the part played by the meta-analysts is as important as that played by the analysts — and more important than that played by the candidates.

These tertiary commentators are, like the secondary ones, partisans, only openly so and not so uniformly on one side rather than the other. In the end their commentary generally boils down to one sort or another of the familiar charge of “media bias” which is no less true for being banal. But why bother? The point is that the fix is in When was the last time that anyone — candidate, handler, pundit or blogger — said anything truly original or interesting or in the remotest degree surprising in one of these debates or in the commentary on it? The candidate will win who has the greatest numbers and the loudest voices on his side, and all the pretense of rational argument means nothing.

That’s why I find it hard to understand why even people who know what the score is — and how the debate is sure to be scored — would waste their time watching these dog and pony shows. At least Senator McCain knows that he has to show up and pretend that he is engaged in real debate, even though he also knows the fight is fixed. If he doesn’t the journalistically inspired illusion of substance and meaning in the idea of “debate” will still be strong enough in the general public to make his non-appearance a dishonor and a discredit and, almost certainly, a disqualification to him and his candidacy. Poland still had to fight a two-front war in September, 1939, even though she could not but have known that she had no chance of winning it. That’s the pathos that makes the thing more like baiting than debating — and too painful, for me anyway, to watch.


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