Thursday, April 17, 2008

He Who Speaks for the People

I'll admit to watching about 10 full minutes of last night's Democratic debate before opting for the much more interesting--and informative--wallpaper across the room. That the debate, and I use that term loosely, can stand as tantamount to failing and shortcoming of the current state of political discourse would be an understatement of epic proportions.

The first 50 minutes was devoted entirely to a rehash of the same BS that's been harped on for the last six weeks without any sign of ebbing. American politics has come to resemble a hybrid of Tiger Beat and US, offering absolutely nothing substantive or of any consequence.

What's more infuriating, though, is the suggestion, based on absolutely no evidence, that this style is exactly what Americans demand. George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson were just begrudgingly fulfilling the role demanded of them by the public. In their response to criticism, they hold themselves up as helpless hostages of the will of the citizens. Servants are they, with not a second to waste on such distractions as the economy, or the specifics of a health care plan, or the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In an interview with Greg Sargent, Stephanopoulos repetitively invokes that mindset:

He dismissed criticism that it had focused too heavily on "gotcha" questions, arguing that they had gone to the heart of the "electability" that, he said, is forefront in the minds of voters evaluating the two Dems.

"This [Stephanopoulos' definition of 'electability'] is the core question for the campaigns, and a lot of Democratic voters right now. That's why we decided to lead with it."

Asked why we should presume that electability, rather than issues, was the dominant concern of many Dems right now, Stephanopoulos argued that it was a frequent topic of discussion on the campaign trail.

With that, Stephanopoulos brilliantly demonstrates the kind of circular logic which allows for the presentation of tabloid political coverage as legitimate. The thought is prevalent in the media, but no less nonsensical for being so. Suggesting that something is important because it's talked about is a logical trainwreck traveling in circles and barely gripping the rails of sanity.

The suggestion that the volume of media coverage is in some way an objective judge of relative importance is insane and ludicrous on its face. The idea's idiocy is surpassed only in its supreme arrogance, the arrogance to claim some secret, personal knowledge of the will and desires of 'the people' despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Consider ABC's own data as to the most pressing issue among voters:

Economy/Jobs 41
War in Iraq 18
Health care 7
Terrorism 5
Ethics 4
Immigration 4
Other 13
Unsure 5

Even if we can assume that every single person who selected 'other' meant 'tabloid-style political hackery,' it still doesn't rate anywhere near the top priority.

The consensus today seems to be that Obama took the brunt of the questioning, but even that evaluation glosses over the main travesty. The problem isn't that Stephanopoulos and Gibson asked either Clinton or Obama tougher questions, went easier on one than the other, or illustrated quite clearly what the General Election debate will look like.

The problem, the underlying root of everything wrong with politics in America, is the top-down approach to the entire game of debating. Instead of a forum for presenting reasons to vote for a specific candidate, debates have become a spectacle of attempted erosion of credibility and parade of inconsequential, patronizing reasons not to vote for the other guy.

So we can debate endlessly about weather or not someone is sufficiently patriotic or feminine. We can talk about bowling as a sitting President admits to violating international and domestic law. We can discuss who's really the Everyman, even though it's clear that none of the 3 candidates will ever again be confused as such. We can do that.

But lapel pins don't secure borders, either domestically or abroad. A shot of Crown Royal won't bring back jobs. And an association with Reverend Wright won't make John McCain's foreign policy less disastrous.

As long as the media is allowed to dictate the discussion, the public loses. It's not that the media is liberal or conservative or whatever the running narrative is that week. It's not whether they go softer on one candidate or another. It's whether we as Americans continue to allow them to set the agenda. It's whether we continue to stand for a debate almost entirely devoid of substance and keep sailing along mindlessly until the next vapid windstorm of faux controversy sweeps us away, only for us to be ripped back the other way by the undercurrent.

The quandary, then, is whether we choose to stand up, walk to shore, and stake out a path that suits our needs or simply lie back and let the unheeding river push us along the unforgiving banks of its own telescopic worldview.

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