Lately there’s a strange caution in the air about the intellectual pitfalls of comparing American politics to the performing arts — or worse, to showbiz. Be careful what you say about optics. Watch your words on the subject of appearance and presence; be wary of identifying playfully fictional metaphors amid such serious national and global crises. Above all, stop comparing the gathering mess of the 2020 presidential campaign season to television, particularly to (insert moralistic scowl here) reality TV.
Funny, I felt that way all through the 2016 election that gave us President Trump: The glee of defining his rise as a reality show with a profane breakout star landed us right in the middle of the worst reality show ever made. Such comparisons portray the reality-TV genre in broadly demeaning strokes. It’s a characterization ginned up by the kind of people who never watch TV, except cable news.
So can we possibly get past the idea that politics is a reality show?
Fat chance. Having subjected us to two nights of garishly adorned, overproduced, conflict-obsessed live “debates” among a field of 20 Democratic hopefuls (its own delusional gridlock of egos), CNN and the Democratic National Committee summoned the worst aspects of some of TV’s most popular genres and visual tropes.
The overall tone, of course, was cable-news alarmism, but the debates also resembled those celebrity-packed, prime-time game shows that litter the schedule all summer. One also got wafts of the blaring bombast of professional football broadcasts, and, yes, the stage-managed awkwardness of the lesser styles of reality TV.
“We are playing right into Republican hands,” one of the candidates, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), said during Wednesday night’s debate, in which CNN’s tenor of questioning seemed determined to portray a gamut of Democratic policy and beliefs as chronic afflictions rather than workable ideas. Candidate Andrew Yang, in his closing remarks, also went meta in the moment, pointing out the absurdity of the format, the game itself, where more people will notice his lack of a necktie than his platform.
And while the candidates were necessarily prepared to spar with one another (otherwise known as campaigning), CNN’s format facilitated a frenetic game of human darts, with questions designed to goad the jabbing. It was a never-ending two-night competition of lightning rounds, in 30- and 15-second rebuttals to one-minute answers.
Tuesday night’s opening round felt like a series of people being interrupted in mid-sentence, with CNN anchors Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon calling time limits as soon as anyone had anything interesting to say. Wednesday night was only slightly better, but never quite achieved the mood of actual discourse.
Instead, we were watching CNN make television — pieces and bites and clips of which it can repurpose into more programming fodder, days’ worth of pundit banter, befitting the network that overhyped the event for weeks with name-drawings, a countdown clock and relentless reminders to watch.
Even the set for the debate in Detroit’s Fox Theatre, which CNN boasts took 100 people eight days to build (using 25 cameras, 500-plus lights and 40,000 pounds of equipment), seemed like a vulgar example of what we’ve turned our politics into. It overwhelmed the sturdy and ornate authenticity of the palatial 5,000-seat theater, which was constructed in 1928 and built to last. CNN’s frantic impermanence insulted the structure’s beauty.
But that could be any of us these days — lit up like Christmas, in a panic, short of attention, looking for conflict, and then moving on to the next thing. Less than reality TV, this week’s debates put me more in mind of Showtime’s occasionally entertaining but utterly useless political junkie show, “The Circus,” in which three insidery correspultants (my word) just sort of show up wherever “politics” seems to be occurring, so as to add to a heap of speculative analysis and then rush to the next airport.
That’s the state of the 2020 campaign right now — premature, oversupplied, overanxious and, as several of the Democratic hopefuls noted on both nights, prone to using Republican talking points to eliminate one another as too left or too centrist or just too-too. This is only great TV if you’re the guy in the White House.
If CNN were being run thoughtfully instead of manically, a debate this many months away from the primaries would look less like “American Ninja Warrior” and more like one of those nights when “This American Life” rolls into town and everyone gets a free tote bag. Let’s talk. Let’s explain. Let’s meet some candidates with some stories to tell about how they can win. The candidates could have been seated in wing-backed chairs. The lights could be lower. They could have been allowed to finish their sentences. The debates would run longer (maybe three nights), but more calmly.
The DNC itself set a more useful mood during the pre-show, bringing out the Perfecting Church choir on the first night, offering a rousing national anthem from Dee Dee Bridgewater on the second, and personable pep talks from DNC Chair Tom Perez, who on Tuesday night urged voters to “speed date” the candidates; don’t settle down yet. Date around, Perez said, “fall in love with multiple people,” until you find the right replacement for President Trump. Politics keeps trying to mimic “American Idol” and “The Apprentice,” but does a better answer perhaps lie in “The Bachelor,” with flirtation and roses?
Wishful thinking, I freely admit. I find it difficult to take CNN’s approach as seriously as CNN does — this many candidates, this early, trying this hard to get to a date on the calendar that (we can only hope) will get here when it gets here.
CNN got most of what it came for (jibber-jabber for future chyrons) but maybe not the ratings it desired. Around 9 million TV viewers tuned in Tuesday night, far fewer than the 15 to 18 million who watched NBC’s two-night debates in June. (CNN says another 2.8 million watched Tuesday’s debate online. Wednesday’s TV ratings improved, with an estimated audience of 10 million.) Better than a “Walking Dead” episode, but low enough to get a taunting tweet from the president.
The candidates got some good licks in, uttered some lines we’ll forget by the weekend (“Go easy on me, kid”; “Stop yelling!” “I don’t understand someone who takes the trouble to run for president of the United States just to talk about what we cannot do and what we shouldn’t fight for,” and so on.)
There was so much of it as to be too much of it, and unfortunately, that’s all CNN really wanted. After the first night, as some went weirdly gaga for Marianne Williamson’s intergalactic message of love and justice (she’s an expert at telling people exactly what they want to hear, and not a bad TV character herself, as if she were conjured out of old “West Wing” reruns), I found a curious affinity for the closing remarks of Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who wound up nearly riffing on an old pop song: “There’s not going to be a savior,” he said. “Not going to be a superstar that will fix all this. It’s going to be you and me — ”
And we just disagreeeee.