After months of Republicans dominating 2016 election coverage, the Democrats finally had their chance in the spotlight. Their debate was certainly a more down-to-earth presentation than the hysterical Republican spectacles, but it wasn’t without moments of surrealism. Overall, though, the debate served primarily to reveal the superficiality of our political system.
If anything, that superficiality really speaks to the need for more debates. The Democrats aren’t having another one until November 14. All the candidates really had time to do at the first debate was speak in talking points. It wouldn’t have been that different a show if candidates just took turns reading blurbs from their campaign websites.
But Democratic leadership doesn’t want more debates. Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has caught flak for keeping the number of sanctioned debates low. It’s a widely held belief that more debates would benefit the candidates with less name recognition. By limiting the number of debates, the Democratic elite can help secure Hillary Clinton’s nomination in the primaries.
It’s a brazenly undemocratic thing to do. But despite not getting as much time to get his views across to the American people as he’d have probably liked, Senator Bernie Sanders was the debate winner by most reasonable measures. He scored most of the night’s biggest pops, trended higher than the other candidates on Google and won dozens of online polls.
Not that you’d know it from much of the mainstream coverage. The New York Times declared Clinton the “clear victor.” Despite Sanders scorching her in a CNN online poll, the network has put out glowing assessments of Clinton and less-than-enthusiastic coverage of Sanders. The company even scrubbed pro-Sanders comments from its site.
Much of the Clinton victory lap is based on her presidential poise. But a CNN focus group talked about Sanders’s irascibility favorably, with one respondent saying, “Bernie was on fire the whole night.” For CNN to still insist Clinton is the winner on the basis of her being a consummate politician is a distasteful reminder of how money – and, as Sanders said during the debate, the corporate media – corrupts politics.
But no one hammered the issue of money in politics as effectively as Sanders. While he memorably quipped, “Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress,” Clinton said, “I represented Wall Street… I went to Wall Street and said, ‘Cut it out.’” Whatever “it” was, they certainly didn’t cut it out, and it’s going to take a lot more to rein in Wall Street than wagging a finger at it.
Deep down, the American people know this. It’s why our country would benefit so enormously from having more debates. Rather than two-minute talking points and buzz lines, the candidates should be discussing serious policy proposals at length.
The first questions Sanders was asked had to do with socialism and whether or not he considers himself a capitalist. He managed to get a few good points across, but the forum is less than ideal for ideas as big as Sanders’s. In an America where most of the people who are of voting age grew up believing capitalism vs. socialism is the same as good vs. evil, it takes longer than two minutes to explain the nuances of the argument.
Perhaps Americans don’t have the attention span for such detailed analysis, but that decision isn’t the media’s to make. The media doesn’t tell Americans what they need to know, it tells Americans what it wants them to know. Any American intrigued by Sanders’s remarks will have to do homework. And any Americans turned off by the word “socialism” won’t be exposed to Sanders’s viewpoint in a meaningful way because Sanders simply doesn’t have the time to address it adequately.
But such a discussion is surely worth having, and Sanders’s meteoric rise in the polls shows that more Americans are ready to have it. Instead, debates move quickly from one issue to the next, and questions seem designed to throw candidates off or extract certain, headline-worthy responses. Americans need and deserve to hear more than two minutes on foreign policy, systemic racism, climate change, the surveillance state, and other issues that the candidates only scratched the surface of due to the debate format.
Comparisons with the Republican debates are apt. For all their flaws, the debate showed Democrats as a functional political party rather than the deranged cult the GOP has transformed into. Perceptions on who won the debate will likely be influenced by personal biases going in, but based on the internet buzz he got, it’s clear Sanders’s best chance at winning the primary is to flesh out his message for the people. And that’s exactly what the corporate media and well-financed Democrats are trying to avoid.