Divisiveness and sensationalism have been two of the most significant sources of criticism of the United States political landscape since the presidential election in 2016. Ironically, these have also been the major themes running through the televised process by which the Democratic presidential candidates for the 2020 election have introduced themselves to the voting populace.
Since the first televised presidential debates in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, the national electorate has increasingly relied more upon pomp and charm rather than policy and experience. This has been no more evident than in the first two debates between the competitors for the Democratic nomination, each boasting a cast of characters large enough to fill the debate stage for two nights in a row. CNN, the news organization broadcasting and moderating the debates, has taken full advantage of the dense concentration of Oval Office sized egos to turn these debates into a mini-season of “Survivor,” where candidates compete against each other for the best sound-bite-sized policy explanation or who can exploit Joe Biden’s too-long career of gaffes the most effectively.
It is not the candidates’ explanations of their plans for funding education or curbing carbon emissions that get replayed and analyzed by the talking heads the next day, but rather Beto O’Rourke delivering generalities in ill-pronounced Spanish and Bernie Sanders growling out grumpy one-liners. These candidates are not unaware of the absurdity of the ritual they are partaking in, as evidenced by Andrew Yang’s lamentation mid-debate; “We’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines playing roles in this reality-TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality-TV star as our president.” The audience’s visceral reaction to this indictment of the debate itself served as an immediate referendum calling for substance in the wake of suffocating style.
As a result of this disillusionment with the sensationalistic trend with presidential debates, many candidates have sought out other forms of media to deliver their ideas to the public through a medium that gives them more than 30 seconds to talk about each issue facing the nation. Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard have all stepped into the realm of long-form podcast interviews with giants of the medium such as Joe Rogan, not only connecting them to millions of young voters but also allowing them to really dig in to what makes their campaign significant over the course of a one to three hour conversation.
This is not the first time that candidates have sought out more constructive and less combative ways to disseminate their ideas and get name recognition with voters. As far back as 2007, the late Sen. John McCain participated in a town hall event on none other than the MTV network which allowed young online audience members to send in questions via MySpace, of all mediums, which would be sorted through and selected by a moderator for the then-Republican candidate to answer live. Despite McCain’s eventual loss to Barack Obama, the event was a massive success in terms of directly connecting the youth vote to a candidate in a meaningful way.
Youth voters are having an even more significant impact than ever before, as the college-student run environmental group dubbed The Sunrise Movement recently generated enough of a fuss to get CNN to dedicate seven hours of airtime to a televised town hall where voters, many of them members of the movement themselves, could ask the candidates complicated questions about their respective plans to tackle the overwhelming climate crisis they will have to face in office.
Bernie Sanders, with all his theatrics, called it like it is when he called the debate format “demeaning to the American public” on Joe Rogan’s podcast. The election process has grown sick and fat with style, and the American public has made it clear enough that it is starving for substance. Whether CNN and the rest of the media conglomerates can provide such a thing will determine whether they will sink or swim in the rising waters of far more flexible mediums