American democracy is exhausted - and US media elites are digging its grave

Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis debates California Governor Gavin Newsom
Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis debates California Governor Gavin Newsom
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The absolutely dangerous inadequacy and self-serving mendacity of the legacy broadcast-and-cable TV networks in the United States was on full display last week.

The debate between Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, and Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, was revelatory – but not in the manner intended by the hosting network or the participants. What it revealed, instead, was the continuing naivete and poorly-formulated vision and strategy of both parties  – and, more generally, a political system stunted by the Republicans and Democrats alike.

Fox News hosted the event. This was a strange and anachronistic choice. The days of the legacy TV news channel have ended, but that fact has not yet thoroughly permeated the dinosaur-consciousness of the political system, or its actors, even in the US, where the death of that past is most marked and evident.

The Fox News “debate” was also by no means a debate, nor even a discussion: it was a low form of entertainment, masquerading as serious endeavour. The questions were not real questions, and the answers were, in consequence, equally meaningless.

I mean this in the deepest of all possible senses: the whole event was a stage show, designed to maximise conflict and attract “viewers”, however temporarily and destructively. The faux-enthusiastic voice of a boxing match promoter would not have been out of place at the beginning, rallying avid and bloodthirsty viewers.

The second strangeness of choice was partisan: Hannity, the host, is clearly a conservative, on a network devoted to Republicans. That placed Newsom in the admirable and advantageous position of underdog. I could not help appreciating the fact that he put himself under fire, in enemy territory. Most of the questions posed were self-evidently Republican-oriented porcupine-quills, designed to get under the skin of Newsom and to stay there. I say that as no admirer either of the Governor of California or his policies. It was arguably brave, nonetheless, of Newsom to even show up with Hannity in the chair, although I think his bravado was that of an practiced showman rather than the courage of someone acting on his convictions.

This is in keeping with the “amusing ourselves to death” ethos of the broadcast TV networks, where production value, flash and a pseudo-professional appearance take preference over the package product that “content providers” deliver, painfully, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, second-by-second. Hannity never asked a single true question: that is, a question that he had some reason for wanting to have answered. What he received in response were precisely the false answers that such staged inquiries inevitably produce. There was no actual curiosity on display, anywhere, of the sort that would allow the viewers to understand more deeply what motivated the two main players, or what they were putting forward for a plan.

Regarding said plan, that was perhaps the most disappointing element of the event: the naivete and poorly formulated vision of the participants. The bulk of the back-and-forth comprised an exchange of criticisms; DeSantis leapt out of the gate with a blistering attack on his Democrat compatriot, producing a litany of complaints about the increasingly dismal state of the most beautiful, prosperous and arguably most influential member of the union.

Was that attack warranted? Well, Californians are leaving the state in droves. DeSantis noted – quite properly – that the Golden State exodus became so rapid that people were having difficulty renting one of the ubiquitous U-hauls that migrants use to move their belongings when on a budget and in a hurry.

“Warranted or not,” however, is not the point. Mutual whack-a-mole is not a good game, nor does it present itself as such. It adds immeasurably to the stress of political life, and produces little but cynicism on the part of the viewers and listeners. DeSantis accused Newsom of the slipperiness for which politicians and others in the public eye are often truly characterised – and rightly so – but a political player cannot do so without simultaneously casting aspersions on his own character.

“I’m the exception to the political rule” is a claim that begs a number of questions: “Why, then, are you in the game? Why should we believe your assertions of moral authority,  and not those of your opponent, who is also playing the same game?” If even someone in the game is cynical about the players, why shouldn’t we as citizens be dismissive of the whole enterprise? That latter query is an increasingly widespread attitude. It has become more and more difficult, for example, for me to attract views on my podcast for anyone of any political stripe whatsoever, regardless of their political opinions or performance as a guest, with a few cardinal exceptions. Many podcast hosts report the same. People’s attention is certainly much more drawn elsewhere.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom

“We’re less stupid and destructive than our opponents” is a claim almost certainly true on the conservative side, given the terrible slide into Left-wing radicalism that increasingly characterises the Democrats – but it is hardly an inspiring vision. It is also the case that the typical decent conservative is simply outmatched when it comes to character assassination and mud-slinging: the Left has elevated reputation-savaging and destruction to an art. If I had to wager on who was better at it, by character and practice, I would place my bet on California’s all-too-smiley, shiny, slick and popular Newsom – rather than the earnest-to-the-point-of-easy-satire DeSantis.

Here are some real questions that serious, thoughtful people might perhaps really want to have answered: by what principles do you govern? Why those principles, rather than the many others available? How do your principles differ, in your opinion, from those of your opponent? What is your vision, generally, for the future – and, more specifically, with regard to the important dimensions of human life: employment, entrepreneurship, education, energy, environment, family; with regard to civic responsibility, opportunity and duty?

Did anyone learn from the debate what would be different under DeSantis or Newsom, with regard to the energy that keeps our lights on, the environment that we will leave our grandchildren, or the educational and health systems that cost us ever more and in many ways deliver ever less?

The Fox hosting was designed to produce the “fiery debate” (which was almost all smoke, rather than true flames) it sold itself as in the aftermath mop-up. That post-hoc analysis was also purely performative and formulaic, featuring as it did the same predictable commentators, looking both half-dead and pithed as they always do, in consequence of being unable to see or even truly hear their questioner or their fellow participants through the archaic single earbuds and faceless one-way camera the networks still inexplicably insist upon employing.

The discussion could have been mediated to maximise reasonable and informative exchange, rather than designed or allowed to spark and encourage a destructive fire. An agreed-upon list of (real) questions would have improved things: some space for a genuine interviewer to interpose something spontaneous, and the imposition of some actual equally-agreed-upon rules of engagement: three minutes for a response, say, from each participant, with another minute or two for rebuttal.

Instead, it seemed that half the time Newsom and DeSantis were talking over one another, with Hannity’s voice frequently added to the fray. All that did was present a juvenile front.

We need to grow up, and quickly. The tectonic plates are moving underneath us, at a rate heretofore unprecedented, and the shocks and after-shocks will be both continuous and great. We can no longer afford – and probably never could – to parasitise the political process for the sake of the ratings that are, in any case, falling ever-further and seem fated to do so.

We’re embroiled in at least two wars. Our societies are rife with internal conflict. We have great possibilities and great danger in front of us. We must negotiate that territory carefully or there will be an unimaginable price to pay. It would have been much better to have the discussion hosted by Joe Rogan, or Theo Von, or Lex Fridman – the popular podcast hosts derided by Newsom as leading “micro-cults”. Those hosts attract large audiences because they ask honest questions and promote true dialogue, without any of the faux-entertainment hype that has characterised the political and ideational landscape since the widespread introduction of broadcast television. Rogan manages to dominate the podcast landscape – making the charts in 65 countries – with a team that basically consists of himself and one assistant. Hype is not his aim. The same is true of the other new media interviewers with true global impact.

Ultimately, we should be talking about what comes next,  instead of casting aspersions at our hypothetical foes. These are people we must live beside and with. We can accomplish that with vision, not with accusation – no matter how justified and necessary such accusation sometimes is. Here’s a thought for would-be leaders: “My opponents are, at best, wrong not because of the errors they are currently making, no matter how manifold,  but because the possibilities they are offering are simply not as attractive as what I am dreaming up and planning.”

I would love to see a true vision presented by the would-be leaders of the US, as the problems that beset America are characteristic of those plaguing us everywhere in the free and democratic world. We need to up our game: conservatives, liberals and progressives alike. Sadly, that is not what happened on the Thursday night of the ‘Right versus Left’ smoke-and-mirror juvenile broadcast brawl we were subjected to.

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