What's Wrong With the YouTube Debate?

I didn’t see all of the YouTube debate this Wednesday, but I caught a lot of it during the midnight rerun and looked over a good bit of the post-debate coverage.

I have to say, this seemed the most lively debate of the last few months, as, after the first few, they’ve all tended to blur together. But some of that, I think, is that, as an event, it was just… bizarre. American politics has always been something of a wacky traveling circus. But this was just a full-blown freakshow.

Part of that was just the format itself, which pushed the already gameshow-like format of the modern political debate further into wacky reality show territory. Let’s just put it this way: Paddy Chayefsy would be dumbfounded.

And undoubtedly, the night’s zany aesthetic was also due in no small part to the questions picked by CNN, which, as many have noted, seemed to play to (not entirely inaccurate) cultural stereotypes of conservatives: gun nuts and confederate flag lovers, bible fanatics and gay bashers. And the network’s handling of the debate has been the subject of a lot of conservative criticism over the past few days. That’s valid to a point. Certainly, CNN should have disclosed Gen. Kerr’s affiliation with the Clinton campaign. But it’s also simply the result of CNN political producers doing their job.

Television producers don’t have an incentive to advance the political debate; they have an incentive to make punchy TV. And sell advertisements. And a lot of times, that means gotcha moments and easily identifiable stereotypes. That’s not, however, to say that Republicans should resist it. Politics is becoming more of a sport, an entertainment event, and to resist that, I think, inevitable trend, will only hurt more in the end. Like it not, the GOP’s just going to have to learn to play along.

Will it make politics more trivial? Possibly. But it might also provide a way for politics to carve out a space for itself in the increasingly crowded newsotainment market place, and bring a new, if unfamiliar, relevance to the whole process.