Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Will the Republicans YouTube?

Presidential debates have a tendency these days toward the faddish. Remember the town hall meetings from the Perot era? And that Oprah style debate in which they subjected that fine gentleman, George Bush, to impertinence and humiliation in 1992? Now the YouTube debate. Well that was fun.

But now can we get serious? Let's not pretend that it was anything other than ratings oriented novelty and entertainment.

The day after the "debate," the pundits offered their obligatory cooing over how refreshing it was to see ordinary people just like us speaking directly with the candidates...unfiltered. Of course, it was filtered in a sense. The questions were not chosen by vote on YouTube. CNN chose the few questions out of the roughly 50,000 submitted. One analyst on the News Hour even spoke of the special closeness she felt with other voters during the evening. It was touching.

In democratic politics (that's not a typo; I'm talking about the popular, egalitarian character of our regime), there is a longing to see our prospective and current leaders commune directly with "the people." Oh, the political ecstasy! If the people could somehow see their general will directly codified and then executed with perfect fidelity, that would satisfy our democratic, moral longings. But let's face it, that's not going to happen.

Nor should it happen. We have the House of Representatives for that. Relatively small districts up for re-election every 2 years keep congressmen closely attuned to what the people are thinking and feeling. The senate and the president are supposed to be more removed from the popular will. The idea is that this is a modern republic, not simply a democracy. Republican institutions are intended to mediate and refine the will of the people, and in so doing they express not the people's fitful, passing will, but their considered will. For the classic expression of this theory which underlies our constitution read Federalist Papers #9, 10, 48 and 51.

Aside from pandering to that yearning for the sort of direct communion between leader and people that dictators always promise, this twist on the debate format provided the organizers a particularly luscious opportunity to select the questions best suited to embarrass whomever they wanted to embarrass. When a cancer sufferer pops off her wig in front of the national audience and asks, essentially, "Will you use the the federal government to lift me out of my pitiful condition?," it's hard to say no without looking like a brute, even though you are right to suggest other more effective and more legitimate avenues.

Actually, the town hall meeting is politically more awkward. When a video asks you a question, it is then over and you can turn to the audience and depersonalize it. But when someone asks you a question from a select gathering of "ordinary Americans," after the question has been posed, the person who posed it is still standing there in front of you. It remains insanely personal.

I say "insanely" because the YouTube and town hall formats distort the task of government. The beggar politics that they encourage -- one voter after another presenting his or her pitiful circumstance as though it were the business of government to relieve every individual of every personal trouble -- confuses the right to petition government and prayer.

Because this format lends itself too easily to politically awkward situations, and because it draws attention away from the candidates to the clever or shocking videos themselves, I do not expect that the Republicans will follow up with their own version of it. But I also do not think that we should expect either of the parties' nominees to resurrect it when they square off a year from now.

I liked Tyrrell's response in the New York Sun, "A Superficial Debate:...and Some Real Questions," though it is somewhat harsh toward the often exceedingly ordinary Americans who submitted their video questions. In the same paper on the previous day, Nicholas Wapshott's "Hillary and the Seven Dwarfs" insightfully sums up the lay of the land in the Democratic field. Richardson and Biden are running for Hillary's Secretary of State, Kucinich is running to enjoy national attention for a little while. Gravel is delusional. Dodd is henpecked by a delusional wife. And Obama, as I originally thought until he and I thought he might actually take off, is running for Hillary's veep. Based on the anything-can-happen-in-politics principle, or based on the Black Swan principle, we both also think that he might yet take the nomination (though beyond that point we part ways).

No comments: