A cautionary tale

The big lesson from the Presidential debates is that they’re useless, writes Ben Winsor in New Jersey.

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The first was a lesson in hubris. President Obama blew off debate prep which led to a damagingly lackluster performance, from which his polling still hasn’t recovered. Obama himself joked that he was so energetic in the second debate because he slept through the first.

The second debate was more even, but no less revealing. On every question, on every issue, the Presidential candidates seemed to be working off different facts.

Depending on who you believed, Obama either cut gas and oil drilling or raised domestic production to its highest level in sixteen years. Romney either wanted to let the car industry go bankrupt, or was dead set on providing them with assistance to invest and stay open. Obama either destroyed the economy and doesn’t care about business, or he added more than 5 million jobs and doubled stock market capital. Romney either wants to cut planned parenthood funding and ban abortion, or wants women to have the power to make their own decisions free from interference.

For an hour and a half, not an answer went by without Romney or Obama claiming that everything the other guy had just said was completely false.

It was like watching two bubbles of alternate reality smacking right into each other. In one bubble Romney is robbing from the poor to give to the rich and is a closet neo-con who hates women and probably eats babies. In the other, Obama is a complete failure who has destroyed the economy with wasteful spending and probably eats babies.

It’s a phenomenon writ large across America at the moment. Depending on which is the most comfy, you can kick back and nurse your gun in the Fox News bubble, or recline with your copy of Faust and MSNBC. Fear not, no one will disturb you. If an independent study comes out and shows you’ve got something wrong, just wait a week and six more will appear contradicting it.

Just as in the debate, there are no strong independent guides in the American media – no source of analysis or critique of facts, policy, or substance. The ‘non-partisan’ media is focused on the horse race, the politics, the rhetoric, and the game. They report what was said and who said it, offer a counter-quote, and leave it at that. CNN, once a powerful news leader, increasingly resembles an entertainment channel – with all the requisite special effects, good looking hosts, and dramatic music to go with it.

No truly independent voter could have had their mind swayed one way or the other by the second Presidential debate. With no uncontested facts, even about the candidates’ own positions, what could they possibly have learnt?

If facts aren’t clear, if they don’t matter, if you can pick and choose; then all that’s really left is style. It’s a reality show where no matter who wins, America loses.

The US is a cautionary tale. Let’s do our best to make sure in Australia, politics doesn’t become a competition over who can blow the biggest bubble