The outcome of Super Tuesday has been dramatic and has confounded many commentators. Joe Biden has emerged as the frontrunner supported by all of the major contenders for the Democrat nomination, with the exception of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Strangely, Mike Bloomberg’s expenditure of a half a billion dollars on advertising has failed utterly. All he had to show for it before withdrawing from the race was the allegiance of six convention delegates from the tiny Pacific island of Guam.
Many people may feel that Bloomberg’s withdrawal proves conclusively that despite the plutocratic characteristics of American democracy, the electorate can’t be bought by massive expenditure.
On the other hand, it has to be said in defence of Bloomberg that he entered the race when Biden appeared to be faltering and when it appeared much more likely that the Democrats were on course to choose an unelectable candidate.
By irony, it now appears that Bloomberg’s massive election spend actually assisted Biden’s recovery. After all, he focused attention on the real issue for the Democrats – defeating Trump.
While the Democrats appeared to be consumed by a conflict about the nature of their party and the degree of radicalism needed to unite it and its support base against Trump, their focus appeared to have become wholly distracted from the simple issue – “will our candidate defeat Trump?”
As Tanaiste, I had the pleasure of meeting Bloomberg in New York. I found him to be an urbane and sophisticated gentleman rather than a boisterous billionaire. I think that his underlying motive was less to seek the presidency to top out his spectacular career and more about preventing four more years of grotesque misrule.
Urbane and sophisticated as he was, Bloomberg was wholly unprepared psychologically for the cut and thrust of the TV debates in which he participated. He appeared to wither in the face of a sustained onslaught from the other candidates (Biden excluded) who showed him no quarter.
This brings me to a consideration of whether or not the spectacle of six or eight men and women standing at flimsy podiums in front of studio lights, TV cameras and a hyped up audience really contributes much, if at all, to the democratic process either in Ireland or in the US.
Indeed, the power of the media in demanding such TV stage pieces and in adopting the role of “neutral” moderator is deeply questionable.
After all, democracy is not to be reduced to a variant of game show entertainment. The multi-podium, multi-candidate format gets to look like a slightly confused episode of “The Weakest Link”. The format favours participants who succeed in combining volubility and superficiality as distinct from developing any significant theme over a couple of minutes. The sight of serious politicians holding up their hands to be heard at the discretion of a media-appointed moderator is demeaning and redolent of a children’s classroom rather than a serious thought-out consideration of fundamental issues.
Who can forget the threatening sight of Donald Trump prowling around the studio behind Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election?
Can we forget the very questionable ambush that was perpetrated on Seán Gallagher in the second last Irish presidential election?
Sound bites that last 45 seconds and which can be interrupted or derided at will by competing politicians are of very little value in assessing complex issues of ideology, costing of proposals, viability of policy options, and credibility of party manifestos.
My point is that the media are increasingly crafting the entire nature of democratic debate. A leader who simply refused to participate in the media-dictated debate programmes would face being “empty chaired”.
Not merely do the media demand to be the arbiters of the means of political debate; they then arrogate to themselves the additional function of deciding who has “won” or “lost” the debates which the media stage.
This last week has seen the commemoration of the Irish Times Student Debating competitions. The format in those debates is a lot more sophisticated than the format chosen by RTE or Virgin TV for debates in the recent General Election. At least in the student debating competition there are multi-member teams and each participant is given five or seven minutes to develop his or her argument. Likewise, there is provision made for structured refutation and interruption. Nothing like that is afforded by the media to aspirant Taoisigh.
As someone who strongly wishes for the ending of Donald Trump’s presidency in November, I cannot help but feel that the mutually assured destruction aspect of their primary TV debates up to this point seriously damaged the Democrats’ prospects of success.
Only Joe Biden now has the capacity to unite his party and to defeat Donald Trump. But that outcome has, to quote Wellington at Waterloo been “a damned close run thing”.
The Democrats were saved from disaster by the good judgment of their voters in South Carolina – not by their media debates.
Picture credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60443937