YouTube Democracy?

If politicians really want interactivity, then they'll have to do more than just 'connect' with vote

Winston Churchill once said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Thanks to CNN and YouTube we now have to update this Churchillian epigram to something along the lines of: “the best argument against democracy is a one-minute YouTube video of the average voter.”

For those who were fortunate enough to miss American cable television’s latest attempt to make politics more accessible (to, uh, “the kids” I guess) here is a quick summary. In an effort to reach out (or maybe to merely persuade us that debates are worth watching when we are still over a year away from election day), CNN paired up with YouTube to bring us what they touted as the first “truly” interactive political debate. People were asked to send in their questions for the democratic nominees as short YouTube videos that were then whittled down from 3,000 to 40 to be put before the nine primary candidates by “alarmingly telegenic” CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

The result was suitably infantile (for those with the stomach to take it, here are all the submissions - from there you should also be able to find the whole debate if you are so inclined) and the individuals vying to be the future leaders of the free world were obliged to answer questions that were, amongst others, asked by snowmen (who asked about global warming). For me, the most concise summary of the whole event came at the end when Senator Joseph Biden (one of the less likely candidates, but an immensely entertaining one to watch) dealt with the final question of the debate about “what he liked or disliked about the candidate to his left,” with the deft parry that “this is a ridiculous exercise.”

But beyond the substance, the real question is, did this new format open the democratic process further? Was the fact that anybody from around the world could ask a question mean that we had finally entered a truly democratic age?

Well, frankly, no. To start with, CNN vetted all the questions and ultimately chose the 40 to show from a pool of 3,000. This very fact kicked up a storm on the blogosphere as people said the questions asked should have been selected on the basis of how many votes they attracted on YouTube. And to some degree they were right – the result was that CNN chose a selection of videos that both captured the quirkiness of the medium, but at the same time covered most of the major questions that any debate would have thrown up. Master of ceremonies Anderson Cooper made sure no one was allowed to give more than a sound-byte in response, and consequently none of the candidates' positions were made any clearer than before the debate.

Ultimately, this entire experience is not the product of incredible inventiveness on the future of the democratic process, but rather a reflection of the extraordinarily premature nature of the current primary debates. The election, let us remember, is not until November of 2008, and the New Hampshire primary (traditionally the first state in which parties choose which candidate will represent the party at national elections) is in January 2008. However, given the fact that the incumbent and his Vice President cannot stand next year, the field is completely open – and this has resulted in something of a feeding frenzy amongst candidates.

Reflecting this, the cable news networks have had to also jump onto this bandwagon –Washington politics has hit the partisan log-jam of a Republican executive facing off against a Democratic legislative, meaning that looking to the future becomes the only game in town. On top of this, in a sort of symbiotic partnership – the growing number of news networks means they need to find new ways to attract viewers, while the candidates are desperate to pimp themselves out to anyone to try to attract voters.

In a horribly clichéd way, the CNN/YouTube debate was merely a reflection of the worst sort of culmination of style over substance. We learned nothing about the candidates that we didn’t know already, and we discovered that Churchill may well have been right about the hoi polloi.

Unfortunately, however, now that this genie has been let out of the bottle, we can expect to see many more of these “citizen journalist” type forums. The Republicans are already slated to face theirs in September, and undoubtedly somebody will have the ingenious idea of translating the idea to the UK in time for when Gordon Brown finally faces off against the Conservatives. This is a shame really, as we already have Jeremy Paxman who adopts (or maybe coined) a highly confrontational American-style of questioning, pointedly failing to let his victims to answer in anything more than a sound-byte, while David Dimbley carries on the long BBC tradition of Question Time, theoretically exposing decision makers to the ingrates they are obliged to answer to.

Beyond these journalistic forums, and unlike the United States, British politicians are constantly facing a real debate in Parliament, where they have to fight their corner in the face of harsh questioning from a determined and politically savvy opposition. The recent Labour Deputy Leadership debates were a first glimpse down the dangerous road that we are heading down, and there is really no need for our process to be further dumbed down with gimmicky pseudo-debates. Still, to return to Winston, I suppose that in reality, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Let’s hope we don’t have to update this quote to encompass a YouTube one.