Twenty seals all begging for a piece of raw fish: on this week’s Democratic TV debates

What is the best way to beat Donald Trump and who can do it? Democrats can’t agree on either.

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I know that CNN’s latest gaudy political spectacle, the scariest two nights of television since the 1990 mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s It, was billed as a debate. But for the life of me, I lost track of what all those people were arguing about. 

How could anyone keep up with the meandering, raucous slapfest with all those memes on stage at the same time? Each night, I despaired at how many people were on stage, briefly forgetting that this was only half the field. In total, 20 Democrats are running for president, all with disparate agendas and grasps on the nuances of the issues. These are less debates and more a complex game of tug of war, in which everyone is pulling in different directions. Or maybe it’s just 20 seals all begging for a piece of raw fish.

For two lonely, dispiriting evenings, my sense of civic duty (and the pay cheque attached the piece you are reading now) required I sat in front of my TV to watch a series of increasingly absurd video game cut-scene characters spouting pre-written dialogue so wooden you could have used it to build an ark large enough to carry two of every animal in the event of a climate catastrophe. 

On night one, the cast list, headlined by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, leaned toward the eccentric. Margot Kidder-look-a-like Marianne Williamson flipped through Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop catalogue for her platform, urging psychic healing and asking for more time, despite appearing to be the kind of person who constantly reminds people that time is an artificial, man-made construct.

John Delaney made himself internet famous for attempting to parry with Elizabeth Warren and pulling faces that would cause the cast of Are You Being Served to demand he tone it down. Delaney, no relation to Rob, focused his attention on how he believes the liberal policies of Sanders and Warren are empty, unfunded promises. He represented a wing of the Democratic Party that’s more than mildly embarrassed that it's being forced to stand for something. A microcosm of this divide was the race to come up with a catchy name for an Obamacare replacement health care program. “All” seems like quite a lot of people, doesn’t it? How about Medicare for Some? Medicare for Those Who Want It? Medicare On Every Other Tuesday? 

This is where I started becoming incapable of following the thread. Are we arguing about whether people should have access to public health insurance? Are we arguing about how to pay for it? Are we arguing about branding? The one point I truly connected with from South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg was when he correctly pointed out that Republicans will gleefully label any Democratic policy position as “socialist”, so why not stand up for the right thing? Sanders and Warren take up all the oxygen in these debate rooms because the Democratic electorate feels similarly.

By night two, as Joe Biden stumbled through attacks levelled on him by Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, I wept for the cable news executives realising how bereft of entertainment value these events are. The 2016 Republican Primary debates were a clear turning point for how the networks cover these events. The emphasis is on chaos, unpredictability, and vague notions of “drama,” as though the fate of human civilisation riding on our response to climate change isn’t dramatic enough without a theme song and a live audience. Put as many people on stage as possible and let them hiss at each other for a few hours. 

But what these battle royale debates don’t have that the last round did was what Marianne Williamson would call a “malevolent energy”. Without the corpulent husk of Donald Trump scoring tepid zingers at the expense of a rotating cast of sweaty nerds, CNN had to live with Cory Booker telling Joe Biden he “dipped into the Kool-Aid without knowing the flavour”. This assumes Joe Biden is the kind of guy who keeps more than one flavour of Kool-Aid in his house despite being over the age of 70. It was the kind of faux-folksy, pre-prepared gag that elicits hoots and hollers from the live studio audience that’s only slightly less excitable than the one for The Price Is Right, inflames Twitter users desperate for a thing to discuss at every second, and allows traditional media pundits to debate “optics”. Nuance and policy takes a back seat to discerning who got served. 

As of now, only seven candidates have qualified for the next round of debates by having at least 130,000 unique donors and register 2 per cent or more in four polls, per the New York Times: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Beto O’Rourke (who might as well be running for the office of Invisible Man), Sanders, and Warren. Ultimately, those seven are the only serious contenders in the field, though Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, and Julian Castro are close to qualifying as well. Williamson is certainly amusing, and Delaney, John Hickenlooper, and Michael Bennet make for adequate target practice for the front runners. But the large field only serves to underline how irrelevant much of this in-fighting is.

The reason I couldn’t make sense of what was being debated is because, really, only one thing was being debated over these two nights: what is the best way to beat Trump and who can do it? Democrats can’t agree on either of those questions, leading to this cacophony of platitudes, moderator inanity, and clipped responses. 

In 2016, Republicans still bruised from the failure of Mitt Romney couldn’t come to a consensus on how to roll back Obama-era progress until Trump brought a bag full of knives and started throwing them at people. The GOP coalesced around fury, hatred, and carny manipulation, the rhetorical opposites of Obama’s images of hope and a shared, multicultural future. It worked. It worked so well that despite Trump’s not-so-thinly veiled genuflection toward authoritarianism, the right barely flinches. 

If one were to follow the game plan of Trump in 2016, the answer would seem to be embracing the opposite of Trump’s darkness. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become fascinated by Williamson, someone with no experience and only a tenuous grasp on what’s actually happening in the world. In a chaotic, grim world where it’s easy to forget what the argument is, Williamson appeals to the heart and the soul. Yes, she’s a snake-oil salesman attempting to apply the rules of self-help best-sellers to actual, real problems, but that’s seemingly all the American collective unconscious wants anymore. 

People want to feel good, to be told that everything will be OK, and that salvation is at hand. Fighting evil with love sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Turning the other cheek and all that. If CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News could convince Jesus Christ himself to come back and run against Trump, they would. Unfortunately, he’s not a natural-born citizen.

Dave Schilling is a writer and humourist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Vice, and New York Magazine. He tweets @dave_schilling.