Friends, stoners, countrymen, lend me your ears…
While, ostensibly, I’ve been tasked with analyzing the first Democratic debate of 2015, I feel it is my duty as your humble Sordid Affairs editor to inform you that there are far graver issues at hand than who won Tuesday night’s rhetorical joust. I’d like to begin with a short discussion of numbers. And I’m not talking about Gallup polls, or the unemployment rate, or the size of the National Debt, I’m concerned with those digits that provide the truest reading of the American pulse: Nielsen Ratings. For better or worse, we are what we watch.
According to a preliminary estimate, 9.2 million Americans tuned in to CNN to watch Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spar—a record for the donkey party, but a meager 36% of the 25 million viewers the Republicans scored for their inaugural shootout on Fox last month. To put that in perspective, if you compare those numbers to those for all television shows aired in the last week of September 2015, the GOP are pulling Sunday Night Football stats while the Dems are charting somewhere below the Big Bang Theory. Donald Trump justifiably credited his own star power for the sweep, and the implications of that are terrifying: Americans en masse have accepted the Jerry Springerization of the contest to become the leader of the free world.
So it’s through this prism that I watched the debate. There were no surprises really. No tabloid moments. Bernie Sanders was the firebrand idealist, Hillary was the professional—if beleaguered—insider, and the other three guys were the parsley at the side of the plate.
Bernie Sanders seems to have the firmest grasp of what ails this country, but his clarion call for Nordic viking socialism is going to be a tough sell to a populace that greeted Obamacare like it was a Doberman laying claim to their Happy Meal. He flusters easily, which makes Hillary’s robotic confidence seem presidential. Sanders has the unfortunate habit of making reasonable positions appear subversive. Donald Trump, on the other hand, shoots his mouth off like a roadhouse drunk and people find it charismatic. Go figure.
Anderson Cooper summed up many peoples’ misgivings regarding Hillary Clinton when he listed her varied political flip-flops and asked bluntly, “Will you say anything to get elected?” Hillary can talk all she wants about how she shifts her opinions as she absorbs new information, but everyone knows that the answer to that question is a deafening “yes.” However, it’s absurd to single her out as the only such offender running for political office in 2016. She’s a highly evolved political animal, and that’s hardly a handicap. I believe her when she says she’s a Silly Putty Progressive (I’m paraphrasing) able to assume whatever form is necessary to move forward. Hillary has a lot to live down—her vote on the Iraq War, her response to the Arab Spring as Secretary of State, Benghazi, and Emailgate to name a few—but she was the clear victor in this first Democratic match.
Eight short years ago, issues were still the driving force behind the presidential contest. Love him or hate him, Barack Obama campaigned on the concepts of hope and change. John McCain, too, presented himself foremost as a man of ideals. And Hillary’s strong showing aside, the numbers are still in favor of bread and circuses. We live in an era where people need to be reminded that black lives matter, where it is impossible in this country to pass a law barring certifiable lunatics from buying guns, where ISIS has built a state that has institutionalized rape, slavery and snuff films, and Vladimir Putin is the most successful statesman on the planet. Circumstances demand strong leadership, yet bluster and xenophobia are beating ideas at a ratio of 3:1.
Two thousand years ago a similar scenario led to the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of a syphilitic empire. Is it a stretch to imagine Donald Trump’s famously quixotic hair crowned in laurel leaves?
I would classify this age as “post-reality,” an epoch that welcomes the smearing of the line between truth and entertainment. Trump has graduated from rodeo clown to the main attraction. It’s time to take the concept of President Trump seriously. Judging from her performance on Tuesday, I believe Hillary can take him, but the GOP is going to hammer her on Benghazi and the email thing all the way to November. Trump is winning the ratings war, and for as long as he’s in the race, the camera will be on him. Perhaps the Dems should consider drafting a reality TV star of their own, maybe convince Flavor Flav to throw his fur hat in the ring long enough to beef up their audience. I don’t know what the answer is, honestly. I’m just a worried man singing a worried song.