The Revealing Debate Between DeSantis and Newsom
What was on display on Thursday night, December 1, during the debate between Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis and Governor Gavin Newsom of California was revelatory, but not in the manner intended by the hosting network, Fox, or either of the participants.
What it revealed, instead of the ideas of the participants, was the absolutely dangerous inadequacy and self-serving mendacity of the legacy broadcast-and-cable TV networks.
What it revealed, as well, was the continuing naivete and poorly formulated vision and strategy of both DeSantis and Newsom—and, more generally, of the political system and its leaders as currently instantiated on the Republican and Democrat side alike.
The Inadequacy and Mendacity of Legacy Network TV
Why the inadequacy and mendacity of legacy network TV? Consider the debate, as event (independent of content).
First, it was Fox News and Sean Hannity who served as distal and proximal hosts, respectively, of the event. This was a strange choice, for many reasons. The first is systemic: the days of the legacy TV news channel have seriously ended, but that fact has not yet thoroughly permeated the dinosaur-consciousness of the political system, or its actors, even in the US, where the death of that past is most marked and evident.
The Fox News “debate” was also by no means a debate, nor even a discussion: it was a low form of entertainment, masquerading as a serious political event. The questions were not real questions, and the answers were, in consequence, equally meaningless. I mean this in the deepest of all possible sense: the whole event was a stage show, designed to maximize conflict, and attract “viewers,” in the same way that click-bait manages that, however temporarily and destructively, in the increasingly delusional online world.
The faux-enthusiastic voice of a boxing match promoter would not have been out of place at the very beginning of the show: mega-voiced Michael Buffer, for example, monster-truck-rallying the avid and blood-thirsty viewers: “let’s get r-r-r-ready to rumble!”
Partisan Choices and the Dynamics of the Debate
The second strangeness of choice was partisan: Hannity is clearly a conservative, on a network devoted to Republicans, and that set up Newsom in the admirable and advantageous position of underdog. I was by no means rooting for his success, but I could not help appreciating the fact that he put himself under fire, in enemy territory, and there was absolutely no reason to cede him that major advantage.
Most of the questions Hannity and Fox posed were self-evidently Republican-oriented porcupine-quills, designed to get under the skin of Newsom and to stay there. I say that as no admirer either of the Governor of California or his policies. It was arguably brave, nonetheless, of Newsom to even show up on Fox, and with Hannity, although I truly think that it was more truly the bravado of a dyed-in-the-wool showman than the genuine courage of someone acting, genuinely, on his convictions.
This is in keeping with the “amusing ourselves to death” ethos of the broadcast TV networks, where production value, flash and a pseudo-professional appearance absolutely and finally take preference over the package product that such “content providers” deliver, painfully, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, and second-by-second. Hannity never asked a single true question: that is, a question that he had some reason for wanting to have answered. What he received in response were precisely the false answers that such staged inquiries inevitably produce.
There was no actual curiosity on display, anywhere, of the sort that would allow the viewers to understand more deeply what motivated the two main players, or what they were putting forward for a plan.
And, with regard to plan: that was perhaps the most disappointing element of the discussion.
This is relevant to my second major criticism: the naivete and poorly formulated vision of the participants.
The Bulk Of The Back-And-Forth Comprised An Exchange Of Criticisms
The bulk of the back-and-forth comprised an exchange of criticisms. DeSantis leapt out of the gate with a blistering attack on his Democrat compatriot, producing a litany of complaints about the increasingly dismal state of the most beautiful, prosperous and arguably most influential member of the union.
Was that attack warranted? Well, Californians are leaving in droves, and it is always the people with the most options and abilities who leave first.
DeSantis noted quite properly that at one point in the recent past the Golden State exodus had become so rapid that fleeing once-denizens of the state were having difficulty renting one of the ubiquitous U-hauls that modern migrants use to move their belongings when on a budget and in a hurry.
“Warranted or not,” however, is not the point. Mutual whack-a-mole is not a good game. Nor does it present itself as such. It adds immeasurably to the stress of political life, and produces little but cynicism on the part of the viewers and listeners.
DeSantis accused Newsom of the slipperiness for which politicians and others in the public eye are often truly characterized—and rightly so—but a political player cannot do so without simultaneously casting aspersions on his own character.
If those in the political realm are slick and evasive, and that is also your place of chosen profession, the simplest conclusion that can drawn about you by those in your audience is by no means advantageous to you.
“I’m the exception to the political rule” is a claim that begs a number of questions: “Why, then, are you in the game? Why should we believe your assertions of moral authority, and not those of your opponent, who is also playing that very game?”—and, finally, “If even someone in the game is cynical about the players, why shouldn’t we as citizens be dismissive of the whole enterprise?” That latter query is an increasingly widespread attitude of great danger. It has become more and more difficult, for example, for me to attract views on my podcast for anyone of any political stripe whatsoever, regardless of their political opinions or performance as a guest, with a few cardinal exceptions. People’s attention is certainly much more attracted elsewhere.
The Need for a Visionary and Constructive Political Dialogue
“We’re less stupid and destructive than our opponents” is a claim almost certainly true on the conservative side, given the terrible slide into left-wing radicalism that increasingly characterizes the Democrats, but it is hardly an inspiring vision.
It is also the case that the typical decent conservative is simply outmatched when it comes to character assassination and mud-slinging: the left has elevated reputation-savaging and destruction to an art, and if I had to place a bet on who was better at it, by character and practice, I would bet on California’s all-too-smiley, shiny, slick and popular Newsom rather than the earnest-to-the-point-of-easy-satire DeSantis, although he is clearly better (and multidimensionally) as a man. But where in all this is the shining city on the hill?
Here are some real questions, that serious, thoughtful people might perhaps really want to have answered: By what principles do you govern? Why those principles, rather than the many others available? How do your principles differ, in your opinion, from those of your opponent? Would he agree or disagree with that characterization? What is your vision, generally, for the future that your leadership would bring about? And, more specifically, with regard to the important dimensions of human life: employment, entrepreneurship, education, energy, environment, family; with regard to civic responsibility, opportunity and duty?
The Need for a More Mature and Insightful Political Discourse
The Fox hosting was either incompetent, or designed precisely to produce the “fiery debate” (which was almost all smoke, rather than true flames) that the debate was immediately said to constitute in the aftermath mop-up. I suspect a little of column “A” and a little of column “B.” And that post-hoc analysis was also purely performative and formulaic, featuring as it did the same predictable commentators, looking both half-dead and pithed as they always do, in consequence of being unable to see or even truly hear their questioner or their fellow participants through the archaic 20th-century-tech single earbuds and faceless one-way camera the networks still inexplicably insist upon employing.
The discussion could have been mediated to maximize reasonable and informative exchange, rather than designed or allowed to spark and encourage a destructive fire.
This would have not been difficult. An agreed-upon list of (real) questions; some space for a genuine interviewer to interpose something spontaneous; and the imposition of some actual equally-agreed-upon rules of engagement: three minutes for a response, say, from each participant, with another minute or two for rebuttal—that would perhaps have been sufficient.
It at least seemed that half the time, instead, Newsom and DeSantis were talking over one another, with Hannity’s voice frequently added to the fray. All that did was present a juvenile front.
Some of that is on the candidates, for being either foolish, naïve or combative enough to allow it to happen—and to fail to notice and regulate it once begun—but most of it can be laid at the feet of Fox, who inexcusably presented little more than a high-school popularity contest between Mr. Charm-and-Toothy-Smile, gracing us with his presence, and The Earnest and Well-Meaning Jock, all competence and indignation. It is really the case that the next leader of the free world should be chosen, even in part, because he has the capacity to resist being talked over rudely?
We Need To Grow Up, And Quick.
We need to grow up, and quick. The tectonic plates are moving underneath us, at a rate heretofore unprecedented, and the shocks and after-shocks will be both continuous and great.
We can no longer afford (and probably never could) to allow the shallow corporate press to parasitize the political process for the sake of the ratings that are in any case falling ever-further and permanently out of reach. We’re embroiled in at least two wars. Our societies are rife with internal conflict.
We have great possibility and great danger in front of us, and we better negotiate that territory carefully, or there will be an unimaginable price to pay.
It would have been much better to have the discussion hosted by Joe Rogan, or Theo Von, or Lex Fridman—the popular podcast hosts derided by Newsom as leading “micro-cults” (a criticism that demonstrates nothing but how stuck in 1990’s or even 1970’s La-La land that “progressive leader” truly is).
Those hosts attract large audiences because they ask honest questions and promote true dialog, without any of the faux-entertainment hype that has characterized the political and ideational landscape since the widespread introduction of broadcast television.
Rogan manages to dominate the podcast landscape (making the charts in 65 countries) with at team that basically consists of himself and one assistant. Hype is not his aim. The same is true of the other new media interviewers with true global impact.
It would have been much better not only to have had the contestants asked genuine questions, by people actually curious about the answers, but to invite them to articulate and share their visions for the remarkable, free, productive, honest and generous country that the US most truly is and could even better be.
Did anyone learn what would be different under DeSantis or Newsom/Biden/Harris, with regard to the energy that keeps our lights on, the environment that we will leave our grand-children, the families we all inhabit, or the educational and health systems that cost us ever more and in many ways deliver ever less?
The audience was instead left in serious doubt even as to the reality of the matters in question.
Every “fact-based” criticism levied, for example, by Hannity and DeSantis on Newsom, was met by a “counter-fact” of equal gravitas by the recipient of the attack. I am much more likely to give credence to anything DeSantis says, compared to anything Newsom says, but that is not the point.
In this landscape of alternate facts, where any given description of the current state of things (even as fundamental as economic performance or criminal activity) is instantly met by an “equally factual” counter-claim, all that can be left is a competition between visions:? who presents the most inviting, compelling and plausible future?
Why Are We Not Talking About What Comes Next
Why are we not talking about what comes next, instead of casting aspersions at our hypothetical foes? These are, in the final analysis, people we must live beside and with (often within the confines of our own families). We can accomplish that with vision, not with accusation (no matter how justified and necessary such accusation sometimes is).
My opponents are best wrong, not because of the errors they are currently making, no matter how manifold, but because the possibilities they are offering are simply not as attractive as what I am dreaming up and planning.
I would love to see a true vision presented by the would-be leaders of the US, as the problems that beset the overwhelmingly-admirable-by-comparison Americans are characteristic of those plaguing us everywhere in the free and democratic world. We need to up our game, conservatives, liberals and progressives alike—and that is not what happened, on the Thursday night of the right-against-left smoke-and-mirror juvenile broadcast brawl.