“We’re not gonna hold back in making sure the candidates stick to time,” the Today Show host Savannah Guthrie threatened at the start of last night’s Democratic debate, the second in as many days. The 60-second constraint the network imposed on the 10 candidates meant that responses would have to be formed from preplanned atoms of ideas, cleverly fused into stable molecules of coherent political appeal.
That’s nothing new when it comes to television news, a medium long known, and criticized, for distilling discourse into sound bites. But in previous eras of newscasting, those nibbles were extracted from longer streams of conversation. One-liners meant to glorify or shame would get extracted later from morning-show interviews or campaign-trail speeches. They didn’t just come into the world naked and alone.
But with enough Democratic candidates gunning for the White House to form two football squads, a minimum polling or fundraising qualification was imposed, narrowing the field to merely two basketball courts’ worth of contenders. Even split over two nights, the 10 lecterns on stage at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts made the theater look more like the opening trial of the Hunger Games than a political stage.
To succeed in this context—if indeed any successes befell the field, let alone the electorate—requires a precise execution that looks more like internet speech than it does television conversation. The only way to win in this media context is to produce a meme-worthy victory from your own mouth, or to force your opponents to fall into a memeable gaffe. For an idea or action to be real, let alone coherent, it must be created for the express purpose of escaping its original context and living on as a social-media virus.
They should spice up these debates by adding one random white guy who isn’t actually running and make us all guess who it is.— Kashana (@kashanacauley) June 28, 2019
The blunders came early and often. Confused by cacophony, Michael Bennet, the senator from Colorado, at one point asked of his question, “Was that for me?” The entrepreneur Andrew Yang had a similar moment of confusion—“Sorry?” he asked in panic—as if he hadn’t even expected to receive a question. Later, Yang would let slip, “They’re laughing their asses off,” in reference to Russia, seeming to realize in the moment that maybe he shouldn’t have said “ass” in his first major appeal to America on live television. At one point Marianne Williamson reasonably thought she was being addressed and, confused, began to respond. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, then concluding, “Oh,” as she looked to former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper on her left, to whom a question about border detention actually had been addressed. These and similar moments quickly enjoyed spirited afterlives on social media.
Other bits were memed by the debate format. Given the enormous field, NBC chose to pose some “Raise your hand if …” questions to the whole stage at once. Those shots themselves are easy to remix and reframe online—a good tweet captioned one image of all the candidates’ hands in the air with, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by Regina George,” the antagonist of the 2004 film Mean Girls. Joe Biden’s tendency to raise his hand slowly, with apparent uncertainty, also enjoyed pickup: “Biden is doing the half hand raise you did in school when you didn’t really want to get called on but everyone else was raising their hands for all of these ‘raise your hands’ questions.”
Biden got absolutely roasted by Eric Swalwell, the representative from California. “I was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,” Swalwell said. “That candidate was then-Senator Joe Biden.” Later, Kamala Harris seared Biden for his inaction on racial integration. Together, these exchanges birthed a clone army of meme-aspirants along the lines of, “Swalwell asked to pass the torch; Harris just took it.”
Perhaps the meme-iest moment came from another Kamala Harris mic drop. After moderators lost total control of the stage, a cacophony of voices erupted. Taking the proverbial torch, Harris bellowed, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their tables.” The interjection quelled the clamor, but it also underscored an ironic truth. “It’s funny Kamala Harris says America doesn’t want to see a food fight on the debate stage,” the writer Dan O’Sullivan tweeted, “when in fact that is the whole reason we are all watching.”
Buttigieg managed to handle the 60-second answer times well, offering responses that felt concise and complete, no matter how valid or coherent they might have been. He chastised the GOP for its hypocritical use of Christianity. He admitted, “I couldn’t get it done,” when asked about the racial composition of his police force. He quipped, “We have no idea which of our most important allies [Trump] will have pissed off most” when asked which foreign relationship he’d try to repair first. But even those moments of lucidity cemented his station as the young nerd of the group. “The senior superlative for most articulate debater goes to...@PeteButtigieg,” Katie Couric tweeted, an ambiguous sneer that perfectly swirls Mayor Pete’s appeal and his inexperience into a delicious, summer soft-serve cone.
Mayor Pete looks like a product that’s about to be reviewed by Wired https://t.co/IQEnLGSkfj— Mike Murphy (@mcwm) June 28, 2019
All throughout its almost 80-year commercial history, television has been deemed dangerous for two major reasons. First, because it condenses large, complex ideas into smaller, simpler ones. And second, because it invites the obsessive, endless stare-down of those ideas. The internet only accelerated those vices, launching ever more, ever smaller notions from anyone’s mouth, and perfecting the psychological apparatus that glues eyeballs to them almost constantly. The television stayed at home, at least, and had to be turned off on occasion. But the smartphone has no limits.
The first televised presidential debate, between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, became famous for shifting the weight of political media from radio to TV. As that debate’s producer, Don Hewitt, famously explained, if you consumed the debate by radio, Nixon seemed like the clear winner. But if you watched it on television, Kennedy came out ahead. The senator had taken the medium more seriously than Nixon, for one, but he was also more naturally telegenic than his opponent, who was only four years his senior. Nixon was sick and unprepared, and had refused makeup.
It’s tempting to conclude that social media on smartphones has replaced “legacy” media like television in the same way TV once replaced radio, but the truth is more complex and far messier. The media ecosystem has been reformed into a strange slurry of TV and the internet. That tends to amplify the worst features of both the old and the new forms. From television, media retain the ability to reach a massive audience all at once, barraging them with abridged messages that skim the surfaces of deep waters. Then the internet explodes those already compressed notions into shrapnel. For American voters, watching those fragments achieve momentary, clever appeal is far easier and more entertaining than attempting to piece it all back together.
As television blends with the internet, without succumbing to it, perhaps the worst feature of the meme debates that result is that there is no equivalent for Don Hewitt’s succinct explanation. The 20-person debate didn’t produce one winner online and another on broadcast news. It got detonated into rubble that cascades across every media channel. In the end, there was no winner save the memes, which rain their hot cunning down on everyone for a brief moment, before evaporating into futility.