Tomorrow night’s Republican debates (plural based on the warm-up act before the big show) have taken on the feel of reality television. I am half expecting Cat Deeley to introduce the judges, one of whom will be Simon Cowell. Of course, the fact that reality television star the Donald currently leads the wolfpack adds immeasurably to the circus feel of the event, but like any entertainment vehicle, the audience holds the key. Even on his best night, Pavarotti would be booed off the stage by a crowd expecting Metallica. So the performers will naturally play to the ones listening. And the group tuning in is primed for an old-fashioned WWE smack down.
The fact that Fox News, the go-to source of information about the GOP, sponsors the event is a given. Liberals and moderates tend to view the Fox News juggernaut as a monolithic death star based on the way it shapes the national discussion. We hear that Fox News’ ratings dwarf those of MSNBC and assume the conservatives are winning. A closer look tells a more layered story. On an average evening about one million viewers watch Fox News prime time. On the same evening, 21 million people will catch one of the broadcast news shows. Yet, tomorrow night’s debate will be all about satisfying the much smaller group, which seems askew if our central organizing principle is that the person with the most votes gets the power.
The answer, of course, is that influence is no longer based on raw numbers; the game is all about intensity. Twenty-one million of us might be watching the nightly news, but we are not going to vote in a primary; donate money and we sure as hell are not going to spend time making phone-bank calls for whomever we think should be leader of the free world. On the other hand, Fox News viewers are nothing if not intense; in the words of a recent Pew Research report “there is no news junkie like a cable news junkie.”
For the last 6 and 1/2 years, those cable news junkies have been on a red-meat diet, watching the president: extend the safety net via the Affordable Care Act; conduct a foreign policy that does not place American dominance before all else; choose Keynes over Laffer as his guiding fiscal policy authority; selectively enforce the immigration laws; appoint Supreme Court justices who value equality over tradition; and translate environmental concerns into economic cornerstones. (I cannot tell you how hard it was to write a neutral sentence summarizing Barack Obama’s agenda. My friends who sit to the right and to the left of me on the political spectrum will think I have lost my mind in calling that list neutral; criticisms I see as evidence of my genius). To the cable junkie hearing explanations of this agenda as told by Fox News, it is as if the Constitution never existed and the flag has been lowered. Andre the Giant is in the White House and he wants to tag a female version of Roddy Piper to take his place!
So it makes sense that this first debate will be about identifying who is the biggest bad-ass of the GOP bunch; finding the man (sorry, Carly) with the stones to do whatever is necessary to raise the flag again. Like most reality shows, the focus will be elimination; who are we going to vote off the island? In a particular bit of TV genius, however, we also have a stable of replacements–the Seven Dwarfs of the GOP- who will claim a right to the seat vacated by losers on the big stage. So the mayhem can continue for quite some time as the bit players rotate. My advice for those looking to stay on the island–avoid nuanced policy discussions at all costs, practice the phrase “American Exceptionalism” until it hurts and wear a national debt calculator watch so you can give the right figure on request. Finally, figure out which alliance is going to take down the Donald and be a part of it.
All of this is going to be way more fun than the contest on the other side, where Lady Machiavelli gives readings from The Prince to keep us distracted from the potentially ruinous plottings of Joe, the ambitious court jester. Nobody is going to turn into Rachel Maddow’s analysis of that story. Instead Fox News’ influence and even its numbers will continue to grow. Making the winner of the debate the guy who set it up in senses both large and small, Roger Ailes. But as they say in Oz, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Instead, grab your popcorn and let the games begin.