Democracy was never intended to be an entertainment event per se. At best, free elections were supposed to allow for a rational discussion of issues so that voters could evaluate candidates and make the right choices. Nevertheless, if the process also provided a good show, so much the better.
So we have memories of earlier days with candidates speaking at rural rallies and fairs from the back of a truck. There was Jimmie Davis, backed by his band, pickin’ on his guitar and singing his hit “You Are My Sunshine” to the star-worshipping crowd. There was “Uncle Earl” Long picking on his favorite nemesis, New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison whose name he downgraded to “Ole Dellasoups.” Long once told a rock-hard fundamentalist audience that he did not believe Morrison was a crook and then added that Morrison was too good a Catholic to steal. Before that crowd, it would have been better to say he was a crook.
If someone didn’t like the politics at least they might get a free slice of watermelon out of the experience. Oh, for the days of Huey Long speaking alongside the Evangeline Oak and delivering Louisiana’s all-time greatest political speech: He referred to the tears that Evangeline shed waiting for her lost lover, but then Huey pleaded to the crowd to give him the chance to dry their tears from their despair.
Nowadays politics is too refined to be fun. Candidates, the serious ones, work from a playbook that tells them to exploit buzz phrases, avoid serious discussions on issues and minimize debates.
Television is the new public rally: short and punchy and calculated to respond to what is needed at any given moment. Go on the attack if your opponent is getting too strong; show yourself frolicking with the family and the dogs when you need to look wholesome.”
Audiences react differently to televised debates simply because they are less interesting, and that is because the candidates are more manipulating. Any serious candidate knows that what you say is not as important as what you don’t say. They strive to avoid the “gaffe” – like the candidate who once forgot what his position was on an issue and instead of faking it, said so. It is the gaffe that will make the sound bite on TV and what everyone will be talking about the next day. Should a candidate come up with a brilliant plan for, lets say, coastal erosion, no one will remember it – too many words. Too many details – no gaffe.
This is not to say that listening to Uncle Earl howl was a better exercise in democracy, but at least you knew what you were getting. It was like buying boudin from the pot, rather than pre-packaged.
Some things are better served fresh.