Democracy Takes a Hit on the Campaign Trail
Harold Bloom's summation of "the poor state of the nation" in Eva Solhman's article last week shone a light on the ailing political health of the United States. The validity of his concern over the state of the media in this country could not have been more perfectly demonstrated than in last week's legal drama over NBC's Democratic debate in Nevada. With what was essentially the locking-out of House Representative and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich from the nationally broadcast debate, democracy took a hit. All the arguments about media and censorship became once again relevant, from media's ties to corporate interests to how democracy should be implemented through the powerful thunder of the people's voice and not in our courts.
Harold Bloom's argument about missing "critical voice" and the lack of "nuance" in public discourse could not be more evident than with NBC's programming decision. Though often far from the mainstream of accepted public discussion on major issues, Congressman Kucinich's ideas are still crucial to the conversation -- if for no other reason than that they are different from the norm. That he usually falls well outside the straight line between the Republican Right and Democractic Left is precisely the reason to include him in the debate.
Republicans and Democrats have done their best to paint themselves as "different" from one another. But, if our failing American political health is to truly be boosted into some kind of vigor, new voices and ideas must be given a chance to be heard. Multiple perspectives must be entertained. Anyone who has ever sat in a conference room brainstorming session knows that the best solutions are often moderate adjustments of "outlandish" ideas.
But, whether Kucinich has anything worth adding to the conversation is less the point than his exclusion. In turn, his being excluded is even less important than the fact that the leading candidates did not protest the very blatant programming choice made by NBC producers.
On their website, NBC claims it has become "the dominant force in television news, watched by more Americans than any other news organization. NBC News provides more than 25 hours of weekly programming in the United States".
One would hope that such extensive reach would imply a sense of responsibility to network viewers, but obviously this is not the case. What is missing from every major news network is a mission statement that explicitly supports and values the multiple perspectives vital to a healthy democracy. To dress up what is quickly becoming electoral entertainment as a genuine "debate" is just plain false advertising. If the journalism community holds "facts" and representations accountable (as was seen in the Dan Rather 60 Minutes Wednesday Report controversy in 2005), surely calling what was promoted as a "Democratic presidential debate" with Kucinich missing is just as false as any forged documents.
A media outlet denying public access to one presidential candidate while giving airtime to the other three exemplifies not merely faltering health on the part of media in a democracy, but a cancer on the democracy itself. The health of media is directly correlated to its ability to inform through a diversity of perspectives. Democracy is discourse and participation. Successful solutions to our current problems cannot be formulated when critical viewpoints are missing or purposefully excluded.
The American population is aware that news has become entertainment as networks vie for ratings and advertising profits. However the lack of mass alarm over such developments is indeed disgusting and disheartening. There was also a glaring lack of accountability on the part of those candidates who did participate in NBC's debate (or MSNBC's debate, depending on which NBC legal appeal document you choose to look at). Edwards, Clinton, and Obama did not hesitate to compare their own brilliance - both individual and combined - against the Bush administration. Their triad of congratulation was appropriately called a "love fest".
The bottom line is none of them was brave enough to stand up against the status quo of politics as maintained by the media. None of them was brave enough to pull the other two candidates close and stand together against the debate - on principle. Equally disheartening, the American public acquiesced by viewing the charade; we have ceased to expect our leaders to defend democracy in the purest sense.
Barack Obama has repeatedly spoken out against lobbyists and "special interests" in American politics. But today's mainstream media is quite arguably one of the worst of the corporate beasts - right up there with the pharmaceutical companies and evil Big Oil. He has built his platform and subsequently his supporter base by telling "the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over". Does Senator Obama not hold the same standards for those who seek to set the agenda of our public discourse? His apparent fight for a more transparent and accountable democratic process in the halls of Washington should surely be extended to the crucial element of democracy that is public discussion.
Would it not be truly brave to stand against the business-as-usual machine: to excuse himself from the NBC debate in deference to the missing perspectives of his fellow candidate? Obama spends a lot of time talking about bringing everyone to the table. He has been chastised for wanting to "negotiate" with terrorists and he has been scoffed at as naíve for his idea of bringing together health care corporations, families, doctors, and nurses to improve the nation's healthcare system. And yet when given this real-world opportunity to truly show a commitment to democratic discourse, to include all perspectives, and potential solutions, Obama chose to take the stage instead. He played the very game he has so often railed against. He chose not to protest the largest special interest in American politics: mainstream American media.
Hillary Clinton's campaign website discusses her commitment to democracy, but she only stresses electoral reform. Her site states, "Fair and honest elections are the bedrock of a successful democracy." But, what about democratic discourse? Why didn't she stand up against NBC and step out of the program?
Today more than ever, politicians actually have a chance to rally the people against the political machine. Mitt Romney's primary win despite his steady ridicule by mainstream media is just one illustration. Obama himself changed the fundraising paradigm: adding a donation feature on his website and giving the common person an opportunity to be a part of the process by staking a financial interest in his campaign. From video messages to the campaign paraphernalia you can buy online at a number of candidate websites, the people are slowly turning from mainstream media - if only glancing - with hope that their voices may actually be heard this time around.
And while a "truce" may have been inexplicably struck between Clinton and Obama on the night of the debate, it was clearly more for their own self-preservation than to come together to fight NBC on principle.
Edwards does not escape reprimand either. Coined the Populist candidate by many, his concern for Middle America has helped him get where he is. And, yet, one can question his commitment to the cause of this demographic because he merely played along as well. Does it not serve the struggling and flailing middle class to hear a healthy debate?
All three candidates were in fact disappointing. Only NBC stood to gain, most likely increasing rather than losing its viewership over the legal controversies. However, saying "shame on you" to the candidates who gave in to business-as-usual only goes so far.
Our leaders have not been leading in the truest sense: they have not been holding themselves accountable. And by being passive, we have become their complicit partners. The American people have helped create the carnival that is politics and media in our country today. We must first hold ourselves accountable; only then can we hold our leaders accountable.
Such is democracy; our leaders are merely reflections of ourselves.
Roshi Pejhan is The WIP's Community Outreach and Development coordinator.