Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I was not invited

As you all undoubtedly know, they're having a big debate in town tonight. It's mostly a closed affair. They didn't invite me, nor anyone else out of the one million residents of the greater Nashville area save for a handful of "uncommitted voters".

The local media is gushing over all the attention being paid to our fair metropolis today, described by the Tennessean as "a town hall style affair at Belmont University". Of course, this media event has about as much to do with town hall meetings as Velveeta has to do with cheese. Townspeople get to attend town hall meetings. This is pure theater, a chance for Barack Obama and John McCain to act presidential, for the Villagers to eat barbecue and party with the country music stars, and for the media to do what it does best, report on itself.

The Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 is arguably the point where Presidential candidates became TV stars, but it was the debates in 1976 where the media really discovered the debates' theatrical value. That was the year Gerald Ford announced that "there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe", and the resulting furor led the media to invent a new game, "Find The Gaffe". Then in 1980, Ronald Reagan's chiding of Jimmy Carter, "There you go again", was a factor in convincing the news media that audiences preferred to be entertained rather than informed. In 1988, candidates George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis secretly agreed to am memorandum of understanding which would dictate the terms of the debate to its sponsors. Understandably, the lead actors in America's drama would want a say in the script. The League Of Women Voters, who had been sponsoring Presidential debates to that point, refused the demands and issued a statement that they would no longer sponsor the debates, as the League had no desire to "help perpetrate a fraud". The Democratic and Republican Parties took over the debates themselves, establishing a Commission on Presidential Debates made up of party members to oversee future debates. With this move, the debates became a captive of the political campaigns they were supposed to inform the public about, and the descent into self-parody soon became complete.

Who benefits from this sham? The Nashville economy, it is being said, is getting a $10 million infusion from the spectacle, the climax of a long party weekend that began with the ESPN GameDay crew witnessing the Vanderbilt football team begin a season with five straight wins for the first time since World War II. The Village operatives were treated with a weekend of music, partying, and mingling with the stars. Monday was a day for rallies and issues symposiums, including the rally for universal healthcare downtown, though I suspect the Villagers were too busy nursing their hangovers to pay much attention. Tonight is of course the Main Event, following which everybody hops the planes back to Washington and New York; if they're lucky, they might be able to get home to hit the bars for a bit before closing time.

The chief beneficiary is Belmont University, a fast-growing Christian institution seeking to escape obscurity and yearning for the respect accorded to Vanderbilt down the street. For years, Belmont was associated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Recently, the rapid growth Belmont's trustees seek caused relations between the university's administration and the Baptists to become strained, resulting in the 2007 decision that disaffiliated Belmont from the Baptist Convention. The Curb Event Center, the venue where the debate will be held, is named for Mike Curb, the music mogul, former California lieutenant governor, and GOP operative who has become one of Belmont's major financial benefactors. One almost has to think that Curb played a major role in landing this plum for the small-time Christian institution.

I won't be watching tonight. I don't figure to learn anything I don't already know, and there's better entertainment available. Some may see the debate as a celebration of American democracy; I see it as an example of how divorced our country's political process has become from its people.

(Crossposted at Correntewire and They Gave Us A Republic.)