To be engaged with any political news cycle in 2020 is to feel a constant pressure to form judgments. Each story, each opinion piece, each sound bite becomes a new piece of evidence which we add to our ever-accreting accumulation of data with which we then form new convictions or, more frequently, reinforce old convictions, about what is wrong with the world and what must be done to fix it.
The nation that most enthusiastically dramatises this perpetual, ritualised collective decision-making is, of course, America, where political campaigns are happening more frequently than not.
The grandest of American narratives is its presidential election and, as we edge towards that November main attraction, the USA is currently in the throes of the Democratic primary, wherein a slow, melodramatic, and exhausting process will lead to a single presidential candidate emerging from its wreckage.
Until Tuesday night, the 2020 Democratic primary debates had been mostly neutered affairs; candidates wishing to avoid seeming excessively adversarial, agreeing on Trump as the real, mutual enemy. However, in the most recent debate, held in Nevada in anticipation of that state's imminent primary, fangs were bared.
If a debate is compelling, it's compelling in the way of sports - highlighting conflict and difference to generate a narrative that, in the ensuing days, can be picked over by pundits and fans. If a candidate were asked about the value of the debate format, they'd likely say it offered an opportunity to explain and advertise their agenda, to distinguish themselves from the crowd; the moderators would agree.
But we all know what none of the interested parties will openly admit: debates are about style over substance. The survival of the media as an institution depends, in no small part, on telling stories that allow its audience to develop emotional attachments, to form allegiances in the way they would with characters in a film. The significance of the debates has to do with their entertainment value and little else.
Many mechanisms of politics (interviews, panel shows, question time) take this form. On the surface they purport to be testing policy details or an ability to effectively execute political goals, but in reality they share the demands of an acting audition. Who feels the most authentic, the most believable, the most eloquent? These are necessary traits for a politician, but not to the exclusion of all else.
Nielsen estimates the Nevada debate was watched by 19.7 million Americans, making it the most watched Democratic debate ever. So what did this audience see?
They saw, for the first time on the debate stage, billionaire newcomer Mike Bloomberg, who has recently bought his way into the race - spending nearly half a billion dollars, mostly on blanketing airwaves and screens with television, radio and online advertising - being turned on by his fellow candidates, as despised as a runner parachuting into a marathon at the final turn.
He was attacked for his wealth, his misogyny, and his history of overseeing racist policies as mayor of New York City. Elizabeth Warren gratifyingly calling him out as an "arrogant billionaire" who slurs women. Equally gratifying was Bernie Sanders suggesting to Bloomberg that his employees might be entitled to a greater share of his tens of billions, given their crucial role in his enrichment.
So debates are not useless. Bloomberg was shown up as being largely without substance, his chances of victory having to do with his obscene spending capacity rather than his agenda or personal qualities.
But among the conditions that made Bloomberg competitive in the first place was the media generally covering his candidacy in terms of its dramatic potential to disrupt, rather than, say, considering what would happen when voters' image of Bloomberg began to be shaped by forces other than his campaign's paid advertising.
The Bloomberg narrative was, in fact, punctured by the very tools of sensationalism that had been used to make him look plausible in the first place.
So, despite running for two hours, the debate showed only occasional room for depth. As with previous iterations, candidates repeated thoroughly rehearsed lines from stump speeches and shrank their agendas to fit memorable, reductive platitudes.
This semi-scripted style suits pundits, who tend to focus exclusively on rhetorical flourish rather than, for instance, the sense or truth of arguments (CNN is particularly guilty of this, releasing a list of each debate's "winners" and "losers", the only criteria seeming to be the respective debaters' energy levels).
If commentators judge a candidate to have crumbled, as Bloomberg did, or soared, as Warren did, this verdict will drive the discussion, providing the positive or negative coverage that proceeds to shape the reception rather than respond to it.
The debate has a contradiction at the heart of its logic, which stands in for the logic of political coverage writ large. It demands a final judgment from the audience. However, by privileging spectacle over detail the format fails to provide the material from which one could arrive at a properly informed judgment. Although another debate takes place on Tuesday. Perhaps that will be different.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.