Labor leaders fear the DNC is alienating voters with boring debates

Organizers say lackluster debates are demobilizing the voters they need to prevent Trump’s re-election

Published November 24, 2019 8:00AM (EST)

Democratic presidential hopeful former US Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by The New York Times and CNN at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019.  (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former US Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by The New York Times and CNN at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

For most media companies, the rapidly eroding ratings for the Democratic National Committee’s debate cycle would merit a mid-season cancellation. And considering the content of the last five, that might actually be in the best interest of the tens of millions of Americans for whom the economy has not been working for decades. That’s the same demographic that is poised to mobilize behind change agents like Senator Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, a prospect that terrifies the Wall Street Democrats.

The corporate news media has used their perch as “objective journalists” on these canned “debates” to pit the Democratic candidates against each other. At the same time, they have been doing the dirty work of their Pharma and Wall Street paymasters by stoking fears about the potential cost of universal healthcare without ever mentioning the brutality, economic waste, and obscene profits in the current system.

After all, who would pay for all of their commercials?

According to the Nielsen ratings for the November 20 debate, hosted by Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post and MSNBC, just 6.5 million viewers bothered to tune in. That’s down dramatically from the first televised Democratic National Committee [DNC] debate in June, a two-night affair that drew 15.27 million on the first night and 18.1 million the second.

As Variety reported, the last debate bombed with “viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic coveted most by advertisers,” making the extravaganza the least-watched in the cycle in which there are seven remaining.

“It’s not just bad TV, but it is part and parcel of the general problem with the Democratic Party and their being locked into the tentacles of capital and big media simultaneously,” said John Samuelsen, the international President of the Transport Workers Union, which has 151,000 members including the nation’s airline mechanics and mass transit workers.

He continued, “the Democratic Party seems to be way behind the where the average Democratic voter is in terms of their grasping how there is an incestuous relationship between the corporate news media and big capital, and that’s clear from these debates.”

And Samuelsen, who backed Senator Sanders in 2016, warns that boring TV — where the candidates are repeating themselves and attacking each other — could actually demobilize the very voters Democrats need to win.

“That last debate did not move the needle anywhere for anybody,” he said. “And most importantly, nobody’s expectations were raised. It’s a basic law of organizing you can’t motivate people if you don’t raise expectations otherwise nobody cares.”

A senior African American official with a major union, not cleared to go on the record, was of the same opinion. He recounted his discouraging experience in 2016 canvassing in Pennsylvania in African American voting districts. Pennsylvania was one of the states that flipped from voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012 to voting for Trump.

“The African American turnout was not great in places like Philadelphia and it was nowhere near what we needed to counter places where Trump had made inroads with union households,” he said. “There was a residual feeling that the DNC had put their thumb on the scale for Hillary and that the core DNC organization was afraid of their own progressive base.”

Peter Woolley, the Director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s (FDU) School of Public and Global Affairs and founder of FDU’s Public Mind Poll, says the debate cycle could have the perverse effect of turning off voters by being boring and trivializing the process.

“The candidates are repeating themselves, and then you have the commentators who can’t distinguish between a football game and a policy debate,” Woolley said. “And the commentators make a lot out of the style, so even if you are the New York Times, you are writing a headline that says who stumbled — which is totally the language of the horse race.”

As it turns out, the big winner of the Atlanta debate may turn out to have been former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who was for the first time excluded from the DNC’s glitzy stage.

Mr. Castro could even conceivably get a post-“no appearance” bump from being frozen out of the DNC machine’s “serious candidate” meat grinder.

The morning after the lackluster debate, Mr. Castro’s consolation price was a fifteen- minute appearance on “Democracy Now” with Amy Goodman and Mustafa Ali. “Democracy Now” is syndicated on 1,400 radio and TV stations around the world, and is the only public media program that airs simultaneously by satellite, on cable TV, over terrestrial radio and over the internet.

Castro explained to “Democracy Now’s” national audience, which is composed of millions of progressives, that this was the first year that “the Democratic National Committee [i]mposed certain thresholds, polling thresholds and fundraising thresholds, in order for candidates to get on that debate stage.”

That, he explained, made it possible for people to “buy their way onto that debate stage. You can buy an increase in polling at those kinds of numbers. Polling itself, when you’re dealing in those kinds of numbers, is not that precise. All of that — 2 percent, 3 percent, 4 percent — is within the margin of error.”

But, as co-anchor Amy Goodman pointed out, the DNC debates may not be the only aspect of the primary process that is corrupted. Whereas the format and questions of those debates are skewed to fit corporate sponsors’ best interests, the primary election itself is compromised by the fact that the first two primary contests take place in two of the whitest states in the country, Iowa and New Hampshire, which necessitates “candidates spend so much of their time catering to those first two states.”

“Iowa and New Hampshire simply do not reflect the diversity of the Democratic Party or of the United States,” Castro responded. “And Iowa has been the first to vote since 1972. And our country has changed a lot, our party has changed a lot since 1972.”

Castro added that while the Democratic Party “justifiably” came after “Republicans for trying to suppress the votes of people of color” with voter ID laws and gerrymandering while “it starts our primary process, our nominating process for president, in two states that hardly have any black people, hardly have any people of color — that does not reflect the values that we say we espouse.”

By Robert Hennelly

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