CNN pitted front-runners against a too-big cohort of sound-bite-only candidates, not allowing anyone to engage in meaningful debate. And that could have serious ramifications for 2020.
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There was absolutely no good reason for Democrats to decide that 2020 should be the year of the Novelty Candidate. I hate to recite some tired, melodramatic line about how “the stakes have never been higher”—the candidates do plenty of that themselves; the stakes for a presidential election are, much like 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson, always high—but we do face accelerating climate change, the fall of Roe v. Wade, the rise of white nationalism, and a human-rights crisis within our immigration system that includes child-specific concentration camps. It would be a good time, historically speaking, for Democrats to get their shit together.
Yet here we are: After the second round of Democratic debates, we are left with the same tiny handful of serious candidates, the same wild and ever-expanding array of bad ones, and a front-runner, Joe Biden, who spent his closing statement struggling to describe how phones work. (“Go to Joe 30… 33… 0” apparently means “text JOE to 30330,” according to some translators, but I don’t think we’ll ever be completely sure.) All of these candidates—the good, the bad, the “I don’t know who Steve Bullock is or how he got here”—were forced to share the same stage, and compete for the same time. The result is that an election that should be a serious referendum on who Democrats are and what they stand for has become a confusing, confused mess.
Worse: In that mess, the best way to stand out is to have one key talking point, to which you return over and over again, while everyone else trips themselves up answering the actual questions. Hence, the aforementioned novelty candidates—people who are only there to make one key point, but whom the media invariably elevates to the status of serious contenders, simply because the sheer redundant simplicity of their message makes them stand out.
Andrew Yang has a message, which is that everyone should get $1,000 a month. (Don’t disagree!) Jay Inslee has a message, which is that we need to prioritize climate change. (True!) Marianne Williamson has a message, which is … something about love, I think? Loving yourself. Loving others. Calling the president of New Zealand to taunt her with your superior love capacity. I don’t know, but I know that Williamson, with her unplaceable accent and crystals-and-moonbeams vibe, makes for good meme fodder, and that makes her a great Novelty Candidate. Great enough that, all of a sudden, a whole bunch of people who should know better are treating her as if she is something other than a novelty: You could write it off as a joke when Chapo Trap House booked Williamson as a guest, but Bernie Sanders’s National Press Secretary Briahna Joy Gray did not appear to be employing any level of irony when she deemed Williamson a “progressive female candidate,” and Ezra Klein was straight-faced when he claimed that Williamson was “legit outshining most of the candidates on that stage.”
But, of course, Marianne Williamson is not a “progressive female candidate,” or any sort of qualified candidate at all, female or not; she has no prior experience holding elected office, no special expertise in politics, and no compelling case that she meets even the bare minimum standard for holding the highest office in this country. (Because, to be clear, even the bare minimum standard for being president ought to be very, very, very high. Much like Marianne Williamson.) She is a famous self-help author who has repeatedly argued that Western medicine is holding back the body’s capacity to pray itself well, who has publicly applied this already very shaky logic to lethal illnesses like AIDS and clinical depression, who has probably gotten her fair share of people killed as a result, and whose 1993 book A Woman’s Worth is apparently a personal favorite of the musician Tori Amos.
I never thought that I would willingly disagree with Tori Amos on anything in this life, but here we are. Marianne Williamson is a quack. And though most of us know it, and though Williamson is probably just on that stage to waste time and wreak merry havoc with primary results—another reason why she’s such a favorite among people who prioritize fucking with “the system” over making meaningful or substantive political change—if we in the media keep elevating her, without pointing out that she fundamentally doesn’t belong on that debate stage, all this could go very, very wrong. We know how it can go wrong. We elected the Novelty Candidate last time.
It pains me to spend so much time on this, or any, novelty candidacy, because the fact is, many of the candidates we do have could be great. Julian Castro continues to outperform expectations, with stand-out answers on impeachment and police accountability. Kirsten Gillibrand was, as usual, the first candidate to bring up women’s concerns unprompted, by noting that many asylum-seeking women were fleeing sexual violence in their home countries. She also did America a service by nailing Joe Biden on his opposition to subsidized child care. (In a 1981 op-ed, then-Senator Biden argued that families’ desire for affordable child care represented “the deterioration of the family,” was “a perfect example of the cancer of materialism that has stricken our society,” and that “we do not take care of our own families these days; we want someone else to bear that responsibility.” The “we” here is, of course, women.) I sometimes disagree with Kamala Harris when she’s not beating up Joe Biden, but she is really, really good at beating up Joe Biden; this time around, she forced him to answer for his long-time support of the Hyde Amendment. His explanation for that was no more clear or sensible than his instructions on how to send a text message.
And, once again, the best candidate was left on the worst stage. Elizabeth Warren has done more than any other candidate to set the standard for policy and define the debate. Yet, due to the size of the field, Democrats have resorted to splitting the primary field in half and assigning candidates to debate groups based on a random draw. Last time, Warren was the only front runner on a stage of bottom-tier candidates. This time, her opposition was a little more noteworthy — Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke were there — but her energy was still funneled off into fights with nameless, forgettable white men, most of whom probably won’t be around by the third or fourth debate. She seemed to spend half her speaking time correcting John Delaney (though, to be fair, Delaney seemed to spend half of that debate speaking) and rarely got a chance to finish a sentence, let alone make her point. The actual debate voters need to see—Warren and Biden, the woman who’s winning the ideas primary and the man who’s actually ahead in the polls—won’t happen for weeks, if ever.
Am I carping? Possibly. Usually. But all of this is the inevitable result of how the Democratic primary has been structured. We focus on the most meme-able Novelty Candidates, and not the best, because in a field this crowded, it takes a ridiculous person to draw and hold our attention. We run roughshod over the interesting candidates because, when there are ten candidates to a stage, it is impossible to give any of them time enough to explain their ideas. We wind up having to mentally staple two different nights together—or, worse, only tuning in for the night our pre-selected favorites show up—for the same reason. It may, one day, be possible for the Democrats to have a substantive debate, one which is worthy of a party facing several historic threats and a raging debate as to its purpose and direction. But it won’t happen for a long time. Before it does, most of the pointless white men and novelty candidates on that stage will have to realize that—much like 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson—they should drop out.
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