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08 Feb 2016

Podium Pandemonium: A Look at a 'Daily Show' Debate About Debates in New Hampshire

Written by  Emily Cassel

There has been a relentless stream of town halls, meet-and-greets, panel discussions and rallies in New Hampshire in advance of the Jan. 9 primary—but we were probably at the only event where “Party in the USA” blared from the speakers as the crowd filed into their seats.

We were definitely at the only happening hosted by Trevor Noah.

A disembodied voice asked us to kindly turn off our cell phones, though the request was blatantly ignored by a crowd full of people who were furiously Snapchatting the scene as Noah and correspondents from The Daily Show—Jessica Williams, Ronny Chieng and Hasan Minhaj —took to the stage. It was an off-air event, after all, so how else would we prove to friends that we were there?

Podium Pandemonium was “a debate about debates,” and the festivities found Fusion’s Alicia Menendez, DNC Vice Chairwoman Donna Brazile, Howard Dean, New Yorker correspondent Ryan Lizza and MSNBC’s Michael Steele attempting to answer questions about our modern political process. While there were jokes—Noah opened by thanking “all of the college kids we lured with free pot,” and “all four” of the black people in the audience for showing up—there wound up being a surprisingly substantive discussion wrapped up in a shiny Comedy Central package.

“That is what a debate needs: a good amount of laughter and honesty,” Noah said, almost too earnestly for someone standing at a podium.

Because they’re not campaigning, these panelists were likely among the most honest, candid people making appearances in the Granite State this week. Brazile wanted to get one thing out of the way up front: From a campaign worker perspective, debates are awful. There are too many; they’re a bear to prepare for; and candidates don’t like them—they prefer town halls and one-on-ones.

Too bad, says Dean. “Politics is a substitute for war,” the former Vermont governor and presidential hopeful said. “We used to kill each other over succession of power and the distribution of resources, and debates are the modern equivalent of throwing gladiators in the ring.”

Dean may have missed the memo about this being a humorous debate, but he was right that everybody following along at home is always hoping for a moment comparable to “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” They’re spectacles that exist at the intersection of entertainment and politics—much like, dare we say, an evening with The Daily Show.

Still, there’s plenty we could fix, and the panel had a few ideas. Why, for example, can’t we fact-check candidates? Asking a question, getting an answer, and moving on seems silly in an age when we can access endless information at any time. There’s more accountability during NFL games, where at least there’s a review of calls made on the field.

As for the number of debates: Dean thinks the endless debate cycle is part of the reason Romney lost in 2012, as the Republican had to move to the right with each subsequent faceoff.

They also discussed questions in debates culled from Twitter and Facebook, most of which seem canned and pre-decided: Pathetic, pandering, toothless attempts to appeal to young people, who for some reason rarely ask about things like student debt? All of which raised the meta question of why the people in New Hampshire speaking most thoughtfully about reforming the debate process were doing so at the behest of comedians.

There was some progress in deciding what a better debate might look like: two candidates, one hour, no moderator—a real discussion of the issues. If we’re going to have moderators, said Brazile, we need more diversity, but added that what’s most valuable about debates are the candid moments, and the chance to see politicians as they are, having conversations.

“What you just described,” said Noah, “was Twitter.”

This report was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and is part of their “Manchester Divided” coverage of the madness leading up to the 100th New Hampshire presidential primary.

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