Nobody’s watching the Democratic debates. Does it matter?

Just 1.9% of Americans watched the Dec. 19 Democratic presidential debate.

APTOPIX Election 2020 Debate

The way things are going, the audience for the 10th and last 2020 Democratic Party presidential debate on Feb. 24, 2020 will be zero.

A total of 15.26 million viewers watched the first debate on June 26, 2019. By the most recent debate on Dec. 19, the number of viewers had sunk like a stone to 6.17 million.

That’s a miniscule 1.9% of Americans.

But it doesn’t matter. What really matters is how the media of all types, particularly social media, interpret the debates to the public and grab elements of the debates to advance agendas.

Social media is the dominant influencer because:

  • National television news has a steadily shrinking audience. In the 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, only 10 percent of people said national nightly network television news was the most helpful news source.
  • Print newspapers have a steadily shrinking audience. Total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers today, for a U.S. population of 329 million, is less than in 1940, when the U.S. population was 132 million. In the 2016 presidential election, as many people named late night comedy shows as most helpful for political news as named a print newspaper.
  • Local TV news tends to focus on murders, fires, car crashes and the weather, not presidential politics.

Regardless of the issues discussed by the 10 Democrats during the 120 minutes of the second night of the first debate on June 27, 2019, it was a terse exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden about busing that dominated subsequent coverage of the debate and online discussion. “Kamala Harris attacks Joe Biden’s record on busing and working with segregationists in vicious exchange at Democratic debate”  proclaimed the CNBC headline.

Similarly, regardless of the consequential issues discussed by the seven Democrats during the 120 minutes of the Dec. 19 debate, the media, including social media, focused on:

  • Who “won” the debate.
  • Assertions that “the knives came out” for Pete Buttigieg.
  • The vile wine cave.  Elizabeth Warren castigated Buttigieg for holding a fundraiser with rich people in a Napa Valley “wine cave.” Politico reporter Natasha Korecki said that was “the most entertaining” part of the debate. “ The conservative National Review headline read, “Biden Cruises and Buttigieg Takes Fire in the Wine Cave Debate.” The left-leaning Mother Jones said, “The “Wine Cave” Debate Was One of the Campaign’s Most Consequential Arguments.” And the story still has legs. On Sunday, Dec. 22, the New York Times ran a story relating the frustration and disappointment of the wine cave’s owners, both of whom are active Democrats, at being thrust into the public eye in such a negative manner.
  • Elizabeth Warren’s statement that economists are “just wrong” when they argue her proposals for trillions in new taxes will stifle growth and investment.
  • It was a testy night. “The political press, always thirsty for conflict, pounced,” the Columbia Journalism Review noted. “In a push notification, the New York Times alerted readers that we’d seen a “contentious evening”; Dan Balz, of the Washington Postnoted that a “collegial start” had given way to “fireworks.” There was talk of gloves coming offpummeling, and slugfests, and that was just from Politico. Another Politico piece listed the “five most brutal onstage brawls” of the night, complete with a tally chart and boxing-glove emojis.”
  • Diversity is what matters. Time pointed out that the only non-white candidate on stage was Andrew Yang.“This forced the uncomfortable conversation about how the party that talks so big about including diverse voices and that depends on minority voters ended up with such a white set of candidates in a field that was, at one point, historically diverse,” Time said.

In any case, what the American public really cared about, some media observed, wasn’t the debate but the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The first item in the Dec. 21, 2019 NY Times On Politics newsletter referenced this. “It appears nobody consulted the Jedi Council before scheduling a Democratic debate on the same night “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” opened, the newsletter noted.

Lots of folks have chimed in about all the debates on social media, but they’ve mostly talked to others in their bubble in response to algorithm-delivered news content. As noted in Towards a New Enlightenment? A Transcendent Decade“… the emergence of the political “Twitterverse,” … has become a locus of communication between politicians, citizens, and the press, has coarsened political discourse, fostered “rule by tweet,” and advanced the spread of misinformation.”

tweet

Twitter discourse on national politics also tends to be driven by a very small segment of the population. According to the Pew Research Center, Twitter dialogue by American adults about national politics is driven by a small number of prolific political tweeters. They make up only 6% of all U.S. adults with public accounts on the site, but account for 73% of tweets from American adults that mention national politics.

Furthermore, as a Knight Foundation study  put it, Twitter is “a distorted mirror of Americans’ political views,” because it is dominated by the center left, countered by the extreme right.

Facebook plays a major role in the political debate, too, and not in a good way. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported, “Facebook is a toxic town square.” And that makes it dangerous because, it’s a primary source of political news for a growing segment off the public. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center estimated, for example, that more than 60% of Americans got their information about the 2016 US presidential election on Facebook.

Instagram has a growing place in public perception of politics and the debates, too, and could be a flashpoint for online disinformation during the 2020 election. “Disinformation is increasingly based on images as opposed to text,” said Paul Barrett, the author of an NYU report that’s prompted a renewed look at the problem. “Instagram is obviously well-suited for that kind of meme-based activity.”

It’s an engagement powerhouse that attracts far younger users than its parent company, Facebook, according to the NYU report  The report cited a Senate Intelligence Committee report that noted the Internet Research Agency — which led Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the 2016 election — found more engagement on Instagram than any other platform.

So, does it matter whether  fewer and fewer people are actually watching the Democratic debates? Probably not.

 

 

 

What Hath Obama Wrought? Drone Warfare in the Trump Era.

drones

President Barack Obama was going to be different.

“Eight years ago, Mr. Obama suggested a messenger from a dreamy, multicultural future,” said Adam Shatz, a Fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities. “America would be steered back on track, working with other countries to meet the challenges of what he often called an ‘interdependent’ world…”

“But it hasn’t worked out that way,” Shatz said. “Despite the best of intentions, Mr. Obama became one of the midwives of of this dangerous and angry new world , where his enlightened cosmopolitanism increasingly looks like an anachronism.”

One area where the dreamy optimism eroded was with the drone strikes carried out from operations centers around the world that President George Bush initiated and Obama escalated.

Pressed by public interest groups, in July 2016 the Obama Administration released its estimates of the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, all countries where the United States is not officially at war. The three-page report, titled “Total Number of Strikes Against Terrorist Targets Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”, said 473 U.S. drone strikes in those three countries during Obama’s two terms killed 64-116 civilians. The report also said 2,372-2,581 combatants were killed in U.S. airstrikes from January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015.

The government acknowledged that its figures differed substantially from estimates by non-governmental organizations. The Long War Journal, for example, estimated 207 civilian deaths just in Pakistan and Yemen, New America estimated at least 216 civilian deaths in the two countries   and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that 380-801 civilians died during Obama’s presidency.

The U.S. defended its conclusions, however, asserting that:

  • U.S. government post-strike methodologies for determining combatant and non-combatant deaths were superior
  • The government relied on a more extensive collection and analysis of multiple sources of intelligence before, during, and after a strike, and
  • Some figures released by others have been tainted by the deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organizations.

President Bush’s embrace of drone killings (he authorized about 50 non-battlefield drone strikes) stirred angry protests by liberals, but the massive escalation of drone strikes under Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Obama, including strikes on American citizens, hasn’t stirred up much public turmoil.

Until now.

Now, with President-elect Donald Trump about to take office, public debate and concern about the drone program is resurfacing in liberal circles.

“That any president has this kind of power is concerning on its own, but it’s even more alarming now that Donald Trump, who has praised repressive dictators like Vladimir Putin and shown little respect for things like international law and the Geneva Conventions, is going to be in the White House,” reported Vox on Jan. 10.

If Trump does go even more hog-wild with drones, a supine Congress, deferring to the Bush and Obama administrations, set him up for it by tolerating aggressive presidential behavior and being willing to watch passively as executive power was stretched beyond its constitutional bounds.

“…the truth is that both major parties under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have worked to remove the restraints on the presidency and drastically exaggerate its authority,” Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote recently in The Week. “If Donald Trump wants to wield nearly unlimited power, he’s seeking an office that provides it.”

Will you vote for Hillary… or for a woman?

Alex Conant, Marco Rubio’s communications director during his presidential race, recently sat down with the Huffington Post to discuss the campaign.

Conant: “Look, I think what we saw last night (June 7) is what we’re going to see from the Clinton campaign every day from now until November. Which is, they’re going to make this election a referendum on whether or not you want a woman in the White House. Not whether or not you want Hillary Clinton in the White House. I think that’s her only message.

Huffington Post: Do you think it plays?

Conant: It’s better than asking people to vote for Hillary.

hillaryFirstFemalePres

 

This illuminating conversation took place the day after the California and New Jersey primaries, when Clinton picked up enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee after focusing heavily on being the first female candidate of a major political party.

In sync with Conant’s observation, Hillary triumphantly claimed the Democratic nomination, focusing on the “first woman” theme.

“Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone, the first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee,” she announced to applause at a campaign event at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Responding in lockstep, media across the country announced Hillary’s victories with stories emphasizing that she would be the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination:

Clinton claims milestone as first female major-party nominee, wins California primary. Los Angeles Times

Hillary Clinton’s historic moment. Hillary Clinton — former first lady, former U.S. senator, and former secretary of state — has become the first woman to capture a major-party nomination for president. CNN

‘History made’: Clinton claims nomination. Hillary Clinton triumphantly claimed the Democratic nomination for president on Tuesday, calling for party unity to stop Donald Trump as she became the first woman in U.S. history to lead a major-party ticket. Politico

Hillary Clinton becomes first female presidential nominee from a major party after securing enough delegates. Daily News.

Following the party line, when Oprah Winfrey endorsed Hillary for President on June 7 (Wow! That was a surprise), she highlighted that it is time for voters to elect the nation’s first female president.

“I’m with her,” she told Nancy O’Dell of ‘Entertainment Tonight’. “It’s a seminal moment for women. What this says is that there is no ceiling. That ceiling has gone ‘boom,’ you know?”

 

It’s no secret that Hillary is a damaged and flawed candidate, so the “first woman” approach makes a lot of sense.

Her e-mail scandal may be fairly recent, but she is associated with decades of personal and political blunders and scandals that have led a high level of Clinton fatigue among the public.

“She has always been awkward and uninspiring on the stump,” a senior Democratic consultant once told the Washington Post. “Hillary has Bill’s baggage and now her own as secretary of state — without Bill’s personality, eloquence or warmth.”

The Democratic party has also known for a very long time it is confronting a serious Hillary trust gap.

In a July 2015 Quinnipiac University national poll, 57 percent of respondents said Clinton is not honest and trustworthy, one of the worst scores among all the top candidates at the time. In a subsequent Quinnipiac University poll, “liar” was the first word that came to mind more than any other in an open-ended question when voters were asked what they thought of Clinton, followed by “dishonest” and “untrustworthy”.

In a more recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll, 57 percent of people said they didn’t believe Hillary was honest and trustworthy.

But Hillary’s problems as a candidate go even deeper than that.

“Voters see her as an extraordinarily cynical, power-hungry insider,” James Poulos said in The Week magazine on Feb. 2. “She is out for herself, not out for Americans. Voters know it.”

This ties in with a wide perception that Hillary and Bill are just plain greedy, what with them hauling off $190,000 worth of china, flatware, rugs, televisions, sofas and other gifts when they moved out of the White House, taking money from all sorts of unsavory people and foreign countries for their Foundation, and charging exorbitant amounts for speeches.

David Axelrod, a political consultant for Obama, noted in his book, “Believer”, that Hillary has two other main weaknesses: she’s a polarizing rather than a “healing figure,” and she has a hard time selling herself as the “candidate of the future” given her checkered past and long political resume.

So here we are, facing the possibility Hillary will become the “first woman” president not because of, but despite, herself (and maybe because her opponent is another deeply flawed candidate).

Just goes to show that Clarence Darrow was right. “When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it,” he said.