Thoughts about night one of the Democrat Debates

I don’t have a formal or even a really organized response to this explosion of speaking. What can you say? The easy way out is to say it’s not a debate, it’s a failed debate, and to leave it at that. Another easy way to respond is to create some way to determine a winner or a loser here. I think that’s a poor way to approach it as well.

Some of the people speaking here have little to no national recognition. Some have a bit too much. I wonder how many people over the next few days will be speaking about people they just learned about, or maybe mentioning a policy idea they heard from someone they just learned about. That’s what I was thinking about mostly is how these events can be a moment where people can make their own connections to candidates outside of someone like Chuck Todd telling them how to view this or that candidate. That’s an interesting advantage to having these large number debates, they get someone out there to talk about them. This isn’t idle chatter; this is the substance of political rhetoric in my view.

Here are a couple of things to think about tonight and into tomorrow’s debate.

First, there are two competing perceptions of audience here: The members of a Democratic Party, and the voters in America who are interested in defeating Donald Trump. I don’t think that there’s a lot of agreement between the candidates as to which audience gets priority. Maybe they think these audiences are one and the same? It creates some odd argumentative moments where the candidate makes arguments without much explanation as to what needs to be done when talking about party identity. The better stories and narratives come out of the candidates who are addressing a larger electorate. This seems like the best way to determine who should be the candidate and by definition, the performed definition of the party.

This bifurcation of two audiences might also explain the lack of a lot of storytelling, or what I have called “framework” in my previous debate analysis work. This narrative is important to set up what exists, and what is out there that deserves engagement and restricts the potential of engagement. The person who did the best job with framing their positions and identification with a world or framework or “what’s out there,” was Tulsi Gabbard, as she constructed a framework of a world seen from the perspective of a soldier. That seemed to stick pretty well and she could return to it.

Warren did well on what I call “vision”, but not much of a narrative to go on. She’s relying on the idea that everyone in the room agrees on a worldview, so it didn’t need to be spoken. Vision is what you plan to do if you win the office. This only works if the audience accepts your framework/narrative of the world. I wonder how people will feel about it, I liked it quite a bit, but I also had a sense of her worldview.

The strangest thing was how often people attacked Beto. Was he leading? Is there something about his style that makes it seem he could be a good springboard? I don’t think it’s a good idea to engage any candidate if you are up there. Beto tried to give a lot of personal stories first, instead of saying what the story refers to first. Maybe that’s the reason people interrupted him so much? I think his approach, unlike his debates with Cruz, was not great.

Otherwise I wasn’t sure about other speakers. I think that the 10 person format encourages people to chime in on a smaller group of people and why their ideas mattered to you. That’s what I hope it will do. To encourage audiences to carry forward your ideas into their communities you need a structure they can repeat easily, with a story and a connection to a sense of reality that can be delivered along with the other ideas. I wonder who did the best job of that? We’ll see what the conversation over the next couple of days shows.

For now just consider what a debate could look like, why this might not be a debate that most people who are reading this would want, but what are the advantages of this form of debating; does it have some value?