Last night saw a curious spectacle: New York City’s Comptroller, Bill Thompson (D), took on the sitting mayor for the last 8 years, Mike Bloomberg (D/I/R?) in a stylish, shamelessly highbrow, issue-centered debate on New York public policy.
I should clarify something: although I kid Bloomberg for switching party affiliations, I do not dislike the guy. In fact, I’m quite undecided in this race, and honestly, you should be too. These are both good men. A short retrospective on Bloomberg: he’s monstrously competent. The man exudes intellect. His only weak point, really, is that his politics evince either real bipartisan leadership (“Progress, Not Politics”), or shameless pandering and egotism. Accordingly, even a shadow of a doubt about his bona fides converts a few of his more self-aggrandizing actions (eliminating term limits so he could run for a third term; questioning the need for a Public Advocate, an office normally viewed as a check on mayoral power; and pushing for “nonpartisan” city elections) into suspicious power grabs.
Thompson hit that point hard last night, leading to a few moments of classic campaigning. You know — the little aphorisms that typify American politics without conveying any real substance (“Eight years is enough”; “Mike, you know better than that,” referring to Bloomberg criticizing him on campaign finance). Judged by the standard of American presidential debates, the mayoral debate was aggressive, hard-hitting, and downright bloody. But the nasty tone masked real debate on the issues on the issues. The candidates clashed on, inter alia, zoning, water rights, the effectiveness of § 8 vouchers at tackling homelessness, and even, with a minimum of bluster and surprising honesty, the role of the “nanny state” (read my hasty Twitter liveblog).
In sum, despite an aggressive tone, the candidates managed to succeed where so many presidential candidates (even Obama) have failed: they created a real, intellectually honest, fact-intensive hour of modestly-high circulation public debate. How?!
Well, the debate was unique for a number of reasons. First, the candidates so obviously did not care about offending voters by striking a negative tone. That’s well and good, and it worked in this case, but it provides little information going forward. Going negative in a debate is rather like a prisoner’s dilemma: defecting first is probably minimally better than defecting second, if the other guy holds. Here, they just both managed to defect at the same moment. That’s just luck, so that’s not it. Second, both candidates were, truly, liberals. Bloomberg, the putative Republican, is more pro-gay rights than Thompson, for God’s sake. So there was no real conservative candidate to oversimplify and demonize liberal policies (“socialism!”). But liberals and Democrats can be just as toxically simplistic — it’s unfair to put the blame for populist pandering exclusively on Republicans. Third, and perhaps most importantly, though, this debate was rather poorly watched, and though the race is considered high-stakes, it comes at a time of ebbing interest in citywide politics.
Here’s my theory: the prospect of a smaller viewer base can be liberating. In a less popular election, candidates need worry less about offending unsophisticated voters — the types more likely to be confused by complexity or offended by well-deserved partisan swipes — because they simply won’t be watching. The only real audience is composed of people genuinely interested and well-versed in the issues. Conversely, as the viewer base of a democratic contest increases, concern for the effect on the lowest-common denominator increases, which the presence of today’s distortive, “infotainment”-based national media only multiplies. When a contest like the Bloomberg/Thompson debate occurs, and draws only modest interest, the parties are freed from the need to speak in sound-bytes, and can be themselves. The result is a good policy debate with enough barely-contained anger to keep it interesting.
Obviously, if that’s the answer, it’s a real problem. It suggests that while it’s good for the entire voting population to be engaged and interested in politics, an uninformed spectator is worse than no spectator at all. We can solve that problem only by eliminating the possibility of an uninformed spectator, by cultivating responsible citizenship, but then we’re back at square one, and all we’ve learned is how to measure, rather than solve, the mainstream media’s deleterious effects on democratic discourse. Well, that’s something.