Why the YouTube debates matter

The YouTube debates could fundamentally change the dynamics of politics in America, giving a voice to the people, letting us be heard by the powerful and the public, enabling us to coalesce around our interests and needs, and even teaching reporters who are supposed to ask questions in our stead how they should really do it.

The debates could also demonstrate that democracy is in good hands, that we care, we are smart, we are informed. Too often, that’s not the PR we, the people, get. We’re masses who don’t know and don’t give a damn. But that’s not the people you see in the vast majority of YouTube’s 2,000-plus debate questions.

Finally, the debates could begin to change the relationship between candidates and voters. Campaigns always have been and still are all about control, about handing down a message, about the appearance of listening. The wise candidates should go into those 2,000 questions and start answering the toughest ones, whether or not they’re asked on CNN; that will earn our respect. (John Edwards plans to answer more questions after the CNN debate Monday night.)

All this could happen. Or CNN could pick the dutiful, dull, obvious, sophomoric questions and make us look like a nation of dolts. I hope that won’t be the case; I don’t think it will. Yet CNN did give itself too much control and responsibility when it decided to single-handedly choose all our questions. They should have enabled us to select at least some of the questions and to rate, categorize, organize, and comment on them. At the very least, CNN should have asked us what we think about their choices. Not allowing that still indicates a lack of trust in us, the electorate. CNN shouldn’t be controlling this. They should be organizing it.

But Anderson Cooper, who’ll moderate the debate for CNN, told our sister blog at the Washington Post, Channel 08:

>These are smart questions, and people are clearly living these topics. It’s not just theoretical question, or an academic discussion. These are people that are very passionate about this topic. I want to make sure that this debate honors them, and honors the time they took to make these questions.

My fondest hope is that viewers — and candidates and journalists — leave the debate impressed with at least a few of the questions. I hope they see that handing over control to us — or I should say, back to us — makes for a better discussion and, in the end, a better democracy. I hope they see that we do care, we are smart. I hope they learn to involve us in their process more often. I hope we all feel better about the election and the country as a result. That is putting a lot of pressure on two hours of TV, YouTube videos, and politicians. But the YouTube debates are a crack in the wall of control of elections, politics, and media. Bring your chisels.

(Cross-posted from PrezVid)

  • YouTube is the new voice of the unheard. Speak Loud!!!!

  • The “debate” isn’t going to matter, it’s just going to be another way for the MSM and partisan hacks to avoid discussing difficult issues. My predictions are etched in stone at the link: 3 bemasked questioners, 1 animated character, and no questions that will actually force the candidates to defend their policies. And, that should be what it’s about: not pointless puffball questions that can simply be answered with more hot air.

    If someone wants to be president, they should be able to defend their policies, and this site should perhaps be encouraging questions that ask them to do that.

  • adsl

    they got 24 hours of time on cnn. put it on all day if they wante.d

    sure it would require 1000 people over at cnn to hit the play button on youtube but its well worth it .

  • I have a lot of respect for Anderson Cooper. I think he will try to be fair with the questions submitted.

  • The most popular question at YouTube is whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is a time-traveling cyborg. It would be a disservice to the YouTube community if it’s not asked.

  • Paw

    None of these so-called “debates” actually matter, Jeff, as long as the MSM (in the form of CNN this time) acts as the filter and more importantly, as long as the candidates themselves are not compelled to answer all the relevant ones, truthfully and without bloviating.

    Candidates’ interest in the public extends only as far as procuring the vote. Once that’s done, it’s business as usual.

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  • As you say, Jeff, too bad CNN made itself supreme arbiter and judge. There is no avoiding charges that the ‘hard’ questions weren’t asked of favorite candidates, depending on the viewpoint of the one making the charges. Anderson Cooper can’t express all the public’s many varying interests, and will be sure to miss many issues of the One Issue voting groups. E.g., will he be able to fully represent women’s viewpoints, and what they want to hear from the candidates? I very much doubt it. And the Deep South, with its fears of racial equality, will it be represented? That would offend just about everyone else. For these and other views, CNN can’t perform their job for them. A truly public forum would be nice, but it won’t happen today, on CNN/YouTube.

  • One of the key tasks of candidates in modern elections is to avoid offending anyone. So no matter how insightful the questions, or what method is used to chose them, there is no chance that a candidate will take a meaningful position on any of the tough issues.

    I don’t have a camera (in spite of JJ telling me how cheap they are) but here are some random questions with no answers:

    1. What are you going to do when the oil runs out (or becomes so expensive that it is unaffordable)? “Energy independence” is not a satisfactory answer.

    2. What are you going to do about the increasing violence in the world which is triggered by overpopulation and resource shortages. More international gab fests is also not an answer.

    3. What are you going to do about the fact that all national politicians get the bulk of their funding from big business and thus will not consider any alternatives to our present capitalist/consumerist model?

    4. What are you going to do about the $650 billion military budget? How do propose to reduce the distortion that militarism causes in our national priorities? Even if you have a plan, how do you expect to get it implemented given the power of this sector and the number of politicians beholding to it?

  • There is SO much that could have been done with these videos that wasn’t! Sure, this was a great first step, by why not make this platform more engaging by creating an ongoing DAILY debate on CNN.com and YouTube where candidates continued to post their own video responses to user submitted questions? Why not take the conversation and bring it back to the people? For these suggestions and more please feel free to check out my blog and comment!

  • Mike NYC

    I’m curious if anyone actually feels this is any different than the previous debates where “normal people” submitted questions via email that were read by newsreaders?

    What’s the difference, Jeff, besides actually getting to see someone’s face when they ask the question? It all seems like hype to me.

    I suppose this is the first debate that’s completely devoted to questions from general voters — that’s different.

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