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)