The Agony and the... Nope, Just Agony of a Televised Leaders’ Debate

It's a convention we may have outgrown; or more likely shrunken from

“Mr. Singh, your party says it wants to tow the armoured truck that crashed into the front of the Food Bank offices out of the wreckage — but many Canadians were standing close enough to the truck when it flipped that they were able to catch more money than they could count as it rained out of the sky from the sheer force of the collision slowly down to where they were standing wearing pants with enormous pockets. So which is more important to you, sir, if that is your real name: pulling the armoured truck out of the Food Bank or defending the gains of brave Canadians who happened to be standing next to the accident with empty wheelbarrows?”

I didn’t actually write down Rosemary Barton’s question to Jagmeet Singh on the Canadian housing market word for word as I was watching last night’s English-language debate, so I’ve had to paraphrase. But a few seconds later, when Justin Trudeau joked that he appreciated the way that each of the questions to the other leaders had been framed (each was a tough-specially-tailored, posed from a morally and politically neutral — i.e. federally Liberal — perspective), Barton warned him that his turn was now coming, and that it would soon be him who was on the spot. And as she said it, it was like the moment in a school play when the glue under the false moustache fails, and suddenly the seams of the whole enterprise and its phoniness, somehow simultaneously both tawdry and stentorian, become impossible not to see.

In the bad, pre-internet times of grand meta-narrative and enforced social coherence, it was conventionally understood, usually wrongly, that certain parties were strong on some issues and weak on others. It followed from this that the various segments of a federal leaders’ debate would alternately flatter a particular participant or else be especially excruciating for them to grit their teeth through. The Conservatives were supposedly good on The Economy (it didn’t matter that both the reification itself and their expertise at handling it were figments of the imagination); the Liberals dined out on national unity, vague feel-good sentiment, and diet non-fat versions of NDP ideas; when Education or Healthcare came up, the NDP itself could say something cute and maybe inspiring, and then the Liberal would say something practical to seal the deal.

But last night, in the second half of the broadcast, we got a properly postmodern debate, privileging no particular vantage point or even one particular conversation: on the individual topics, individual leaders were asked discrete questions formulated to be tough for them. The questions were asked from the free-floating, non-ideological point of view of what can only be described, in the popular friar Richard Rohr’s words, as a hypothetical “being who is both godlike (‘I know’) and utterly cynical (‘I have to create my own truth because there are no universal patterns.’).” The whole show was of Twitter, by Twitter, and for Twitter, jammed packed with grown-ups straining for Epic Clapbacks and pre-sliced to be served with GIFs instead of jokes by giggling self-professed political junkies, in the 280-character at a time, half-world weary, half-sentimental media chat room that now passes for a public sphere in this country.

In the old days there was, at the very least, a kind of Mexican Stand-off, Tarantino-final-scene energy to Canadian federal debates, wherein everybody had something to lose, or something to gain, by more or less everyone else. The Liberals and Conservatives were competing against each other in the rich parts of cities; the NDP and Liberals in the poor parts of cities; there were genuine three-way races in a number of suburbs; the Bloc and the Liberals were fighting for Québec; and the Conservatives and the NDP wrestled for the hearts of jean jacket and bad beer Canada. The Bloc leader, in the English debates, has always been a gleeful agent of chaos, the only person on the stage with genuinely nothing to lose. And the Green party has, at the very least, the quality of historical novelty — I know of no other political arrangement like that between the Liberals and Greens in the democratic world, where the left wing of a centrist party has operated as a culturally and formally independent party of its own, but can nevertheless be counted on consistently not to criticize the larger more moderate party on any matter of substance, but to provide a convenient flanking action against the social democratic NDP, at least rhetorically.

But now that Canada has joined the rest of the North Atlantic world in having its electoral preferences overdetermined primarily by urban-rural and other geographic divides, as well as by level of educational attainment, even those old dynamisms have died down. Jagmeet Singh knows that for the vast, overwhelming majority of people who might vote for him this election but haven’t made a final decision yet, the other viable choice is Justin Trudeau. So we watch the prime minister yanked in the opposite politico-aesthetic directions of downtown Toronto (where he’s competing with Singh) and of their parents’ homes in the suburbs (where he’s competing with O’Toole), and as Rohr would say there’s no metric for determining whether he gets it right or not besides whether or not it works in getting him elected. Or, I guess, whether we, as sadists, enjoy watching him squirm.

But there’s something corrosive to human dignity about being lied to and condescended to, by people who know that you know that they’re doing it. Justin Trudeau is a petulant quasi-dynastic solipsist, and if it were just him squirming, it would be one thing. But we’re all squirming.

I asked my seven-year-old daughter last night what she thought of the debate; I thought it might make a cute little video for Instagram or posterity. But she ended up cutting much closer to the bone than I would have expected: “So they’re all fighting over, like, the minutes? And I don’t think it’s fair either, I wouldn’t do that. They only have, like, forty — fifty-nine seconds. It’s kinda like — if I were them I would be very overwhelmed, and I would be, like, rushed? If I had something long to say, like them?” (Then she said she wanted Jagmeet to win, but you could have deduced that on your own, just knowing that she is a racialized female in East Vancouver from a household whose highest level of formal education is a master’s degree).

I was a high school debater — it was the only team I could join as a fat adolescent on which I didn’t have to be goalie. And a big part of my professional life as an adult has been on The Debaters, a show that has kept me rolling in ACTRA radio performance scale money for a decade and a half. So it feels churlish to be coming down against debate as such. But what’s the alternative? I don’t go in for the liberal analysis which says that a lack of civility is the source of the rot in our political culture, but nor do I go in for the radical response that overcompensates by suggesting it doesn’t matter at all. But the fundamental problem with the debates isn’t decorum anyway, though it’s part of it. The issue is the corrosive, cynical kitsch of the spectacle, which manages to reduce everyone who touches it in any way.

I’d offer a workable alternative, but unfortunately, I’ve already gone over time.