It was a strange and eerie thing to watch. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the last two Democrats standing in the primary standing six feet apart in front of nobody. Well, not nobody exactly, there were three moderators, but no audience. As Wuhan virus hangs over America, it hung over the debate as well, not just as a subject but as a fundamental stylistic change in the very nature of American debates.
Whether in a play, or a concert, or a debate, audiences matter. They are not simply neutral figures taking in the action on stage. They feed performers energy in a very real and palpable way. They also act as a corrective, when they like something they cheer, when they don’t they stay silent or even groan. During Sunday night’s debate there was none of that.
Early on it was clear that Sanders would be hurt more by the lack of audience. He is much more the showman and his speaking style begs applause more than Biden’s. Several early lines landed with a thud after his Brooklyn accent grew louder because the cheers we are so accustomed to were absent. Bernie is a rabble-rouser and to be a rabble-rouser you really kind of need a rabble.
Without the populist punctuation of his effusive supporters, Bernie‘s desperate pleas that America needs revolution sounded crazier than usual. At least with an audience, a TV viewer realizes that there are some people who agree with his socialism. Instead, his applause lines led to a shot of Biden looking incredulous, as if thinking, “come on, man. Are you serious?”
But if Bernie needs the call and response of a vibrant Protestant church service, Joe Biden is more comfortable in the role of Catholic priest, his flock mumbling hymns until it’s his turn to talk again. Biden just naturally plays better to a TV camera than a crowd. And he was also able to take far better aim at Bernie as he could immediately respond instead waiting for the applause line from the studio audience and sounding like Scrooge McDuck telling them they couldn’t have free ice cream.
One exchange in particular showed how the empty seats affect the nature of a political debate. On the question of Joe Biden’s “yes” vote on a Republican bankruptcy bill in the senate, Bernie’s pounce didn’t quite work. In defense of his vote Biden had to make a nuanced argument, saying that the resolution was going to pass anyway, so he got concessions to make it a little better in exchange for his vote.
That exchange would have been much different with Bernie’s supporters whooping it up as he trashed Biden as the establishment politician. But without his populist cheering section, it was Bernie who looked incapable of working to actually get things done, instead listing off a set of wishes that sounded unrealistic and unserious.
This experiment with quiet Quaker debate tells us some things about the nature of our political process. From Socrates in the Agora to Lincoln and Douglass on the stump, debate throughout human history has been about swaying the people in front of you. Laughter and applause becomes a stand-in for truth. On Sunday night the candidates’ words had to stand on their own.
It is worth considering whether live audiences do more harm or good to the discourse of a political debate. From the perspective of pure political entertainment, the cackling crowds add drama and tension. But from the perspective of policy and nuance, the audience-free debate has much to recommend.
God willing by the time we get to the debates of the general election, Wuhan virus will be behind us and we will be allowed to gather and mingle again, maybe even shake hands. The Trump campaign should very much hope so, as the president is more like Bernie in his ability and need to play off of a crowd. But it might be worth considering holding at least one debate without an audience.
In the absence of the adoration of an individual, it is ideas that must stand on their own. Sunday night exposed Sanders as someone with wacky plans who has never gotten much done in the Senate. This was valuable for voters to see and hear. This quiet debate was an accident of pandemic, but as James Joyce once told Samuel Beckett when an accidental word landed in the text the former was dictating, if coincidence be my counterpart, so be it. Maybe we have stumbled on something valuable.