Watch an animated version of this article by Kelly Gallagher:
It was Jon Stewart’s “rally to restore sanity” in October 2010, when thousands descended on the National Mall to denounce demagogues of the Left and Right, that sealed The Daily Show host’s transition from court jester to something of a respected political commentator. The media, Stewart and his followers argued, were too strident and too prone to encourage the looniest among us.
Stewart had long been peddling this line. Appearing on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, ostensibly to tell some jokes and promote his new release, America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, Stewart instead ambushed co-hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson with accusations that their show was hurting the cause of national unity by encouraging “partisan hackery.” CNN bosses canceled the show shortly afterwards, signaling a desire to turn to more “objective,” news-driven content.
The Stewart alternative to partisan bickering was a smirking centrism of sorts: broadly liberal in sentiment, but above the messy passion that would mark the Tea Party and, later, Occupy. The critique focused on etiquette and manners — “use your inside voice,” admonished one sign waved at the rally — not the virtue of causes. The public sphere was not considered a battleground for political disagreement, where the marginalized could find voice, representation and perhaps even redress.
To those of us longing for that kind of debate, it might seem heartening that new CNN President Jeff Zucker brought back Crossfire last year, with a fresh cast and a revamped format meant to make the show more conducive to serious debate. The live studio audience is gone and each episode is limited to a single topic.
Unfortunately, it’s unwatchable. While new hosts Newt Gingrich, S.E. Cupp, Stephanie Cutter and Van Jones — as insufferable as they are as individuals — manage to affect a collegial chemistry, the problem is that they and their guests rarely deviate from Democratic and Republican Party talking points. The resulting discussions are as vapid as the personality-driven and less self-consciously serious material on Fox News.
The reboot is meant to be something of a throwback, reminiscent of the Bob Novak Crossfire era or William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line—fostering debate that assumes an intelligent and serious audience, with perhaps a bit less of the old man musk. Yet when Buckley was hosting Firing Line, he could count on using such radical figures as Noam Chomsky, Huey P. Newton and Michael Harrington as foils. For material, the Vietnam War, the Equal Rights Amendment, civil rights upheavals, urban rioting, the conservative revolution, Watergate and the Great Society. But in our era, the one after the fall of leftist projects — from social democracy in the West, the Soviet Union in the East and national liberation movements in the South — the center-Left and center-Right’s arguments have been directionless without a visible radical Left to react to.
The result of this political shift is impossible to ignore. With mainstream Democratic and Republican politicians offering little in the way of inspiration for the future, it’s no wonder the debates on the new Crossfire are spiritless. It’s easy to call a “ceasefire” at the end of every episode and go on as friends when the stakes of the debate are not fully acknowledged.
But despite the protests of Stewart and company, the ideological framework of Crossfire isn’t the problem — the problem is the uninspiring ends toward which those partisan shouting matches are directed. Duck Dynasty, Santa Claus and Jesse Ventura’s musings on Obamacare dominate whole episodes, while the planet burns. As the comedian said back in 2004, the old edition of the show was political “pro wrestling,” and we deserve better. To CNN’s credit, the new one aspires to more — to renew a conversation, to inform viewers through pitched argument, to be a true athletic competition. Its ambition only makes its deficits that much more glaring.
We need more political debate in this country, but that debate will first emerge in our streets and workplaces, not staged and recorded in Beltway studios. More than anything else, Crossfire is just a symptom of what our public discourse will look like until then.