Last night’s Democratic presidential debate viewing party at Happy Village wasn’t very partylike. About 100 people—mostly fervent Bernie Sanders supporters—gathered to spend a couple hours watching the candidates express their points of view on TV, but the noise in the cozy East Village pub rarely rose above murmuring-at-a-book-club level. Slices of pizza were consumed, the Tamale Guy popped in for a visit, and a handful of pointed remarks from Sanders and Clinton earned mild whoops, but otherwise it felt only slightly more exciting than watching a WWII documentary in a library.
It was a disorienting feeling because, like many Chicagoans, I’d been swept up in the Cubs’ intoxicating victory over the hated Cardinals. Also, I had just barhopped from a sports lounge in Humboldt Park where I’d taken shots and high-fived strangers on my way out to watch the debate and was literally a little intoxicated. I arrived ready for a spectacle to cheer and jeer at, something like an NPR version of the last two GOP debates—reality-show competition meets Comedy Central roast first, substantive conversation about policy dead last.
CNN certainly tried to deliver that. Its broadcast began with a flashy montage that assigned each candidate an easy-to-grasp character archetype (Hillary, for instance, was labeled “the Contender”), while a narrator delivered the hilariously melodramatic line “This night in Vegas could change the odds . . . yet again.” And moderator Anderson Cooper peppered the candidates with questions that would produce oh-snap soundbites.
But politicians mostly shied away from playing the Donald Trump game of serving up outlandish insults and one-liners. When former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee suggested that Hillary’s e-mail scandal raised questions about her overall ethical standards, Cooper asked Clinton to respond. “No,” she said simply. Sanders responded on that same topic by growling: “I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” prompting Hillary to shake his hand in agreement. The media seized on that moment as “the most quotable line of the night,” which is ironic considering the context. Sanders wasn’t trying to score political points with that comment. He was criticizing the media—and, by proxy, us—for obsessing about a petty issue. Let’s grow up and focus on the real stuff, was the attitude.
Once I finally sobered up and the thrill of the Cubs win wore off, I appreciated the serious, policy-wonkish tone of the debate. Politics shouldn’t be like sports. Yes, it was still theater, but at least the actors were adults who weren’t afraid that talking about things like climate change and foreign policy in Syria would bore the audience. And so eventually the echo of the yelps and cheers died down, and I sat with the rest of the subdued Happy Village crowd and listened, thoughtfully munching on a tamale.