A few minutes before 11 on a recent Saturday morning, at least a hundred people lined up outside the Pasadena Convention Center, sweating in the blazing California sun, squinting in the light and trying to figure out how much longer the wait would be.
What were these people braving the heat for? Politicon, frequently described as the “Coachella of politics,” a non-partisan two-day “Unconventional Political Convention” that, organizers claim, “brings Republicans, Democrats, and people of all political stripes together to banter and spar over the most topical issues in smart and entertaining ways that often poke fun at both sides of the aisle.” This year’s convention was the third, and the biggest yet, with more than 10,000 tickets sold. Those tickets started at $50 a day.
The lineup was stacked with the stars of political media, like a month’s worth of The Politico Playbook “Spotted” section all happening at once: big-name cable news anchors (Jake Tapper, Ari Melber), talking heads (Ana Navarro, Sally Kohn), journalists (Chris Cillizza, Mike Allen), campaign strategists (James Carville, Symone Sanders), actual politicians (Amy Klobuchar, Karen Bass), even comedians (Al Madrigal, Greg Proops). This is not usually a group of people I would choose to spend my weekend with, but if you’re the sort of person who describes yourself as a “political junkie” and live-tweets All In with Chris Hayes, it might just be heaven. Politicon embraces the stereotype. Its creator, British-born rock show producer Simon Sidi, told CNN the convention is “a nerd fest.”
He was right. And I, too, am a nerd. But Politicon left me feeling alienated and depressed—even more than I already was, which is an impressive achievement in the Trump era.
Politicon’s biggest draws seemed to be its debates; lines stretched hundreds deep for these. Christopher, a high school student sitting on the floor in line for the Ann Coulter/Ana Kasparian debate, said he was “excited” to see them, because “I’ve seen both of them separately, and their views on interviews, but I’ve never seen them together.” Mark, in line for the Ben Shapiro/Cenk Uygur debate, said he was specifically excited to see Shapiro, because “he’s really articulate, he’s sharp, he’s quick, he’s a powerhouse,” but that he didn’t necessarily mind who won: “I just like to see the banter.” But Hannah, a “really strong conservative” high school student also in line for the Shapiro debate, wanted blood: She wanted to watch “the other guy get handed,” because Shapiro “really knows how to speak, he’s very knowledgeable on facts, so he knows how to destroy anybody basically.”
Clearly, there’s something appealing about the idea of watching someone you agree with debate someone you hate. It’s not just the personal joy of witnessing someone you dislike get flustered, or, unimaginably, admit that they’re wrong: It’s a vindication of your party, your ideas, your whole worldview. For those who identify strongly with a party or an ideology, watching someone “win” a debate on those principles isn’t just an intellectual victory, it’s somehow a personal one, too.
But that vicarious joy was not my experience. The debates depressed me more than anything else at Politicon, more than the ImPEACH-MINT tea and the hopeless thirst of the MSNBC booth. The New Republic’s Clio Chang astutely noted that Politicon’s one-on-one debates “borrow from the same formula that has been pushed for years on cable news,” full of “vapid cheap shots”—meaning that, like cable news, the “chances are it won’t be enlightening.” And boy, was she right.
If I could understand the theoretical appeal of those debates, I couldn’t figure out what made them actually enjoyable, for liberals or conservatives—but for liberals especially, because, if not in numbers than certainly in volume, conservatives dominated everywhere at Politicon. A panel on healthcare saw one question asked about why the U.S. doesn’t have universal healthcare, to very scattered applause. Libertarian panelist Austin Petersen’s response, which characterized universal healthcare as spending “other people’s money,” received extended, thunderous cheers.
Brian, a child psychiatrist soon to start as an attending at Compton County Mental Health, attended the healthcare panel too, wearing a Bernie Sanders t-shirt. He had arrived optimistic that Politicon’s panels would reveal “behind the curtains” conversations without “the generic things that people repeat over and over again” in canned television arguments. He admitted that this particular panel was “frustrating,” and had “devolved into talking points.”
Politicon frequently felt like a real-life manifestation of the ideological media bubbles that many Americans live in online. Assertions that Benghazi was under-covered, from both Lahren and actor Robert Davi at the “Trump: Genius or Lunatic?” panel, received wild applause, as did Lahren’s insistence that the Clinton email scandal needed more attention. Ask a liberal, and you’d certainly hear that those stories were covered endlessly and aggressively, to the extent that it helped cost Clinton the presidency. To a lesser degree, the problem of the mainstream media’s breathless coverage of Trump’s dealings with Russia was on display too: Symone Sanders was forced to defend the media’s coverage of Russia in her debate with Lahren despite believing, as she expressed in an earlier panel on how Democrats can win again, that the over-focus on Russia was crowding out other important issues.
Some panels that were clearly designed to ruffle feathers fell flat. Roger Stone Holds Court, in which the former MSNBC host Tourė questioned Roger Stone for a plodding hour, felt more like An Hour With Your Slightly Nutty Uncle Who Sends You Chain Emails. For those who attended hoping Stone would say something crazy, like that the parents of murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich should be “charged with obstruction,” they were mostly out of luck. He dodged a question on his Infowars colleague Alex Jones’ views fairly adeptly, even getting a laugh for saying he doesn’t think frogs are turning gay, and spent a lot of time telling dry stories about Richard Nixon. He wasn’t even wearing his stupid hat.
In spite of their being extremely wrong about basically everything they said, I couldn’t help feeling the conservatives in the debates tended to do a little better than the liberals, if only because they had a looser commitment to the facts and a better grip on how to get applause. The disproportionately conservative crowds obviously helped with that, too. When Chelsea Handler asked Tomi Lahren during their discussion on Trump about “all the lying,” Lahren replied, “why are you bringing up Hillary, I thought we were discussing Trump”—and the crowd went wild, cheering and applauding that utterly asinine rejoinder. Handler did herself no favors, either, struggling painfully to think of one example of a Trump lie. The Shapiro-Uygur debate was gleefully recapped at grueling length on Shapiro’s site, The Daily Wire.
Kasparian versus Coulter, meanwhile, was equally stupid. Coulter advocated for building a wall so that “you don’t have to worry about paying unemployment,” which undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for; she argued for a “one sentence law” saying “there shall be a free market in health insurance,” a statement positively Trumpian in its utter vapidity. What is the fucking point, I asked myself, of debating someone that stupid, let alone someone so consistently racist and awful? Politicon, like the political media industry it represents and embraces, did its part to normalize Coulter. Her invitation signals that her toxic views fall within the acceptable mainstream range of polite opinion.
In terms of panels and speakers, if not attendees, Politicon is diligently balanced. The organizers clearly strived to have equal numbers from what they consider to be the left and the right on each panel. It was arguably lacking on representation from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Symone Sanders, who worked on the Sanders campaign, and the hosts from The Young Turks filled that role, but that was basically it.
Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, who had earlier that day been the fiercest voice on a panel about what the Democrats can do to win, told me he thought that this year’s convention was better at representing the progressive wing of the party, but that it might be down to organizers wanting to “book stars. Those stars are inevitably “mainly people on TV.” Because “almost everybody on TV is establishment,” he argued, “when you go look for stars, you’re going to get establishment.”
That’s true of the left in a way it isn’t of the right, he said. “The right, they don’t care, they’ll have Jeffrey Lord on every single day. You’re a MAGA guy who wants to ban Muslims and you hate Latinos, whatever your thing is, CNN will roll out the red carpet for you. You’re a real strong progressive, they don’t want to have any of it.” (Uygur had a brief spell on MSNBC in 2011 before leaving because, he says, the network head told him that people in Washington were “concerned” about his “tone,” a characterization the network disputed.)
But Politicon seemed largely unconcerned with the tonal and rhetorical asymmetry between its right-wing and left-wing elements. Its organizers clearly embraced and even played up the most offensive far right views on display, with panelists like Katie Hopkins, an utterly vile columnist for the Mail Online who called for a “final solution” after the Manchester terror attack. She recently set sail with a far-right group that “monitors” migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean, with the original goal of blocking search-and-rescue vessels that rescue migrants from overloaded boats; Hopkins previously compared such migrants to cockroaches. Politicon retweeted Hopkins’ tweet about one of her panels, in which she promised to ask “liberal feminazis WHY the deafening silence on Muslim grooming gangs & Islamic homophobia.” She later tweeted: “To the survivors of Muslim rape squads in the UK. Today - @Politicon - your voices were heard.”
Perhaps, in a world in which Trump is the president of the United States and Ann Coulter helped draft his immigration platform, it may be too late to ask that voices like this be marginalized instead of promoted. Except it’s never too late to tell Ann Coulter to fuck off. It’s never too late to say, actually, no, we don’t want to hear from racist morons; we don’t want to represent Both Sides equally, if one side is so thoroughly committed to being awful. Organizing an entire festival around that concept of finding joy in two sides clashing, regardless of the relative merit of those sides, regardless of the noxious extremism of one of those sides, can only be damaging.
Several attendees told me they came to Politicon because they wanted to hear ideas or other viewpoints, or because they liked hearing about politics in general. This struck me as a very odd desire in 2017: Politics is completely fucking dreadful right now. Besides that, it’s hard to imagine feeling like you need more views and political discussion poured into your head. There is already an abundance of political content. There’s 24-hour cable news channels, innumerable online outlets churning out politics stories on every angle of every topic, Facebook groups and blogs and Periscopes and endless, mindless posting; there’s bad analysis, good analysis, superficial analysis, in-depth reporting, out-of-their-depth pundits. The stories that matter, the plight of the marginalized, and the march of oppression fight for airtime against night tweets, palace intrigue, and utter bullshit; the smog of Trump chokes the discourse, suffocating everything. It’s all covfefe now. How could you possibly need more of that, when an entire nightmarish universe of politics is available on your iPhone? Why do you need it to be happening live, in front of you, at the Pasadena Convention Center?
Those who see Politicon as the gaudy melding of politics and entertainment are absolutely right, as are those who say it’s basically a grift. It’s also more evidence that our political institutions, the media included, are failing abysmally. It’s an empty and ultimately unsatisfying thing to sell people, a candy bar that leaves you just as hungry but with a headache. Politics is getting worse because the media is getting worse, and vice versa; events like Politicon, rewarding the most vapid impulses on both sides, only hasten that process. I can’t say the attendees who told me they came to hear about ideas and current affairs weren’t passionate, engaged citizens, but I equally can’t say they were engaged with the stakes of politics rather than the trappings.
I couldn’t bring myself to stay for the Shapiro/Uygur debate on Sunday night. I waited in the packed civic auditorium for half an hour, but eventually my fight-or-flight reflex kicked in; I had to get out of this hellhole. I had to escape this nightmare circus where politics was sport and where ideas came to die, chopped up into a thousand retweet-honed talking points. I went back to my hotel room to stream it on Facebook instead, where at least I could bury my face in my pillow and scream.
Later, I walked out into the cool California evening air, to buy onion rings and ice cream and commiserate with another journalist on the nonsense we’d just lived through. It was a temporary relief. The misery of Politicon is not restricted to one horrible weekend in Pasadena. Its poisonous vapidity lives in my phone, in the newspaper, on the TV, in almost every platform of political discussion available in 2017. Politicon is the symptom, not the disease; it’s the discharge, not the gonorrhea. After last weekend, I have never had less hope for a cure.