Tomi Lahren and Chelsea Handler. Cenk Uygur vs. Ben Shapiro. Ana Kasparian vs. Ann Coulter. Oh, and also Clay Aiken, Mike Allen, America Ferrera, Anthony “Mooch” Scaramucci, and Senator Amy Klobuchar. This is the unlikely mix of people who will descend on Pasadena, California, this weekend to headline Politicon, the political extravaganza that HuffPost has called the “Coachella of politics.”
Politicon, now in its third year, is the brain-child of Simon Sidi, a British-born rock-show producer. The beauty of the convention, as Sidi explained to the New Republic, is that it “gets people to hear the other side.” While there will be panels on topics like fake news, Russia, Black Lives Matter, and, of course, Donald Trump (e.g., “Trump: Genius or Lunatic?”), the draw of Politicon comes from its marquee match-ups and odd couples. “It really is the only place I think in the world that you can have Greg Proops and Ann Coulter on the same stage together,” Sidi says. “Where you can have Cenk Uygur and Ben Shapiro in a debate and where you can have Chelsea Handler and Tomi Lahren having a conversation. And I think that’s fantastic.”
But if Trump has smashed the already thin line between entertainment and politics, Politicon is the clearest reminder that the media has also been thrown into this disorienting tumult. For many people, it is now just one element in a giant political-infotainment complex that stretches from the White House to Hollywood to CNN’s green room.
Sidi himself has no political background at all. For 30 years he has worked with the biggest rock bands in the business, from the Eurythmics to Depeche Mode. The original funding for the festival came from Ted Hamm, a film producer.
Sidi might not know politics, but he knows an entertainment opportunity when he sees one. The 2016 election and Trump’s young presidency have shown that our hunger for political content has never been greater, to the point that it has come at the expense of other forms of entertainment. Politicon was one of the first to recognize an untapped market in the field—the live festival—and to capitalize on it. As Sidi puts it, “People are addicted to this stuff. We’re all addicted to this stuff.”
Sidi’s gamble appears to be paying off. While he wouldn’t disclose how much money Politicon has generated (“I’m not going to show you my tax returns,” he joked), last year the convention sold 8,000 tickets. This year, Sidi hopes to see even more people coming through Politicon’s doors. Like most festivals, the cost of a ticket varies based on the number of days you want to attend and what type of treatment you want to receive: A one-day general admission pass costs $50, while a weekend VIP pass can run up to $300. “Business is good,” Sidi says.
The idea of politics as entertainment is, of course, not new. As Sidi tells me, “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel in any way.” From the spectator-heavy Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1800s all the way through to a reality TV star and WWE believer rising to the presidency, politics has always had entertainment deeply embedded in its genes. But rarely has an event made the connection so explicit, with consumers literally plunking down cash so they can watch politicos go at each other in the talking head’s form of a cage match. In this respect, Politicon is the spawn of a very specific form of political media: the cable news network.
The convention counts both CNN and MSNBC among its media partners, and both networks are scheduled to have their own dedicated stage for a day. Cable news stars like Jake Tapper, Brianna Keilar, Joy Reid, and Ana Navarro are all on the speakers list. In 2016, one of Politicon’s biggest showdowns was between Ann Coulter and CNN’s Van Jones. Politicon’s head-to-head matchups borrow from the same formula that has been pushed for years on cable news. In many ways, the festival is cable news live.
The formula is simple: Put a lot of people of different political stripes on a stage, make them duke it out, and sell a lot of tickets. As Erik Wemple, media critic for The Washington Post, told me, “That is our political entertainment culture, to put people on and hope that they brawl.” Take CNN, which is notorious for its enormous panels and its seemingly infinite rotating cast of contributors who argue over the day’s news. In an April story for The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Mahler described CNN President Jeff Zucker’s strategy this way: “What Zucker is creating now is a new kind of must-see TV—produced almost entirely in CNN’s studios—an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts, and confrontations.”
But what makes for good TV does not make for good journalism. Having people of different political persuasions in discussion is not bad in and of itself, of course. But, as anyone who has spent a few minutes watching cable knows, these situations have a tendency to devolve into vapid cheap shots, rather than meaningful debate. Putting Chelsea Handler on a festival stage with an incendiary figure like Tomi Lahren might sell tickets, but chances are it won’t be enlightening. In the same vein, CNN putting nutty pro-Trump surrogates like Kayleigh McEnan and Jeffrey Lord on air boosts ratings, but does almost nothing to educate. Zucker himself told the Times that he sees his pro-Trump panelists as “characters in a drama.”
Much of this arrangement comes down to profitability, which is why Politicon has gotten in on the game. Networks’ priorities are to keep costs low, while boosting their ratings. It’s much more affordable to invite a panel of commentators to squabble on air than it is to send journalists around the country to dig up stories, report them out, and then edit that material for television. And it’s working: Since Trump’s ascension, cable news networks have broken ratings records. Much of the time they are doing this not by breaking news about the Trump administration—print media like The Washington Post and The New York Times, and even networks’ digital sites like CNN.com, are picking up most of those stories—but by providing the entertainment of on-air clashes.
“You have these newspapers with struggling business models that are running circles around them in terms of scoops,” Wemple points out, whereas cable news networks are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars for nonstop punditry. In 2016, CNN made nearly $1 billion in profit, while Fox News raked in over $1.6 billion. In an eight-day span in April of that year, The Washington Post counted a stunning 602 different individual pundits appearing over CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
What the public gets in return is often outright nonsense, such as when Jeffrey Lord said Trump should be thought of as the “Martin Luther King of health care.” It only adds to the sense that we are swimming in utter meaninglessness at all times of the day, a state of affairs for which the White House and the GOP bear the bulk of the blame. This is a world where the president can claim that plain facts are “fake news.” It is a world where John McCain can bemoan the death of the democratic process and bipartisanship moments after participating in a hyper-partisan attempt to derail the democratic process. The Trump era has ushered in an environment in which the facts count for little, reason is powerless in the face of tribal emotions, and narrative is more important than real-world consequences. When political debate is all entertaining noise, an event like Politicon can thrive.
In 2004, in an appearance that single-handedly took down the CNN show Crossfire, Jon Stewart said the political brawl format was “hurting America.” Stewart told hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, “You’re doing theater when you should be doing debate.” He was right, but in the end the joke was on Stewart, and on us, since CNN basically became Crossfire, reflecting the changes in a country that, more and more, is starting to resemble Crossfire too.
Politicon’s grift is basically harmless. If political junkies want to have some fun and pay $50 to geek out to their fantasy matchups come to life, then so be it. (According to Sidi, they have to “walk the talent” nearly an hour before they’re due on stage, “because everybody wants their autograph.”) But the media environment that gave birth to Politicon—and that Politicon mirrors in its gaudy, ultra-commercialized way—is anything but harmless.