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The media, the candidates, and the future of politics 

Maybe I'm over-reacting. Maybe everything will work out just fine. But what is happening in national politics right now seems frightening, and more than a little dangerous.

Everybody's been focusing on the polls, and the news that Donald Trump and Ben Carson are leading presumably more rational, electable candidates. But that's only a small part of the problem. Seems to me, there are bigger concerns:

Politics has turned into a blood sport, for the politicians, for the media, for the public.

Last week's Republican debate on CNBC was just the latest example. The debate was principally a shouting match - "Chaotic," one Washington Post headline put it - with CNBC announcers joining in and the audience booing and cheering.

This is entertainment, not a contribution to knowledge, not something to help Americans perform one of their most important citizenship duties.

And many in the media are aiding and abetting. The day after the debate, news websites focused heavily on the fights and the competition, minimally on what little substance the debate contained. "Breakout Performances," "Breakout Moments," "5 Big Confrontations," "Jeb Bush Needed a Touchdown," "Rubio Won," "Carson and Trump Lack Electricity," "The 15 Most Explosive Moments," "Bush Bombed," "Jeb Died on That Stage," "Crowd Roars as Cruz Attacks the Media": those were the headlines.

Politico's Roger Simon related Ted Cruz's attack on the CNBC moderators and then noted: "The audience members went nuts. This was gutsy stuff. This was fun."

The candidates are lying with abandon, in the debates and on the campaign trail.

A Washington Post Fact Checker article in the Washington Post detailed some of the falsehoods: Carly Fiorina insisting that "92 percent of the jobs lost during Barack Obama's first term belonged to women" and that Bernie Sanders wants to raise taxes to as high as 90 percent. Donald Trump insisting he has never said something that is plainly visible on his website. Ben Carson saying he has not been involved with Mannatech, a nutritional supplements company for whom he has given speeches and testimonials.

And there was Chris Christie saying Social Security will be broke in seven or eight years. Marco Rubio saying that "for the first time in 35 years, we have more businesses closing than starting." Rick Santorum saying the US has lost 2 million manufacturing jobs during the Obama administration. Complete misstatements that have been refuted before -but the candidates repeat them and roll right on.

All of this has a real effect.

The candidates' smug confidence as they stick to their lies, the jockeying and upstaging of each other to try to dominate the debate, the jeers and cheers from the crowds, the media score-keeping: This influences polls, which influence how voters feel about a candidate's viability. And it influences big-money donations, which are already chipping away at the foundations of democracy.

The presidential election seems a long way away right now, but the first stage is well under way. And in February, things get more serious, with the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Presidential election campaigns should be an opportunity for serious public discussions. And they could be a terrific history-as-it-unfolds civics lessons, particularly for children. But what will this campaign teach our children? What do we want them to learn from it?

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Inquisition created a particularly terrifying civics lesson, with crowds gathering and cheering as people were paraded through the streets and were burned at the stake. Is it too big a reach to draw a comparison between those public spectacles and now? We're burning democracy at the stake, aren't we?

Coming up: another Republican debate, on November 10, hosted by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal.

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