Howard Fineman says the real story of the debates "isn't on the stage; it's in the audience" and he's right:
The long string of debates have shown viewers a Republican Party in the raw, not in the words of the candidates but in the groans, boos, cheers and applause of crowds who blithely ignore halfhearted TV network admonitions to keep quiet.
The audiences have been loudly patriotic and enthusiastic about the campaign. But their outbursts have also uncovered a GOP id that cheers for Texas' vigorous use of the death penalty; cheers repeated attacks on the national media, even when it is embodied by Fox News moderators; boos at the suggestion that the federal government, not the states, should enforce immigration laws; boos at anything less than a send-them-all-back immigration policy; boos a gay soldier who asks a question about gay rights; cheers at the mention of waterboarding and torture as a means of interrogating terrorism suspects; and boos at an African-American reporter who asks repeated questions about race, poverty, inequality and racial stereotypes.
To a degree not seen since before the days of television (and the foundational Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960), candidate debates are now a theatrical exercise, in which the Greek chorus of the crowd plays as much of a part as the give-and-take among the candidates and the moderators.
The changing role of the "mainstream" media is one explanation for the vox populi tone. Facing conservative suspicion, some networks decided to partner with Tea Party, state party or other grassroots organizations to stage the debates, and part of the co-sponsors' price was to bring along a partisan audience. (Thursday night's CNN debate is co-sponsored by the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.)
Well, yeah. CNN has been especially whorish in this regard, not only sponsoring debates with the Tea Party but hiring their spokespeople as "analysts" and catering to them as Real Americans in contrast to everyone else. But nonetheless, I can't imagine anyone expected that these audiences would be quite as gratuitously cruel, crude and bigoted as they've been. And it's not just South Carolina, it's been in Iowa, California and New Hampshire too.
It's modern conservatism stripped down to its essence. This is who they are and they aren't embarrassed or ashamed of their throwback attitudes and retrograde politics. And why should they be? They've been validated by talk radio and Fox News and more recently by CNN and the entire GOP establishment. They aren't delusional in thinking that this behavior is thoroughly acceptable and mainstream. It is.