Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reality Show Politics and the American Idol Presidency

Media technology has come a long way. We communicate instantly now by text message or on social networking sites. We watch television shows whose outcomes can be decided because they allow the viewing public to vote for those outcomes. Our culture is shaped by not only what we see on television, but what we see on line as well. What the public chooses to watch can either be helpful to their understanding of facts and current events or it could be an issue of "junk in junk out."

Political candidates are turning to the new media to get their message out. By interacting with voters through blogs and social networking, candidates can communicate with a greater number of people in a shorter amount of time. But who are they communicating with?

Many people on line are not political junkies. They go to the web to read about sports, Hollywood celebrities, reality television shows, the hottest fashions of the day, dating and humor. This is fine when you have a “balanced diet” of news and entertainment. But how do political candidates communicate with people who are just too pop culture and not enough news?

Many of these people have already been geared this way by the old media. They are products of the MTV and Entertainment Tonight generation. They know more about Howard Stern and Mike “The Situation” Torrentino than they do about Rick Santorum or Charles Krauthammer.

Those who are passive receptors of what the media pours into their heads think that Barack Obama is the most intelligent man to ever be president, Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house and Oprah Winfrey has all the answers to our social woes. Obama is the poster child for the American Idol presidency because he was a pop culture phenomena as much as he was a political candidate.

Many who voted for Obama couldn’t tell you the difference between a stimulus and a bailout, whether rich people still pay more of a percentage of their income in taxes than poorer people or the underlying factors behind the financial crisis of 2008. Surveys of teens show many of them didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was or that they were Googling him to find out. But they know who Justin Bieber is.

These passive American sponges will tell you that Obama is a smart guy because that’s what they’ve been told by the media. When oil prices spiked under George W. Bush, the media demonized him. Today, they cover up for Obama. They whitewash the unemployment numbers and ignore inflation. If the pop culture generation of today didn’t have to buy food and gas, they’d never know. The media stenographers run block for Obama.

Political consultants are picking up on this. During the vice presidential debate in 2008, Sarah Palin winked at the audience. President Obama is sometimes shown playing basketball. These things are not accidents. These things are more interesting to the pop culture junkie than pie charts, graphs and endless numbers that are used to get into the details of our national budget. The problem with politics is its more like broccoli than it is chocolate ice cream.

For progressives, Obama fit the suit. It didn’t matter if Obama had no experience or if his ideas would hurt the country. He could read off a teleprompter as well as Chris Daughtry could sing so they voted him in.

The 2008 campaign was more like a soap opera and less like, well, a political campaign. The manipulative characters behind the scene were constantly framing the Republicans as the party of Bush, portraying John McCain as an angry old man and distracting people from the issues by focusing on Sarah Palin’s wardrobe, looks and family problems. They were able to keep the public’s attention long enough to dupe them into voting for a caricature rather than voting for an actual guy.

Even after Palin returned to the governor’s office, the catty women of Alaska manufactured ways to sabotage her life. They filed frivolous ethics complaints and propped her up as a tabloid queen. Think about the aftermath of 2008. Was it more "The Days of Ours Lives" or more C-Span? You decide.

Today, we are witnessing the political version of The Jersey Shore on the Republican side. The people are ginned up by the flavor of the day. Who’s hot today? First it was Ron Paul, then Mike Pence and then Chris Christie. Donald Trump just had his fifteen minutes and now it’s Herman Cain’s turn. There is nothing wrong with hearing what all the candidates have to say, but getting drunk with ideological adoration and promiscuously jumping from candidate to candidate is just a little too politically slutty for me.

Maybe we should put them all on an island somewhere and let them vote each other off. Or, maybe we should create March madness brackets for them and just have everyone vote in each round. They could go on Dancing with the Stars or American Idol. One thing is certain – more people will listen to what they have to say if they sing and dance it.

Call it cynicism if you will, but it’s reality. Listen to a Hannity “Man on the Street” or watch Leno’s “Jay-walking” and tell me if you’re comfortable with these people going into a voting booth. Yeah, this is America and they can’t be denied that right. We’ve tried to get them to research the candidates, but they get bored and start surfing Maxim or E!Hollywood. What do we have to do to get these young people to understand the issues and the candidates better, put the contenders in bathing suits at the debates and have them sit in dunk tanks?

American politics is not the place for Gimmicks. But with the way the direction of our culture is headed, craft is king. The GOP candidate who runs in 2012 is going to have to be a lightning rod, a character and a bit unconventional. In the race for the presidency, the candidate who demonizes the other candidate in a more entertaining way will win. They can talk about the deficit all they want, but the first one who grabs the mic and belts out a strong rendition of "We Will Rock You" will probably get a boost in the polls regardless of whether they are a socialist, a right wing extremist or a RINO.

So what can we do to hide the candidate who can save America in a good enough monkey suit so that the nation will buy it?

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