Despite gains by blogs, podcasts, and social-networking Web sites, television is still our dominant mass medium — the entertainment source that most often sets the trends for everything else in our culture. What proves popular on its airwaves more than likely will play in Peoria — and everywhere else.
Thus, given the popularity of reality shows, it is no surprise that, in 2008, the nation is being treated to an American Idol election. The search for undiscovered electoral talent has led the Democratic Party to nominate Barack Obama, its least-experienced candidate in memory. And this past week, the Republicans trumped that exponentially by elevating Sarah Palin from the relative depths of political obscurity to the nation’s center stage.
Though the show has well-known British origins, there’s something very American about the Idol concept, as anyone who has ever come across a Horatio Alger story or watched one of the 35 Rocky movies can tell you. But until now, the Idol blueprint had extended only to other TV programs — it hadn’t entered our more hallowed political realm. (Frankly, I’m amazed it’s taken this long. Our politicians have always pretended to be more humble than they are, as anyone familiar with the career of corporate lawyer, a/k/a rail-splitter, Abe Lincoln knows.)
Today, politics are deemed above the pop-culture fray by the Sunday-morning talk-show set, but, for the rest of the country, they’ve been a branch of entertainment for years. Remember that, going back to the 1800s, politics was our national sport, with large cheering rallies, parades, and voting taking place in saloons.
Having television dictate our political trends is only an extension of that tradition, and it, too, is actually nothing new. The 1960 debates, right down to their format, were a direct rip-off of the quiz shows that had mesmerized the nation in the 1950s. It’s an odd concept that we should select a president based on an evaluation of who can stand behind a podium, in front of the cameras, and best answer questions. (That is, unless you’re so addicted to game shows that you can’t conceive of a better format.)
The only deviation we’ve really had in the configuration of those debates came courtesy of Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey, who popularized the idea in the ’80s that those in the studio audience, not the guests, were the real stars. So now in each election cycle we get one debate in which the audience gets to ask the questions and get some face time of their own.
Once upon a time, conventions actually conducted political business. But about 25 years ago, as television coverage of the Olympics began to attract more diverse audiences, the networks discovered that viewers of the Games — especially women — were far more interested in the athletes’ off-the-field histories than most of the events themselves.
The political parties caught on. Now we get a four-day convention miniseries, featuring no conflict and few issues, but “up close and personal” narratives galore, à la the Olympics. We now know much more about Obama’s grandmother and the Palin pregnancies (mother and daughter) than we know about energy policy. But it does make for better television.
Take out the trash
The Zeitgeist in this country has been mined and mirrored by politicians and their advisors for decades. Consider the 1988 campaign, when the Bush forces overwhelmed Michael Dukakis with a series of low-tech, trashy negative ads. Critics (and Democrats) are still smarting over these “out-of-bounds” commercials, but the Bush Sr. campaign was simply following the era’s popular culture trends. At that time, such talk-show hosts as Geraldo Rivera and Morton Downey Jr. were captivating the masses with what became known as “Trash TV” — highly confrontational shows that attracted an audience primarily through the shock value of insulting guests and instituting brawls. The Willie Horton ads that year may have seemed excessively inappropriate to the Democrats and their button-down candidate, but not to a nation that had become accustomed to, well, trash.
Which brings us to today. During the past decade, if there’s one type of programming that’s been pushed relentlessly, it’s reality television. The whole concept of reality TV is the same as Idol: anyone can be famous, so much so that we can eliminate the professionals and make “the people” the stars. Again, it’s a democratic and very traditional American idea, but it’s never before had the political currency it has now.
Yes, under recent standards, surely Palin, and perhaps even Obama, would be judged too inexperienced to be a national nominee — even in an era when professional politicians are so despised. But the wild popularity of American Idol has probably changed all that. If the average American can sing as well as Britney Spears and get the same record contracts (and even win a Grammy like Kelly Clarkson, or an Academy Award like Jennifer Hudson!), why can’t a hockey mom with two years of statewide political experience in one of our least populous states be on a national ticket?
So, for the next seven weeks, we the people will get to watch and decide which of these extraordinary but ordinary Americans will get to be our ultimate superstar. There’s no business like show business, after all.
Barack Obama: even | this past week: 7-6
John McCain: even | this past week: 6-7
To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blog/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.