Rabble Without A Cause: Making the Case for a Much-Needed Political Equivalent of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’
In the first episode of Star Wars (or fourth, depending on your math or your age), the destruction of Alderaan causes Obi Wan Kenobi to note, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
I felt a similar disturbance when Donald Trump announced he would not be seeking the Presidency of the United States. Though in the latter case, the millions of voices belonged to comedians and bloggers who saw their next four years suddenly requiring more work than they would have if that particular pontificating buffoon had somehow managed to get elected.
There are assorted reasons why Trump’s exit from the political arena is a good thing for America’s voters – particularly, the mostly bipartisan taboo against electing any president who would be the craziest uncle at anyone’s family gathering. Yet a Trump campaign would have accelerated the inevitable and sure-to-be-enjoyable fusion of two cultural forces: politics and reality television.
Reality TV is often dismissed as vacuous fodder existing only to generate advertising dollars—so it’s already quite similar to politics, which is often dismissed as vacuous fodder existing only to generate campaign funding. Purists may insist that the history of politics in America make it a venerable institution worthy of respect, but the current state of the process (Senator Jon Kyl’s “not intended to be factual” statements to Representative Anthony Weiner’s may-not-be-factual lewd Twitter pics are recent examples) makes the daily news sound disconcertingly similar to the recaps show on The Soup.
A quick examination of these parallel universes shows growing similarities reality television and national politics:
- Constant posturing for the camera by all participants, because one never knows what will happen in the editing room
- Incredulous viewers questioning every move the star/candidate makes, regardless of circumstances or explanation
- Viewer/constituent loyalty generated and sustained by factors unrelated to the participant’s ability to succeed at the tasks most central to contest theme. (i.e., voting in a charming personality with limited marketability, or electing an eloquent speaker with little governing experience)
- The necessity to deliver simple, catchy sound bytes that can easily be inserted into the American vernacular (e.g., Donald’s “You’re fired!” and Barrack’s “Yes we can.”)
- The inevitable arc of the average participant, arriving as a relative unknown, achieving tremendous notoriety while their face is the topic of daily discussion, then slipping into obscurity when the nation turns its collective attention to someone or something else.
Considering these similarities, voters may be best served by taking the best aspects of reality television and applying them to the political campaign. Boycott the traditional routine of a dozen candidates traveling the nation reciting the same stale talking points, competing for precious airtime on the network news. Instead, gather all of the Democrat candidates in a single location, all of the Republican hopefuls in another, and offer an alternating episodic presentation of the “campaign” called, So You Think You Can Govern?
The Democratic and Republican shows would be hosted on competing networks (would it be cliche to have them on CNN and FOX, respectively?) and because no corporation should profit from an American election (at least not until after the election, as usual) all advertising revenue generated by the show would be applied directly to the national deficit. If independent candidates arise, their show will be hosted by an obscure cable network. (In other words, little change in that regard.)
Because the candidates will no longer be overwhelming the viewing public by constantly trying to manufacture awkward photo opportunities, voters will be more interested in seeing what transpires during each episode. Considering that the average person’s tendency to exalt their chosen party while vilifying the other, viewership on both nights promises to be bipartisan and enthusiastic.
Some episodes would resemble a debate, you know, candidates bandying ideas and insights on what the country needs for the future; others would require the completion of tasks to demonstrate capability and teamwork. The friction generated through these talks and tasks will quickly reveal what reality television viewers are used to learning about the casts: who are the strategists; who are the backstabbers; who are the sweethearts who lack the strength to stand up to the biggest challenges, and whether they come in the form of an opponent or an ideological issue.
Just like on So You Think You Can Dance, it will be fun to see which candidates surprise us with their insights and abilities, and which stumble in the spotlight. Each week, viewers will vote off their least favorite candidate from each show, winnowing the field in both political camps until the top vote-getter on both shows go head to head on the season finale in early November. (The finale would be simulcast on both networks, with the ratings winner getting genuine bragging rights as “America’s choice for politics” for the next four years.)
Cynics will likely argue that such a set-up would favor physically attractive candidates who can generate votes with something other than their ideas, but hasn’t Sarah Palin already demonstrated the existence of this phenomenon in traditional politics? Others might cite the danger of leaving the election of the most powerful leader in America to an electorate that voted Taylor Hicks into the top spot on American Idol, but the fact remains, it’s the same voters. If Taylor Hicks can make a better case than Mitt Romney, the only one to blame for that is Mitt Romney.
The benefits of So You Think You Can Govern? are multi-faceted: no money is spent by any candidate on 18-month long cross-country tours of America, so businesses could invest in employees and infrastructure rather than political sway; the news organizations could continue to cover news rather spending half of their air time playing redundant sound bites; voters could make direct A-B comparisons of candidates rather than apples-to-oranges.
Sure, So You Think You Can Govern? might not be as good for the comedians and bloggers as a Trump presidency might have been, but it could be great for America. I’m sure the comedians and bloggers will find other things to talk about.
(This post first appeared on PopMatters.com)