Politics Turns Into a ‘Reality TV’ Show
It took me a while to figure out what was so gratingly familiar about the old-yet-new Republican presidential battle now being waged all over the tube.
I mean, we’ve always had groups of wannabes out there on a smile and a shoeshine and an American flag pin, vying so earnestly to win a major party’s nomination. That kind of thing has happened like clockwork every four years since the founding of the Republic.
And yet the ambiance surrounding the current GOP spectacle, while different in many ways from what we’ve seen before, kept naggingly reminding me of something else that has become a part of our society much more recently, something sick and sleazy that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
And then it hit me: What we have managed to do, whether consciously or not, is to turn the process of selecting our president into nothing more nor less than the political equivalent of the very worst programming on so-called “reality” television.
I hasten to say that I watch very little (as in no) reality TV, so beware — I may not know what I’m talking about. Still, I’ve seen enough snippets around the edges and read enough about this entertainment phenomenon to have developed a pretty good idea of what it is. And to know that it bugs the heck out of me.
It’s not just that I tend to identify with the many good screenwriters and professional actors who have been put out of work by this insidious trend, in which shows seem to write themselves as they go along and cast everyday, non-union folks in starring roles. That’s part of it. But it’s more that the whole thing seems so cheap and tacky and mean-spirited and inane and unworthy of America.
And now, God help us, we have begun putting the values behind the likes of “Big Brother,” “Survivor,” “Fear Factor,” “The Apprentice” and “The Biggest Loser” to work for us in helping us choose the leader of the Free World.
I’m telling you, it’s reality TV. This is the new us, and this is our new way of winnowing a field of candidates, a la “Dancing With the Stars,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “American Idol” or whatever.
Think about it. This endless succession of “debates” we have all been watching for all these months? — It’s a TV series, isn’t it? And a rather schlocky one at that. Its producers began by assembling a motley cast of characters from all over and throwing them together to see how they would interact under pressure: the flaky sexpot from Alaska, the rich frat kid from Massachusetts, the unknown but ambitious pizza salesman, the pudgy and pugnacious little name-caller, and so on.
Reality programs thrive on public humiliation, and there’s no shortage of that in this show.
These contestants, all so desperate for approval, may not have to dance or sing or jump out of airplanes or endure scorpion bites in remote tropical forests or get fired by Donald Trump. What they do have to do is endlessly hurl ridiculous lies and insults at each other while the studio audiences, their appetite for fresh blood whetted, cheer and scream their heads off like spectators at some ancient Roman gladiatorial combat.
We watch in morbid fascination as the cast of contestants gets subjected to an ever-more degrading series of public ordeals, until ultimately everybody but a lone survivor gets — what else? — voted off the island.
It didn’t use to be this way. Or maybe it did; I don’t know. But it does seem like there was a time when people seeking our votes actually spent most of their time talking in relatively gentlemanly fashion about their qualifications for public office and their dreams for the country or the state or whatever. There was at least a modicum of honor among thieves.
Now, apparently, the only thing that gets and keeps our jaded attention is some kind of vicious mud-wrestling match in which truth matters not at all and moderation has become a dirty word. And what ends up on the cutting room floor in the kind of reality programming, of course, is any semblance of rational, civilized debate about how to address the increasing tangle of problems facing our country.
Yep, that’s what we’ve come to: a high-stakes, unreal “reality” show that appeals to all our basest instincts, substituting its ugly, shallow self for genuine political process. And it promises to get even worse between now and November.
Again, this is unworthy of America. Hand me the remote.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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