J. David Gillespie —
For a long time politicians have tried to make politics entertaining to the masses. Roman rulers offered the plebs “bread and circuses.” U.S. political scientists have for years written about presidential campaigns like they were horse races. I am convinced now that what we are seeing in presidential contests is a reality show.
Maybe, sensing the value of reality shows, media, the parties, and the candidates are just now tapering things that way. But it could be that presidential competitions have always been reality shows and we just didn’t know it because TV had not invented them yet.
If I am right about the reality show thing, that may be one reason Donald Trump is now doing so well. The Donald is a reality show pro. Longtime host of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, he has been ready and willing to utter those chilling words: “You’re Fired.” That NBC eventually fired him is beside the point.
I don’t really like reality shows, but I have watched them enough to psych them out. There are winners and losers, a whole lot of cheating, and tactical alliances—alliances which last only as long as they serve the interests of the players who build them.
And you know they are not really entirely real. There are behind the scenes managers who script or manipulate things. In our reality game you should factor in the media, especially television and now social media.
There are the corporate fat cats who are now pretty much free, through Super Pacs and such, to spend all they want to influence things. Wealthy himself, Trump may be immune to their lure. A Forbes report reveals that the wealth of all the other Republican and Democratic candidates combined comes up to less than 5 percent of Trump’s!
And there are “we the people.” We are the reality show’s audience, but don’t forget that democracy thing. Calls go out for us to participate, to contribute, to vote. There are those among us who actually do that.
This reality show carries some features of Celebrity Apprentice, but it may be more like Survivor. Let’s call our reality show Red and Blue. Think of a land mass with two tribes. They are the Reds and the Blues. There is Red turf on one side, Blue on the other; but some Reds live in Blue territory, and some Blues in Red.
Everyone knows that the ultimate campaign comes this fall. That is when either the Red or the Blue leader will emerge victorious, to lead our divided land.
Right now the contests are within each tribe, for tribal leader. Tribal insiders and outsiders are waging war, and the outsiders are now doing remarkably well. Intratribal shells are being lobbed back and forth, and one by one the losing warriors are nursing their wounds and heading home.
It is in what we know, or are told, about the principal players—he candidates—that our reality show looks more like Celebrity Apprentice than Survivor. The Red team at first featured what seemed like a cast of thousands. That is now winnowing down—the one woman, for example, has left the building—but those still standing make a fascinating cast of characters.
One is an African American neurosurgeon. There are two Hispanic senators, both opposed to freer immigration. Two white governors and one of the Hispanic senators are aiming at each other, each vying to become the establishment’s choice to take on the Blues.
But two anti-establishment outsiders are now way ahead in polls and delegate counts. One is that other senator, despised (it is said) by his colleagues but beloved by evangelicals.
The other is the wealthy businessman/reality show veteran. About his vision he offers few details. He does speak of making America great again, of building a wall at Mexico’s expense, of excluding Muslims “until we know what the hell is going on.” He appeals to our fears, not our finer angels.
The Blue team is now down to two, but plenty of entertainment is left in their struggle. The Blue (former?) presumptive nominee has been first lady, senator, and a cabinet officer, and she may become the first woman ever to grasp this nation’s top government position. She is the establishment candidate, and with a lot of support among African Americans.
But the Reds sense blood in the water from some things that happened during her cabinet years; and her anti-establishment Blue opponent, a senator, charges that she is much too close to Wall Street. Seizing on a single important issue—corporatization, the decline of the middle class, the rise of the 1 percent—he is seriously appealing to young voters and other denizens in the Blue party base.
We are now in the fourth episode of Red and Blue. The first was titled “Preliminaries.” Filming for it lasted through most of 2015. Following that were two episodes, on Iowa and New Hampshire. Episode 4 belongs both to us (South Carolina) and Nevada, so let’s name it “Palmetto and Silver.” The fifth will be “Super Tuesday.” And then after that, who knows? This is a reality show, after all.
This is an op-ed piece appearing February 17, 2016 in The Clinton Chronicle, Clinton, S.C. by Wise Guy contributor J. David Gillespie.
5 thoughts on “It’s a Reality Show”
I would like to suggest that the reality TV metaphor could be recast more broadly in terms of the conceptual framework offered by Jeffrey Alexander on politics as a performance, which he lays out in scholarly fashion in his book “The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power” (Oxford University Press, 2010). Here is the publisher’s description of the book:
“Contemporary observers of politics in America often reduce democracy to demography, and presidential elections are no exception. But do differences in class, gender, race, and religion really determine the vote?”
“The Performance of Politics develops a new way of looking at democratic struggles for big-time power and it explains what happened, and why, during the 2008 Presidential campaign in the United States. Through a series of simple but telling concepts about meaning and performance in public life, illustrated with vivid examples drawn from a range of media coverage, participant observation at a Camp Obama, and interviews with leading political journalists, Jeffrey Alexander argues that images, emotion, and performance are the central features of the battle for power. While these features have been largely overlooked by pundits, they are, in fact, the primary foci of political actors. Winning depends on creating images so that candidates can become heroes. Obama and McCain carefully constructed heroic self-images for their campaigns and the successful performance of those representations characterized not only each candidate’s actual rallies, and not only their media messages but also the ground game. Money and organization facilitate the ground game, but they do not determine it. Emotion, images, and performance do. In other words, demography isn’t destiny and political parties can’t always delivery the vote. Though an untested Senator and the underdog in his own party, Obama, through his moving performances, succeeded in casting himself as the hero and McCain the anti-hero, as the only candidate fit to lead in challenging times.”
“Drawing on these themes, Alexander then reveals several periods of shifting public opinion and isolates the drama of Obama’s celebrity, the effect of Sarah Palin on the race, and the emerging financial crisis through an engaging narrative that conveys the immediacy and excitement of the final months of the historic 2008 presidential campaign.”
Also, here is a link to a brief follow-up piece Alexander published in the Huffington Post on the 2012 election.
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Thanks much, Ron Berger, for your suggestion and helpful insights.
I want to follow up for just a minute on David’s suggestion of the campaign as a reality television show. I have never watched a reality television show, but I know they are a curious form of entertainment that is particularly attractive to television producers because they are so cheap to produce. That said, they are quite popular among many viewers. Much has been written on politics as entertainment. And although politics is serious business, it has many playful elements.
Political debates are indeed similar to a reality show. They become the platform on which candidates construct the persona they want to convey to the audience. Ron’s remarks about performance, images, and emotions are pertinent here. The debate is a competition, and while it is not on a desert island, the stakes are high and the opportunities to become the hero are comparatively few.
In the audience there will be those with a work orientation and those whose primary objective is to play. The latter most likely outnumber the former by a wide margin. Those who watch the debates in order to learn new information (i.e., the workers) will be sorely disappointed. Those who watch hoping to be entertained, however, will find much to like. The more outrageous the performance becomes, the greater is the satisfaction of the audience. In this event, facts and knowledge are of minimal importance. What counts is the performance.
I’m guessing that in this electoral season the Republican debates have been much more satisfying to the audience than the Democratic debates because they have been more fun. The candidates on the Democratic side have been far too work oriented. On the Republican side the candidates, with the exception of John Kasich, have been willing to join the fray and duke it out – gleefully verbally skewering their opponents whenever they got the chance. John Kasich, the only real work oriented candidate in the Republican debates, has been left behind because of his reluctance to join the circus.
These playful aspects of politics go far beyond the debates. All the candidates hold large rallies, but few members of the audience go to the rallies to learn anything. They already know what the candidate is going to say. He or she has already said it a hundred times and the faithful know the litany by heart. They go to the rally to bask in the glory of being near their hero, to enjoy the comfort of being among like-minded fans, and to once again chant the slogans that ritualize the experience of team identification. After the rally, the true believers depart, with spirits renewed and the fervor to remake the country in their image.
What all this says for the prospects of democracy and the serious work of governing is not promising.
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Thanks, Charles. The work-play dichotomy is central theoretically, and I think your hypothesis about which set of debates this year has attracted the play seekers is surely valid on its face and empirically confirmable.
David Reinhart shared this comment by Ezra Klein on Facebook that is relevant to this theme.
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