Contestants are put through trials and tribulations before the viewing public to achieve genuine stardom. But consider the possible behind-the-scenes manipulations - numerous news stories have questioned Idol's unaudited "election" process, but far fewer notice how producers control the camera angles and audio mixing board which can raise or lower background vocals or crowd noise, selling the home viewer on almost anything they wish. If a singer hits a sour note, they can hide or highlight it in repeated clips.
These shows mirror contemporary American culture, hypnotizing us with sensationalized promises of glory and "trainwreck" moments as our basic morality is whittled away, selling us on rags-to-riches narratives over and over. Siegel astutely points out that we come to love those we see going through challenges, and this translates directly to politics, regardless of the subject's morality.
Take the runaway success of HBO's "The Sopranos", which marks America's strange new appreciation for the criminal life, delivering uniquely sympathetic treatment of the "human" side of mobsters despite ruthless hits every episode. Do not audiences find themselves rooting for greedy, callous murderers and their wives, children and friends? Does this explain why we so quickly excuse illegal acts committed by our "favorite" politicians?
Sarah Palin embodies this more then any other player in the race, especially for the up-for-grabs female voter. Here's a driven, determined mother of five juggling a large family and a busy political career, thrust into the role of savior for the sinking Republican party, as the unlikely winner of the "Veepstakes". Her dubious record and troubles at home plague her as she tries to manage not only her family but the whole party, never giving up fighting for hers.
Obama needs to react and respond in kind and beat them to the air with his own "reality-based" reality TV show, connecting with the American people as they are accustomed. He needs to show people the day-to-day travails of his own life, family and campaign. His convention presentation was successful in showcasing the stories of average Americans hurt by the Bush years. But these people "Palin" comparison to the mesmerizing sideshow that is "Sarah Barracudda", the perfect mixture of Desperate Housewives, Survivor, American Idol and even Are You Smarter Then a Fifth-Grader?
McCain's own personal saga also suggests Obama needs to share more of his hardships and struggle, tapping more into his inspirational qualities and huge, dedicated following. Show Obama humbled, grappling with daily attacks and dealing with them in leaderly fashion, just as he would as President. Obama needs to adapt his professorial "lecturing" style to be more effective with what Siegel calls "cultural" voters.
This would not only usher in an unprecedented top-down level of transparency and honesty - but it would paint McCain as the bad, unseen "other" and allow people to jump on a more high-minded morality train.
McCain has begun co-opting Obama's basic message, now claiming to represent change and telling Americans "I work for you" just days after Obama's "This is about you" line. But Obama still hasn't pointed out how McCain's selection of Gov. Palin co-opted his idea that DC badly needs new blood.
McCain believes that women will buy the bait, however, identifying with Palin as a victim of sexism as she is attacked for inexperience, family problems and her religious beliefs. By contrast, Obama's tale of success and family stability is far less topsy-turvy and therefore far duller. Obama needs to capitalize on the fact that America loves reality TV and disdains politics, adapting his message to address the voters that will mean the difference.