At a dinner party last night, I tried to explain to a few friends a theory. I felt Sarah Palin was inserted into the Republican ticket because America is so transfixed by the personality-driven "reality TV show" spectacle they'd bet the White House on it. Coincidentally, when I got home, I saw Lee Siegel's latest Wall Street Journal article entitled "The Triumph of Culture Over Politics" which argues that Republicans have succeeded by selling politics as personal narratives while Democrats have continually failed in trying to educate the public, explaining issues and policies.
Indeed, it had been my suspicion that Karl Rove and the RNC strategists were looking closely at the success of the Fox-TV entertainment division, where shows like Survivor and American Idol have dominated television for most of the last decade, by transforming regular folks into millionaires and pop superstars using a seemingly "democratic" voting process.
Consider the apparatus involved in reaching a mass audience of voters, presenting them with a compelling "American" story, setting up a bad guy, and then giving them the power to control the outcome. The line blurs between politics and reality TV because the producers are one and the same.
The #1 network in the country is Fox-TV, a 24/7 infomercial for the RNC. Fox is in daily lock-step with the McCain campaign, the President's office, and the "Conservative" talk radio coterie, all coordinated by strategists such as Karl Rove. On Friday night Fox looped adorable home video of Sarah Palin and her cute children, juxtaposed with scathing audio criticism of Obama, kind of like a free campaign ad that goes on and on.
Mr. Rove is a frequent guest "analyst" on Fox News, the Sean Hannity show and even in the Wall Street Journal, quite ironically celebrating McCain and Palin as "reformers", although as the "architect" of the last two campaigns and terms of George W. Bush, he is arguably more responsible for current national policy and the state of U.S. politics today then anyone alive.
A perfect example of this was the deregulation of media consolidation rules rammed through to favor Fox-TV, and Hannity & Limbaugh's radio syndicates (who already dwarfed competitors), helping media market leaders tighten what amounts to state and party control of TV and radio content.
In fact, former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan recently confirmed Rove was the senior director of a "massive operation" supplying "comprehensive talking points" to "Conservative talk show personalities" through the White House's Office of Strategic Initiatives. This is a violation of domestic anti-propaganda laws if government sources are not disclosed, though the matter is currently buried behind a series of subpoenas pertaining to Rove's role in the DOJ firings, the Gov. Siegelman case, missing presidential records and numerous other scandals.
This tradition took hold with Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign, using new psychological/marketing research to prove that people love to think they are in control. Reagan's strategists created the narrative that the cold, impersonal government was the cause of the nation's woes and that voters could "choose" the former actor to get government "off our backs".
We all responded to Reagan's warm, familial charm, looking past the substance of his message. This allowed his administration free reign to prioritize a grand experiment in "trickle-down economics" in which tax cuts were handed to the wealthy and corporations wrote their own deregulation. But what Reaganomics said and did were at odds. As the "Great Communicator", Reagan's relentlessly optimistic, patriotic message assured us everything was dandy as the exploding national deficit plunged future generations into back-breaking debt. Though jobs were created, a great percentage were low-paying jobs with reduced benefits. The U.S. debt and soaring interest proved the Reagan "Conservative" era was either ineffective or lying about a commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Americans today have been bred from birth to live a life of consumerism and borrowing on credit where we are defined by the car we buy and television is the primary source of information and entertainment -- and the main vehicle for presidential campaigning.
30-second TV ads remain the chief determining factor in our elections, targeting the massive bloc of "low information" voters who ignore politics until election day. Relying on storytelling, with emotion-tugging music beds and deep-voiced announcers, it was a cinch for Reagan to blow his opponents away after he'd taken a bullet for America. Few voters ever found out his campaign had negotiated to keep American hostages in captivity in Iran, souring his opponent's chances of receiving credit for their release.
But with significant TV and radio content serving GOP candidates today, advertising has given way to programming where partisan politicking is blatant. To deflect this, Rove, Hannity and their ilk assert the opposite narrative - that all other networks are at fault because they are liberal, but secretly so. Limbaugh in particular, has perfected the myth that his bias is okay because it's out in the open, yet still calls his an "entertainment" show to skirt the legal reality that it is a slanted political broadcast.
Siegel agrees the American people are easily blind-sided because "Republicans used cultural issues to distract their constituents from Republican economic policies which, ironically, were harming the very people who were voting for them." The tools of distraction are many - round the clock "breaking" news meant to excite us, hooking us in with animated "crawling" news tickers feeding us up-to-the minute updates on celebrity gossip, box office results and anything else they want to "text" a growing nation of information junkies. They control the screen from the speed of the ticker, to the colors, sound effects and blinking graphics to play us like marionettes, literally controlling the speed of our heartbeat, anxiety level and obviously, the content we'll see.
But Siegel also points to Fox-TV producer Mark Burnett, "the father of reality television", who ushered in shows that replaced entertainment with pure personality. Consider the success of Burnett's "Survivor", where scheming, cut-throat tactics and winning at any cost is celebrated and rewarded. Abandoning scripted shows where the good guys always prevail, America seemed to love looking at it's own impaired morality, with dirty tricks and secret alliances all becoming acceptable or even admirable. Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" also encouraged participants to embrace the amoral environment of the business world and pounce on any weakness. Trump famously fired one contestant for helping another in one episode.
But the top-rated TV show in recent years has consistently been American Idol, a simple singing competition which gives you, the viewer at home, the "power" to decide on the winners. But the show is a circus of quirky personalities - from "bad cop" Simon Cowell, the bitterly acerbic judge who pounces on flaws - to the kinder, gentler Paula Abdul, whose flighty, confusing comments represent well the segment of Americans who know what they like but have trouble articulating themselves.