By Allison Antram, Managing Editor
Bright-eyed hosts welcome millions of at-home viewers to the live show. Questions and conversation are prompted by social media. The contestants are set to face off and the crowds scream for their favorites.
Reality television? Not so much. Try the Republican Debate from August 6, and all of the political theater that has gone on since.
Regardless of my own political beliefs, I watched that debate with a mixture of confusion and annoyance – not necessarily at the candidates, but at the way the debate was presented. There were pointed questions, less-than-respectful responses and profuse mudslinging. And it’s not the old and tired, I-hate-politicians problem I’m getting at here. My concern is this – when I was watching what should have been a dignified conversation between our potential future presidents, I felt like I was watching a reality TV show.
Many of us have read, watched or obsessed over The Hunger Games series, written by Suzanne Collins. However, few know she drew her inspiration while channel-flipping between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq War – she saw the connection in the combination of the significant and the superficial. We all look upon this fictional world in horror as the contestants are set against each other in a battle to death, all for the apparent benefit of the country. Aside from the death part, doesn’t election season feel like that sometimes? I think Collins was onto something in her observation of the wide-sweeping, all-consuming culture that is television.
The problem with that is this – television is primarily a form of entertainment, and a medium driven by scripts, social appeal and viewership. How does that then reflect on our election? Watch any debate, and nearly every candidate will be guilty of bashing their opponents and virtually all moderators will be guilty of throwing out a biased question. Candidates willing to be straight-forward are embraced with applause; a breath of fresh air (or rather, a slap in the face) in the pollution of convoluted political speak. This also frequently comes at a shortage of respect, humility or tact and channels a kind of shock value that leaves America wide-eyed on the edge of our seats. How and when should shock value find its place in a presidential campaign? It appears as if we are becoming more concerned with entertainment and popularity rather than with politics or character.
Meanwhile, most politicians have their good ideas and admirable qualities that can be easily overlooked, as what we largely know about them are chopped video clips, misconstrued quotes and the latest joke about their haircut. For instance, the infamous first televised debate in 1960 was between Nixon and Kennedy. Following the debate, Nixon’s popularity plunged while Kennedy’s sky-rocketed; an article in Time Magazine (“How The Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World”) explained that “those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner,” and even more, “many say Kennedy won the election that night.” And this was not because of his responses – it was because he presented himself far better. As a consequence, now we don’t just consider who has the best policies, we have to also consider who would look best or who could debate well. While I can appreciate the value of media and the ease of information, it obviously comes with the distraction of appearance and the many downsides of limited perspective.
Debates aside, advertising has also become a huge part of political campaigning, which adds to the emphasis on appearance and extends the mudslinging we get a taste of in the debates – and it’s only becoming a larger medium. In 2014, political advertising costs reached a record $2.4 billion, which is a $100 million increase from 2010, according to a Washington Post article (“With political ads expected to hit a record, news stations can hardly keep up”). Another article in Washington Post said that in the 2012 election in particular, Obama spent $404 million on ads, topped by Mitt Romney’s $492 million. The worst part? 85 percent and 91 percent of their respective ad budgets was spent on negative ads (“Mad Money: TV ads in the 2012 presidential campaign”). It’s no surprise that election season is sometimes called “the spending race.”
Clearly, television has become a huge, pretty much unavoidable, part of the election process. And as a consequence, campaigns have become increasingly driven by who stands out more – appearance, wit, trash-talking, or otherwise – in a notoriously busy and uninformed society. Elections have become more about pretty smiles, playing dirty and some hefty pocket change. Reality TV, anyone?
But there’s a reason this political medium is here to stay – it works. That’s how candidates win votes and get our attention. That’s how television networks get more viewers. I write this not to complain about the problem, but to make us aware of it, and challenge us as young voters to rise above it. If we want to shed our reputation as an ignorant generation, or if we want to see our future president as more than a good entertainer, let’s not be so easily amused. Do your research outside the highlight reel. Value leadership qualities like integrity, respect and humility. We need to stop applauding for what is simply popular, easy or provocative — it is crucial, because the games have inevitably begun.
Presidential candidates, may the odds be ever in your favor.