Ever since Survivor conquered the ratings boards at the turn of the century, reality television has been the meat and potatoes of prime time. America’s fervor for gossip and conflict has culminated in Fox’s hit series American Idol. But it seems as though America’s newest diversion is something that wasn’t originally intended to be pure entertainment – it’s the presidential campaign.
I use the word “diversion” because it connotes a trivialization of the election process, a trend that has poisoned the political discussion in the media and in the “real” world. Issues that are relevant to the health of our nation are almost completely ignored, and when they are not ignored they are boiled down to easy-to-memorize phrases that are fed relentlessly to the ignorant masses, seemingly designed to eliminate any critical thought.
Last-minute undecided voters are the worst. We all see these people on television on the even of an election: the diverse roomful of undecideds that watch the most recent debate and channel their opinions into a little dial that rates the impact of a candidate’s words. They aren’t thinking critically about the issues, they simply salivate at the mention of key words such as “energy independence” like a Pavlovian dog. The most hilarious thing about these people is the way they furrow their brows and pretend to give well-informed responses when, in fact, they look more like desperate children trying to emulate adults. It’s as if they can pretend for a moment that they’re not the kinds of people that go home every night to bathe in the corpse-colored glow of their televisions and listen to their brain cells die.
Many people, with the exception of those scholarly undecided voters, have selected a favorite candidate for this election. Ask someone why they support a particular candidate and, more often than not, you’re going to get an answer that is eerily similar to an answer you’d receive about a favorite American Idol contestant. During the 2000 presidential election, one woman was going to vote for George Bush because, she said, “He’s cute.” Another woman, more recently, felt that Barack Obama is the best candidate for the presidency. Why? “Because it’s his time,” she said. When pressed for details, more vagueries ensued. Many people have mentioned that they will vote for Mr. Obama or Hillary Clinton simply because we have never had a black or female president.
Take the most recent ABC Democratic Presidential “debate,” for instance. Moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos saw fit to pack the first half of the “debate” with questions concerning the use of the word “bitter” and the patriotism of Mr. Obama’s lapel. At one point they actually asked him, “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?”
I don’t know what in God’s name any of that has to do with policy or the presidency. But I’m damn sure some pseudo-scholar is going to blow a load talking about this rancid pith to his friends while staring at his eclectic image in the spring of Narcissus. What this poor sap doesn’t realize is that he’s been the victim of a Royal Media Mind Fuck.
The media does nothing to remedy the situation. In fact, it’s the disease. The amount of media coverage for conflicts such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright situation or Hillary Clinton’s substantial roster of discarded campaign managers is grossly disproportionate to any intellectual political discourse, such as our medieval health-care system or the war in Iraq that everyone seems to have forgotten. (Not that these issues are irrelevant, they are simply over reported.) A recent survey showed that only around a quarter of Americans are aware that the U.S. marine death toll has climbed to over 4,000. The ignorance stems out of a zombie-like adherence to gossip-style conflict.
I’m not asking for much. People shouldn’t be judged simply because they’re politically ignorant. That’s certainly not why I’m criticizing these people. I’m criticizing them because, despite their ignorance, they case a ballot. People vote for American Idol contestants for their charm, their looks and their charisma. These are the wrong reasons to vote for a presidential candidate. If a person cannot articulate precisely why a particular candidate best represents that person’s interests, then that person should not vote.
There is wisdom in admitting what you don’t know. It is said that the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates was told by the Oracle of Delphi that he was the wisest man in the world. He didn’t believe her, and proceeded to conduct numerous interviews with Athens’ finest: heads of state, great poets, artists and orators. He came to the conclusion that these people didn’t know half as much as they claimed to, and decided that he was the wisest man not because he was knowledgeable, but because he was the only person wise enough to admit that he was ignorant.
It is our civic duty to seek out relevant information. It’s important to vote, but it’s more important to be sure that our vote is informed.