Ever since the show ‘Survivor’ conquered the ratings board 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, and now we have a slew of tabloid trash on the air.
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. They are seemingly designed to eliminate any critical thought, or exploit the lack of it.
Last-minute undecided voters are perhaps the greatest representation of our political degeneracy. We all see these people on the eve of an election, and they will be staining our television screens soon enough. They are 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 entertaining 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 a knowledgeable adult.
Many people, with the exception of those scholarly undecided voters, have selected a favorite candidate for this election. Ask someone why he or she supports 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 reality TV show contestant.
During the 2000 presidential election, one woman was going to vote for George Bush because, she said, ‘He’s cute.’ These people haven’t gone away, and they certainly have no particular party affiliation.
Let’s take a look at the recent presidential forum at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Pastor Rick Warren saw fit to ask the candidates what, as a president, they should do about evil. ‘Defeat it,’ was McCain’s response, and it was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
The statement was bold. The response was right on cue. I have to admit, it makes a good sound byte.
If there had been respondents channeling their opinions into a dial, the approval for that statement would have shot through the roof. But these people aren’t really thinking. It would be prudent to meet that statement with a bit of cynicism. Does anyone really expect a president to defeat evil by the end of his first term? Maybe it takes two terms to defeat evil.
The media does nothing to remedy the situation. In fact, it’s the disease. The amount of media coverage for conflicts such as Bristol Palin’s teenage pregnancy or John Edwards’ affair 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. As of March, only around a quarter of Americans realized that the U.S. marine death toll had 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 one cannot articulate precisely why a particular candidate best represents their 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 really didn’t know anything, 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 relatively informed.