What happens when politics turns into “reality” TV
Somewhat belatedly, I’ve been reading Julia Azari’s article on Bernie Sanders’ and Ted Cruz’s “electability” (or lack thereof) in this year’s American Presidential election. More than whether they are “electable” or not, I was interested in the article because this concern with “electability” – the idea that some candidates are inherently better or worse general election candidates than others – is something that I find deeply worrying about modern politics, not just in the United States but also here in Portugal: whenever a political party, be it in the United States, in Britain or the United States, selects a political candidate for any political office, their first concern – if not their only concern – seems to be whether said candidate can beat their opponents. Although understandable – parties naturally aim to win elections – the current excessive focus on “electability” in selecting a political candidate changes the nature of the political process, and not for the better.
Take the American presidential election: given the candidate’s troubled relationship with words and both their meaning and veracity, when Donald Trump scheduled a press conference on the day after a major Republican debate with Super Tuesday just around the corner, promising a “big announcement”, one couldn’t be blamed for being skeptical of how worthy of attention such an event would be. But in a campaign in which the unexpected has become the rule, Trump surprisingly delivered on his promise: as he stood behind a lectern and in front of the cameras in the Forth Worth Convention Center, Trump had Chris Christie by his side, the former Presidential candidate and current Governor of the State of New Jersey ready to formally – and shockingly – declare his endorsement of Trump’s candidacy to be the Republican Party’s nominee in this year’s race to the White House.
“I am proud to be here and endorse Donald Trump”, he began, before praising the New Yorker for his friendship. “Donald Trump is a person who when he makes a promise, he keeps it”, Christie proceeded, before going for what a football color commentator might describe as his “shot play”: “the single most important thing for the Republican party”, Christie claimed, “is to nominate the person with the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton”, and “the one person Hillary and Bill Clinton do not want to see on that stage, come next September, is Donald Trump”. “Undoubtedly”, the Governor said in a forced tone betraying his need to convince himself even more than the audience, “the best person to beat Hillary Clinton in November is Donald Trump”.
Almost immediately, the media jumped on Christie for his hypocrisy and careerist opportunism. After all, he had once claimed Trump “has not the first idea of how to run a government”, and he was now telling the American people they should vote for him; he had once stated that it was essential for the United States to reform Social Security, and he was now supporting a candidate who claims that America is going to be so rich that Social Security won’t be a problem anymore (a statement Christie himself mocked every chance he got); he had once nominated a Muslim judge to a New Jersey court, and he was now standing beside a man who thinks every Muslim should be prohibited from entering the country. But even those criticisms failed to pinpoint the true significance of Christie’s statement: he claimed, very clearly, that the single most important thing for his party was to nominate the person who would be better positioned to beat the Democratic candidate; it didn’t matter to Christie if that person promises to do the exact opposite of what he repeatedly said was necessary for America – all it matters to Christie is that he wins. In the Forth Worth Convention Center, Christie had said, without room for any misunderstanding, that one should vote not for who would be the best President if elected, but for who is the best at running for President during the campaign.
In that, Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump was one of the most symbolic moments of campaign as a whole. Perhaps more than ever before, the 2016 primaries show the transformation of the electoral process from a competition for who will be a better office holder into a competition for who is the best campaigner.
In a recent interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted his bafflement with the popularity of both the Vermont Senator and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and Blair’s successor as leader of his country’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, because of “the question of electability”: one person may approve of what candidates like Sanders say, but not everyone will agree, and any political candidate needs to “get the support to win in order that you can do things for the people that desperately need help”. Blair, in a sense, is obviously right: if a politician does not ascend to a position of power, he won’t be able to do what he believes in, and so a voter needs to consider his or hers prospects of convincing the greatest number of people that he or she will be the best office holder. But Blair is wrong in insinuating that it is somehow odd for such a great number of people to support an “unelectable” candidate like Sanders, for what should it matter to a Sanders supporter who believes – for example – Clinton’s ties to Wall Street would make her a bad President if she is likelier to get to the White House? What should it matter to a Rubio supporter if Trump is more effective in attacking Clinton, if that same Rubio supporter disagrees with Trump on every subject? If it is true that a politician needs to “get there” first in order to do some good afterwards, it is also true that no good will come of a politician “getting there” if the policies he or she will enact turn out to be detrimental to the country’s “best interests”. People who believe in Sanders don’t care (or care less) about is “unelectability” because they believe Clinton’s “electability” won’t translate into positive policies for the country’s future.
Blair may find “one of the strangest things in politics at the moment” that “when you put the question of electability as a factor in your decision to nominate a leader, it’s how small the numbers are that this is the decisive factor”. But if one follows the politicians, their debates and the media coverage of them, their “electability” and their respective abilities to manipulate it (their “campaigning skills”) are all that matters.
Marco Rubio, for one, was personally introduced to this reality during the New Hampshire primary. Christie – him again – was unfavorably comparing Rubio to President Barack Obama, probably the last thing the Florida Senator wants to see incepted into people’s minds. On the defensive, Rubio felt the need to distance himself from the man he wishes to replace, and proceeded to say “let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing”. Christie, as he is wont to do, jumped on it, mocking Rubio for repeating a line he constantly uses on his stump speeches. Somewhat ineptly, Rubio responded to this by once again repeating his line. Christie once again mocked him for it, and Rubio once more responded by repeating the line. “It looked like that sequence form the 1970’s thriller the Stepford Wives”, wrote Jonathan Freedland for The Guardian US, “when a software glitch reveals that a human-like character is in fact a robot”. Astonishingly, he actually managed to makes matters worse just a few days later, when in a campaign event in Manchester, he flubbed a line about raising his children in the 21st century, repeating it over and over, until the sentence made no sense at all. Ever since, Rubio was never able to establish himself as a leading Republican candidate, nor as the clear alternative to Trump.
Jeb Bush too fell victim to poor campaigning. After he dropped out of the race, The Guardian US ran a story on – an obituary of, really – his presidential hopes, claiming “the cracks in Jeb Bush’s candidacy for President surfaced before he formally entered the race”, when, in an interview with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly he failed to convincingly answer a question about what he would have done about Iraq “knowing what we know now”. Throughout his unsuccessful bid, Bush was bullied by Trump for his last name, his ties to the establishment and to big donors, and for generally looking “weak”. The moment in New Hampshire when he followed a few of his lines with asking his audience to “please clap” reinforced his perceived haplessness.
Chris Christie too was no stranger to being looked over as a prospective President simply for underperforming as a presidential candidate. Trump also called him “weak” (there’s probably not a single human alive who “the Donald” does not consider “weak”), and “a little child” (for hugging President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, a picture that still hurts him with Republican voters), and last December he was discouraging people from voting for Christie on the basis that “he can’t win because of his past” and the weight of the “baggage” he carries around.
This phenomenon is not an exclusive of the Republican campaign. Hillary Clinton, despite seeming to be on the verge of getting the Democratic nomination, is still dealing with concerns about her “electability”. An Annie Parnes story in The Hill quoted “people in Clinton’s orbit” who were “worried she doesn’t pass the would-you-like-to-have-a-beer-with-her test”; in The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein argued that her trouble in “connecting with young voters” would “pose a greater challenge if she wins the Democratic nomination”, considering this would be the first election in which “the Millennial generation will nearly equal baby boomers as a share of eligible voters, and Democrats need big margins from those young people”. As Christie seemed to insinuate in his endorsement of Trump, Clinton’s last name and closeness to “the establishment” would also make her an imperilled prey of Trumps populist rhetorical assaults. So it’s no surprise that Bernie Sanders has stressed that “electability matters”, and declared himself – no surprise there – as the more “electable” one, given his “substantial advantage over Republicans in the general election versus Secretary Clinton”.
Clinton, on the other hand, says it is the Vermont senator who wouldn’t be able to beat a Republican in a general election, and who would also hurt “the party’s prospects to win back the Senate and make inroads on Republicans’ wide House Majority”.
This extraordinary focus on electability and the campaigning skills of each candidate is a by-product of the political process’s much-mentioned-yet-little-understood growing resemblance of to “reality” TV: just like “celebs” nowadays are “famous for being famous”, political candidates run for office on a platform of being good at running for office.
There has always been a component of theatricality and performance in the pursuit and exercise of political power, as anyone with even the vaguest notions of Ancient Roman history or of the societal mores of the Versailles court will understand. As democracy slowly substituted other systems of selecting those who should hold the responsibility of public office, the need for performative talents became even more paramount. Whether it was the skilled oratory displayed in a parliament or in the bully pulpit, or the incantatory radio voice of a Roosevelt or a Baldwin, the human race did not have to wait for television to arrive for a politician with any aspirations to have to be a showman in one way or another.
What television did, however, was to bring the hitherto distant politicians into our homes, and more importantly, to our level. Radio had already made possible for the political leader to communicate directly with the anonymous voters in their own domestic comforts, but still did so in a way that reinforced at every moment the superiority and authority of the speaking pastor over the listening flock. Television, on the other hand, shows us the would-be leaders as “people like us”, who the more – or less – they appear to be like us, the better – or worse. On the one hand, television affords political candidates an immense power, that of communicating directly with huge numbers of people. On the other hand, it makes them wholly dependent on the latter’s perception of them, and on the narratives construed by the media around their personas. Just like “reality” TV stars are dependent on the audience’s perception of them and the narrative the producers of the show they’re in concoct around them. And the more political campaigns have become 24/7 television news-cycle and social media events, the more they adopt the grammar of “reality” TV.
A few years ago, the Kentucky essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan was assigned by GQ to spend a few days with some former Real World cast members on their “appearances” circuit. In the resulting piece he wrote for the magazine, Sullivan noted how “reality TV has successfully appropriated reality”: “you’re watching people caught in the act of being in a reality show”, which is “now the plot of all reality shows”. It’s the same with campaigning politicians: there must have been a time, way back when, when politicians campaigned in order to be elected to the office they were running for, but the act of campaigning was only a necessary effort to showcase the candidate as a prospective office holder; as years and years of modern, TV-and-internet-covered campaigns have established their own vocabulary as a variant of a “reality” show, the candidate no longer presents himself – nor is he evaluated – as an office holder to be; he is seen as a candidate, covered and evaluated for the way he performs the choreography we have come to expect of someone in his position, just like we have come to expect new Real World cast members to fall into one of the categories established in previous seasons of the show, as writer Chuck Klosterman observed many years ago in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. Supposed “reality” competitions like American Idol are in fact competitions to find out which contestant better replicates – that is, better fakes – our preconceived ideas of what a “star” is, of what an American Idol winner should look, sound and behave like. They might be lauded for their authenticity, but only inasmuch as it resembles the “authentic” ways in which previous winners presented themselves and managed to capture the voters’ sympathies. Likewise, campaigns are no longer devised to make us see what a candidate will be like if and when he gets elected – what his policies and choices are likely to be – but are instead meant to showcase how well does he overcome hecklers’ challenges, how craftily he manages to give an endless amount of speeches without ever saying anything with even the slightest vestige of meaning.
Klosterman once described Survivor, probably the most influential of all “reality” TV shows, as “a popularity contest based on lying”. Anyone who watched and remembers the season won by Richard Hatch will understand why: he approached the game with a strategy built on betraying people, and managed to beat the athletically superior rival by convincing the people he had betrayed that he deserved to win for betraying them: Sue, another contestant, compared Hatch to a “snake” that had treated the other participants – including herself – as “rats”, and then proceeded to announce she would vote for him to win precisely because he had acted like a “snake”. As elections and the campaigns that precede them have grown more and more like “reality” TV, we have come to think and behave more and more like Sue from Survivor: as the TV critic for The New York Times James Poniewozik recently wrote on Twitter, one of the keys to understand Trump’s popularity lies in his willingness to say and do things just “to win”, just because “it’s part of the game”, and in the voters’ “acceptance” – not to say embrace – of his attitude. In the political-campaigns-as-Survivor era, we too tend to admire the manipulator, the “Richard Hatchs”, the “Parvatis” and the “Todds” and “Courtneys” of the political world. Campaigns are now meant to show us men and women competing for who is better at deceiving us; we know that they are deceiving us; but because the mediated grammar of modern political campaigns has appropriated political life as much as the language of the Real World has appropriated the actual real world, we end up falling for the very deceit we are fully aware of being playing on us; we become as “complicit in the falseness of it all” as Sullivan noticed we had become about “reality” shows.
Klosterman argued that there was a paradox inherent to any “reality” show: “they have a nonfiction situation that is supposed to have no relationship to other nonfictions” – Real World cast members act as if their behaviour is not a replica of the behaviour of previous Real World cast members. Political campaigns have the opposite problem: they are a nonfiction – the day-to-day tasks of someone running for office – that is supposed to have a relationship with other nonfictions – the reality of daily life in a political community and the problems affecting it which the candidate purports to ameliorate if he wins the race – but said relationship is consciously faked: the candidate’s seeming nonfiction – his campaign – only pretends to be addressing anything that has something to do with the nonfictions of voters’ lives, thus turning political campaigns into fictions with an artificial relationship to other nonfictions.
Even people who are not familiar with the concept of postmodernity or its meaning are fluent in its vocabulary: because we live in a world that is inundated with “narrative” – a neatly organized simplification of the complexity of the world before us, a “story” presented to us in order to make some sense out of the multiple and random events of everyday life – we are aware that we are judging a product – a fiction – when evaluating a political candidate. We as voters have a cynical detachment from politics, because politics presents itself to us in a manner – a format – that invites cynicism and detachment.
Immediately after Rubio’s New Hampshire debate nightmare, @RubioGlitch already had its own twitter account, and Rubio had turned into a meme himself, likely dooming a campaign that probably never had enough chances of succeeding. But in mocking – and judging – Rubio for making a mess of his lines, with no consideration – either positive or critical – of his proposed policies, we made sure that the true – and more troubling – “glitch” is not Rubio’s, but that of democracy: in judging candidates not on the merits – or lack thereof – of their views, but instead on the quality of their performance, we judge them not as the future Presidents a democratic system presupposes us to evaluate them as, but as characters; we judged them based not on how good they would be for the country, but on how good they are at advertising themselves as product; we think like casting directors, not like voters; we turn real democracy into “reality” democracy, an approximation of the actually real thing that, while mimicking it, fails to be it.
In an essay in defence of reality TV, the great Heather Havrilesky mentioned Joe Schmo, a reality show that aired a few years ago, whose second season consisted of having two contestants fooled into thinking they were participating in a Bachelor-type dating show – Last Chance for Love – by a cast of actors pretending to be their potential romantic matches. One of them wised up to the ruse, and was then hired by the producers as an actress for the rest of season, so that the remaining contestant was kept unaware of the deceitful situation he was in. In political campaigns, the voters are the ones being fooled, except that we are fully aware of it, and we keep being a part of the hoax not to dupe someone else, but because we feel the show must go on (thus resembling I Wanna Marry Harry, in which every cast member obviously was aware that the show’s titular character was not actually Prince Harry, and yet kept pretending they did just so they could be on TV). Havrilesky noted how “the process of getting to know the characters, of discovering the qualities and flaws that define them, and then discussing these discoveries with other viewers creates a simulation of community that most people don’t find in their everyday lives”. Maybe it’s the same with our modern political campaigns of the Keeping Up With the Candidates-variety: maybe “real” democracy is just a way for us to convince ourselves that we have more power over our collective destinies then what we – both us voters with our limited influence in the political decision-making process, and the politicians with the various constraints on their ability to affect and improve people’s lives – do actually have. And maybe in that people can find some consolation in the case of a Trump victory in the upcoming election (or that of another “reality” candidate in any election anywhere): even if he does get elected, there are limits to the damage he can inflict.
Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico and a weekly commentator for its cable TV channel ETV, and has written for the American online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, for These Footbal Times and for the British website CapX. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also find him on Twitter @ba_lifeofbruno.