In a nation whose popular culture is dominated by reality television, it is no surprise that our politics function in the manner that they do. With that in mind, it is crucial that we Americans, as the people embodied by this culture, do in fact have control over the direction of our dynamic social philosophy. Last week the highest rated (non-sporting event) television show in the primetime block was ‘Dancing with the Stars’, boasting over 16 million viewers (data via Nielsen). Adjusting the sample to include only cable network shows (again excluding sporting events) shows us that ‘Duck Dynasty’ led the pack with an astounding 9.4 million viewers. This past week also included the penultimate episode of the critically acclaimed (and highly viewed) ‘Breaking Bad’ series, yet ‘Duck Dynasty’ maintained viewership nearly 150% that of the hit series. The reality of reality television is that our nation demands it, and rewards networks for fulfilling that desire.
There are a myriad of television shows currently on air like ‘Duck Dynasty’: from the Kardashians’ arsenal of fame exploitation, to MTV’s hits including ‘Teen Mom’. Some reality shows, such as ‘Top Chef’ actually display individuals with particular expertise. Others portray characters with legitimate accomplishments – the ‘Duck Dynasty’ central family for instance have a successful business – but these somewhat legitimate reasons for being on television have very little to do with why we watch reality TV. We watch for the drama and, in many cases, the chance to feel better about ourselves by laughing at the truly sad state of the casts. Viewers hope for problems to arise, and just about every episode of every one of these series appears readily able to provide us with a limitless supply of troubles. As a nation, it seems that we have transitioned to a point where we think real life consists of the same manufactured type of drama that reality TV requires.
At this point most of you must be wondering, “What the heck does this have to do with politics?” The answer is that this demand for dramatics, and the acceptance of a reality television framework as true reality is just as apparent to politicians as it is to network executives. Whether reality television created this desire in our culture, or if it was merely a response to the existing craving is unclear, and frankly irrelevant. The important aspect of this issue is that it now has become so pervasive that it has extended into the world of politics and beyond. It has become in a politician’s best interest to explain her idea or perspective in the most dramatic fashion. Though Americans typically voice disgust at political advertisements bashing an opponent, we still prove the strategy is effective through our voting results — at least to a degree. During political discourse Americans picket, march, scream, and yell to defend deeply polarized ideals, but infrequently (if ever) show the same emotional response for the compromises necessary to actually accomplish anything.
In one of my favorite reality TV shows, ‘Congress’, there was one clear example of our currently polarized and highly charged political environment in this weeks episode: the budget ‘crisis’. (Framing the discussion as a ‘crisis’ of course elicits a greater emotional response in people, furthering the connection with dramatics, but that can be a discussion for another day.) As us regular viewers have grown accustomed to, we have seen Democrats steadfastly cling to a policy, while Republicans, with equally unyielding ferocity, attempt to pry it away. At stake is the funding with which the entire country’s government requires to run. Grab your popcorn, with this much on the line, there is bound to be plenty of dramatic jibes. During this week’s episodes, we met a new character, Ted Cruz.
So, who is Ted Cruz? It’s a question that, just a week ago, would have left nearly all of us comprising the voting public with a quizzical expression on our faces – only the die-hard fans of the show may have known this character. The lack of recognition was fully acceptable – by no means was a deficiency of Ted Cruz knowledge a point of shame. Until his 21-hour monologue (perhaps worthy of recognition this Emmy season, look out Cranston!), Ted Cruz was far from a household name. The Senator from Texas took the floor to combat the largely Democrat led Senate from re-including the Affordable Care Act in the approved budget. This discussion is taking place following the House having passed a version excluding ‘Obamacare’ categorically. Both sides at this point are merely jockeying for position, as they each know full well that neither would accept the unaltered wishes of the opposing party.
Though it may seem obvious that if they know the proposed solution is not feasible, then it would make sense to attempt some concessions, but these politicians know that the American people want to first see a fight. Both parties ignorantly jabbering about the extols of their stance has proven to be a wonderfully inefficient way to accomplish a polarized standoff. Cruz played his part in the drama by filling the hours of his filibuster with numerous unrelated topics. The writers of ‘Congress’ added a humorous piece of irony to Cruz’s part, having him read ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ – he calmly read a children’s story about blind refusal without proper consideration as a room full of grown adults elected to lead our nation were declining to deliberate alternative perspectives on the budget.
For America, the topics currently being discussed by Congress are wildly important. These conversations will help to shape how the nation progresses with healthcare. Changes in the budget alter the impact of the federal government in nearly all of its capacities. With a complete governmental shutdown lingering dangerously close to reality, action must be taken, and quickly. In reality, we will likely see a last minute deal that postpones the issue until next time, thus ensuring more drama for future seasons. The government already only recoups 81 cents per dollar it spends, meaning national debt will continue to rise at an alarming rate until significant compromises occur – meaning this storyline will not go away anytime soon. The only problem is ‘Congress’ isn’t a TV show. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on these issues, we care about the characters in the drama. We encourage media outlets to give us stories about a politician’s personal life instead of his policies by clicking on articles about the former not the latter.
What keeps me hopeful about this situation is that in America, we the people still fully control our government. In fact, we control popular culture as well. If we, as a society, decide to stop watching ‘The Kardashians’ over factual news programs, the TV Guide will reflect that change. The day Bill Clinton’s presidency is more commonly known for its political details rather than infidelity is the same day we decide to focus on topics that really pertain to the entire population. We should quote figures, not characters; know why over whom. Use this knowledge to formulate an opinion rather than regurgitating someone else’s statements. Remember, the difference between reality television and real life politics is you. We are not viewers, but participants. You have a voice, are impacted by the results, and you have the capacity to elicit change.