Maybe growing up in a political family has skewed my views on this, but I have a strong feeling that candidates should not make things up. To my mind if you say that there is Shariah law in two cities, one of which is no longer anything but a cemetery, and there is no Shariah law in the other, then your campaign and probably your career should be over. Instead Sharon Angle was able to keep doing and saying crazy things and garner more than 45% of the vote.
The question is, where did this acceptance of crazy behavior come from? Why is it that people like Carl Palladino can have a history of sending out e-mails that are patently racist or containing bestiality pictures, yet still be considered a viable candidate for Governor of New York? I think it has to do with TV but not TV news.
Not even a decade ago the TV show Survivor brought reality TV to the homes of millions of Americans. Since then many cable and broadcast networks have put up a myriad of "reality" based shows. They tend to fall into two types, competition shows where people vote for their favorites and, well, freak shows. One the one hand there are shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "American Idol" which encourage people to vote for who they like best and on the other there are shows like "Jersey Shore" and "Real Housewives of New Jersey".
The second set are basically venues for people to behave badly. Whether it is drinking too much, fighting with each other, sleeping with each other, fighting and sleeping with each other after drinking too much or crashing a State Dinner at the White House these shows thrive on the idea of people acting in ways that we as a society say we don't condone.
People like Snookie and the Situation from Jersey Shore become famous for being famous. Their misbehavior is rewarded. Hell, Snookie has a freaking book deal for a novel! A novel by someone who is best known for wearing closes that don't really fit and wondering around the boardwalk half in the bag!
It is this kind of reward for "being real" (which is code of being an asshole) that I think is making it easier for fringe politicians to do and say things that should end their career without consequences. If we are making heroes of lack wits who will say anything without a trace of self-restraint or self-awareness then it opens the door for politicians to do the same.
The other type of show plays into this as well. The shows like "The Bachelor" give us a process that is quite like a nominating fight. There are many who might run, but it is slowly whittled away to one winner. We get used to picking a person we like and hoping they win, even though we don't have very much say.
Voting shows are even more like an election cycle, as week after week fans of one contestant or the other make their voice heard. The winner is assumed to be the choice of the people, but that does not make them the best singer or dancer, just one that was the most popular with the voters for whatever reason.
All this trains the public in ways that might be good for reality TV but are bad for governance. We are seeing a desire to give the tough talking assholes more acceptance than they deserve. We are seeing a trend that really thinks that anyone can be an effective Governor or Representative or Senator, even if they have no political background or even understanding of how the legislative process works. This is part of the war on expertise that the Republicans have waged. If you have come up in politics by being local, then state wide then national, the very experience that will allow you to govern affectively is suspect.
Now we are about to see the full melding of reality TV and politics with "Sarah Palin's Alaska". A person who is openly toying with the idea of running for the president of the United States is going to have a reality TV show, boasting of Alaska's natural wonders. It has the potential to close the circle and completely blur the line between electoral politics and reality TV.
Is there anything that can be done about this? Probably not. Reality TV is the way it is because we like to see the freaks, we like to see the train wrecks, we like to see the competition and we like to have our voices heard. That this mirrors some of what we do to elect our leaders is unfortunate, but as long as it makes money for the TV channels and the advertisers it is going to go on.
I think all we can do is make it clear how crazy some of these candidates are. Sharon Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Ken Buck and probably Joe Miller all lost because the crazy was too high and they were in Senate races which get more attention. However there are plenty of bat-guano crazy Freshmen Representatives who held the same views as these four. They let their freak flag fly and the training that reality TV has given us allowed it to continue and was rewarded at the ballot box.
Calling out the radical and crazy things that the Right in this nation embraces is going to be a full time job for quite a while. It is more than just an electoral problem, it is a problem for us all when these types of folks get into positions of real power and can then push to have their uniformed and nutty ideas enacted. If you don't believe me just look at the very real possibility that some Tea Bagger Senator or Rep will vote to keep the debt ceiling where it and perhaps force a default of U.S. debt.
They are a freak show, but we can't let them be treated as friendly freaks like Snookie (Okay I am really bitter about that book deal, I admit it, Snookie has a book deal!!) but dangerous ones who should not be allowed a strong voice in our national debate. Call them out on every crazy idea from now on. It might be our only defense.
The floor is your.