What’s the most important and most talked-about election in the United States today? Although political candidates have their fans — and some people would say the presidential election gets the most attention — I’d say more people passionately care about voting for their favorites on American Idol. What’s more, the level of public discourse today has gotten so bad that the presidential campaigns might not do any better than American Idol at addressing things that matter.
In 2008, there were 132.6 million votes cast in the general election for president in the United States. Just last month, American Idol attracted 122.4 million votes one week. So while the presidential election is still barely in the lead, the gap is small and shrinking. What’s more, if you took everyone who voted at least once in a season of American Idol, I’m betting that total would be higher than the total who voted for president. (Yes, I’m ignoring the facts that people can vote more than once for American Idol and that there are no qualifications to vote. Still….)
The 2006 movie “Idiocracy” was a campy comedy exploring the notion that people are getting less and less intelligent. (See the trailer here.) Although the movie wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece — and got only mildly positive reviews — I can’t be the first person to feel as though we’re getting closer every day to living in that world.
Even if you still believe in the morality of majoritarian systems, the truth is that political campaigns are looking more and more like entertainment today. We’re reaching the point that ads are meant to entertain us and appeal to the lowest common denominator. (Look at this current independent ad running in California as an example.) The idea of democracy was that it would be a “marketplace of ideas.” What we have today has nothing to do with ideas and everything to do with pandering to idiots.
Our elections are about entertaining and shaping people’s opinions about reality. What they’re not about is the reality that it’s impossible for anyone to do everything that people have come to expect a modern government to do. If you’re still participating in the electoral system, you’ll have the comfort of knowing that you’re “doing your duty” as a part of the civic religion, but you won’t be making any more of a real difference than those who vote for American Idol.
American Idol is pablum, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything except pablum. It doesn’t pretend that it’s about idea and that it’s serious about solving the world’s problems. In that way, it’s more honest than modern electoral politics.
The sooner we quit wasting all of our time, money and effort on campaigns that can’t be won, the sooner we can find realistic alternatives that will erect a wall of safety between us and the people for whom American Idol is the height of intellectual development.