American Spectacle: How Reality TV Has Redefined Our Cultural And Political Expectations

We as a culture are obsessed with pop-culture scandal and performance, with each news cycle being rife with the latest drama from Hollywood. Every day, we watch Entertainment Tonight and TMZ to stay abreast of the follies of out-of-touch celebrities whose careers – often their very lives – exist purely for our scrutiny. However, there exists another type of scandal that we as Americans love just as much to hate – political drama.

In the past half-decade, Washington has become as bad as Hollywood, with it’s signature blockbusters ranging from wide-reaching accusations regarding President Obama’s idealistic and religious affiliations, to media affiliates jumping at the chance to attach “-gate,” to the end of each new issue worthy of making headlines. In analyzing these twin obsessions with pop-culture and political scandals, performances, and crises, we can get to the bottom of our desire as a culture for spectacle, real or constructed.

First, the root of our obsession with sensation, popular culture. Before I go any further, I feel like I need to qualify that this is not a critique of the way things used to be versus the way they are now. This is simply an analysis of our reactions to and expectations of the entertainment we choose to view, and how they have impacted our culture at large. The adventures of Lindsay Lohan, Honey Boo Boo, the Duck Dynasty crew, and many, many other television and media icons draw us in like a lightning rod, and for a short time we forget about any intricacies or problems in our own lives, and are compelled to reflect and comment on the lives of the people on the other side of the screen. Long before the rise of today’s reality TV, sitcoms like Mary Kay and Johnny, I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver captivated an entire generation, giving America it’s first taste of what would grow into the popular culture hydra we know today. These early television gems, however, didn’t generate the scandal viewers crave today – Ricky never got drunk and punched Lucy in the face, Ethel never screamed obscenities at Fred, and Johnny was never thrown into the back of a police cruiser. For a few decades, entertainment and news media remained separated. It was the media’s foray into the entertainment business, and it’s penchant to sensationalize – or in some cases even fabricate – stories and headlines, as well as the turbulence of post-1950′s America, that were the driving factors for the type of television so prevalent today. As the 1960′s and 1970′s wound into the 1980′s and 1990′s, commonplace cultural elements in regard to televised media today came into their own. Entertainment Tonight started it’s run in 1981, and by the mid-1990′s, The Real World brought the concept of the reality show into the mainstream.

I believe that, with the advent of reality television, so came our obsession with spectacle and scandal. Viewing and speculating about the lives of others gave us, for the first time, a unique opportunity. With sitcoms, we lived vicariously; with the onset of reality shows, we were given our first chance as a culture to really live vicariously. It doesn’t take too much shrewdness on the part of a reality show producer, however, to realize that the viewing public doesn’t want to live a normal life vicariously. The answer to this assumption was the introduction of a competitive element in shows like Survivor and Big Brother, but soon even that wasn’t enough to satisfy our desire for entertainment. Reality show stars began to behave in more and more ways that were outside the norm, and we craved it. We were treated to our first tastes of the type of show so popular today, spectacle without consequence or repercussions, and we demanded more, with Hollywood and many other elements of mainstream media being happy to oblige us. This love of spectacle, the desire for scandals and crises wouldn’t be a problem in itself if it remained self-contained; trapped on the other side of the TV screen, being played out by people who’s tantrums and breakdowns had no effects on our lives. Unfortunately, this cultural addiction has evolved to take on a more direct role in our lives.

This brings me to the second, more insidious prong of our obsession as a culture with scandal – political drama. There has always been intrigue and scandal associated with politics, but the ones worth remembering, the real scandals, were actual issues in themselves. Watergate shook our faith as a nation in the political system during a time when we needed faith the most, and the Monica Lewinsky fiasco brought to light incidences of adultery at the highest levels of power. These scandals are not my focus, however, my aim are the more recent “scandals” and “crises” that have crippled our political effectiveness, more specifically, those generated with the aim to gridlock the Obama administration. Since 2008, many conservative elements in Congress have gone out of their way to malign the President at every turn. These Tea Party “patriots,” born, I believe, out of our need for spectacle, have ran a veritable smear campaign for the past six years that have made both themselves and their baseline Republican fellows, many of whom are trying their hardest to do good work for their country and electorate, look petty and reproachful, all because the ones with the loudest voices are the only ones who make it in front of the camera. Why do they cause such an uproar? Why do they scream and shout? Why do they have such a desire to pursue negative results?

The answer, I feel, is because of our obsession with the sensational. Politicians have become highly paid, taxpayer funded actors on the stage of the largest reality television show in history, with the single-minded goal of drawing attention to themselves, all at a detriment to the foundation of our political system. Gone are the days when the Congressmen and Congresswomen who had the most to say were given the floor, and ushered in are the days where a small group of individuals try collectively to repeal the Affordable Care Act fifty-one times with no results. Surely this small group of people – referred to as the “Suicide Caucus,” go figure – should have realized that any repeal attempt would be doomed to fail after the tenth try or so. Their critics call them ignorant and stupid. I believe they are the smartest members of the delegation of Congressmen, because they are giving their voters, and the American public at large, exactly what they want – sensation and scandal; they appeal to one portion of the population by giving them a figurehead to love, and to another portion by giving them someone to hate. These politicians stand, make grand declarations about patriotism, duty, and democracy, and follow these sentiments with criticisms of President Obama, claiming he is the exact opposite of everything they’re fighting for, but that’s it. They rarely propose meaningful legislation, instead focusing on making sure legislation proposed by the Democrats doesn’t make it through the House of Representatives. Rather than working to improve their party’s standing, they espouse wild conspiracy theories that will be addressed further on, all for the sake of the scandal they create, and the attention and time in front of the camera it gains them.

Their biggest play against the President was the infamous “Birther” movement. Falsified scandal at it’s finest, this appeal to thinly-veiled racism kicked the hornet’s nest in just the right way – everyone paid attention. Even if it was just enough attention to express disdain or disgust with the driving forces of the movement, it was attention nonetheless. The scandal gained such a following that the Obama administration gave it everything it wanted, including the President’s birth certificate. To those following at home, it was either a tacit admission of defeat of a weary appeasement to the howling delegation at the White House’s door. Just like reality TV, the actors in this wide-ranging drama were constantly being scrutinized, heckled and shadowed by the media, and just like reality TV, the viewing public watched with mixtures of intrigue, disdain, approval and disapproval, just like the catalysts of the movement wanted all along.

Next comes the last piece of the political actors’ show – crisis. The viewing public loves a good crisis situation. We love to watch people analyze and over analyze, we love to watch them scramble for solutions, and most of all, we love to see someone thrown under the bus. The Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979 whetted our appetite for blood, watching Jimmy Carter fumble endlessly for solutions, only to lose handily to Ronald Reagan, who solved the crisis seemingly with the snap of a finger. As above with scandals, real crises are often a staple of the geopolitical climate, and are often par for the course for any given presidential administration. However, the past few years have seen their fair share of generated issues, once again, with the goal of maligning and slowing down the Obama administration. Many minor issues, like the Department of Energy’s involvement with failed solar energy company Solyndra, were quickly raised and forgotten. However, many real issues that plagued the Obama administration, issues that had the potential to be taken very seriously, were driven by a Congress that had no interest in real results or solutions, only in causing as much trouble as possible. On September 11th, 2012, eleven years after the attacks that plunged America headlong into the War on Terror, a group of attackers assaulted a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya killing, among others, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Instead of what should have been a serious, mediated, and focused investigation into potential security deficiencies in post-civil-war Libya, the investigation was transformed into a circus – a frenzied, media-driven witch hunt spearheaded by Rand Paul and other Tea Party favorites, with the goal of pinning the blame as loudly as possible on anyone and everyone they could within the State Department and the Obama administration, convincing anyone willing to listen that Hillary Clinton and her associates were somehow aware of and complacent with the attack. Next came the long dreaded government shutdown. For fifteen days in October of 2013, the federal government locked down, ceasing many of it’s functions until fiscal appropriations legislation could be agreed upon. The primary source of disagreement was the continued funding of the Affordable Care Act, and the primary antagonists of this episode of political drama were once again the starlets of the extreme-right-wing, headed by Tea Party darling Ted Cruz (as an amusing aside, Cruz, a strong proponent of the Birther movement, was himself born outside of the United States, in Calgary, Alberta – a province of Canada. Such sweet, sweet irony).

These new actors want to do what Ronald Reagan did, sweep in and resolve a crisis; they want to come out on top of the heap, with the political capital and approval ratings to move mountains, and President Obama lying safely under the bus. Unfortunately for them, there were no crises to capitalize on, fortunately for them, they didn’t need one. All they had to do, in their minds at least, was to create the crisis, capitalize on the spectacle, and bam! Instant success. Unfortunately for us, this mindset is incredibly damaging to our political system. Serious instances of crisis for our government were hijacked by individuals who tried to turn them into a gravy train for their own benefit. In a system where any politician with access to a camera and a loud enough voice can create the spectacle they wish to star in and drive our system to a halt for their own gain, we the people who elected them to be our voice are instead given a back seat to their drive for political fame and power.

Finally, we find ourselves as a culture in a very shaky position. The reality television we have embraced has bled into the political sphere, creating a strange stage upon which congressmen act, not for our gain, but for theirs. The most paradoxical issues is that it seems we no longer care. Rather than actively taking the reigns away from those who wish only to destroy rather than create, we watch. Some watch with horror, some watch with apathy, and some watch with amusement, but the most critical point is that we all watch. We have, through lack of action, allowed ourselves to become complacent with letting our desire to live vicariously through reality TV morph into the framework through which we view our Congress. CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and other news affiliates have become the circulatory system for this desire, more often than not allowing only the congressmen and women most devoid of content in front of their cameras. Reality television, although strange and almost entirely worthless, was harmless. We watched as people made fools of themselves day after day, but it never hurt us. Now, we have let this same mindset creep into a forum where the actors can actually influence our day-to-day lives, and it doesn’t seem to be worrying anyone. As it stands now, we have taken our desire for spectacle – our craving for scandal and crisis – and have shifted our viewing lens from the television set to the floor of Congress, and we watch. Day after day, we watch the drama unfold, perhaps hoping for more, seemingly unaware that our original innocuous desires to view the spectacle we love have now morphed into a high stakes game where that spectacle can, and has, actually hurt us, and will continue to do so until we step forward, turn off the television, and say otherwise.

(Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)