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2010 Elections: Reality Show Politics?

4 years ago
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While the chattering classes and commentariat keep defining 2010 as an anti-incumbent, pro-woman political year, another dimension to this midterm election season might ultimately prove to be more significant. Outsiders, with varying backgrounds and in growing numbers, are stepping up to run for electoral offices across the country.
Tuesday's California primary put two successful business executives, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, at the top of the Golden State's Republican ballot for November, with Whitman seeking the governorship and Fiorina vying for the U.S. Senate. Ophthalmologist Rand Paul proudly tells Kentucky voters he's "a career doctor, not a politician," as he campaigns for the Senate. In Florida, Rick Scott, a health care industry entrepreneur, is using the slogan "We need a conservative outsider to hold government accountable" in his drive to win the GOP gubernatorial primary on August 24.
Since 1976, outsiders have dominated presidential politics. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all positioned themselves as distant from Washington ways to win the White House. The only exception is George H.W. Bush in 1988, and many analysts think voters, in part at least, supported him to applaud the Gipper and his policies for a third time.
Now, however, outsiders abound across the political landscape, and you see their participation at every level. According to a recent Associated Press report, more than 2,300 candidates are running for the 471 House and Senate seats being contested in 2010. That number, certainly enhanced by the Tea Party movement, far exceeds the usual tally of involvement.
New blood for the body politic can bring fresh perspectives into all phases of government and introduce what Reagan called the viewpoint of the "citizen-politician" into democratic deliberations. But one wonders whether something else -- and less salutary -- might also be afoot this year.
To intrude an impertinent yet possibly relevant question: Is it possible that some of the characteristics of "reality" programming on television are becoming an even greater part of our politics?
Think about it: Whether we're considering "Survivor," "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" or "The Real Housewives of D.C.," we are talking about amateurs performing on television, who then become (in historian Daniel Boorstin's famous definition of celebrity) "known for well-knownness." These people-cum-stars think they can do something and showing their activities as a TV program makes it so. Fame and fortune follow.
Interestingly, Sean Duffy, who was a star of the MTV production "The Real World" back in 1997, is currently pursuing the Republican nomination for the House seat (Wisconsin's Seventh District) that Democrat David Obey is vacating. The primary is Sept. 14, and Duffy, now a district attorney in Ashland County, Wis., isn't running from his previous alcohol-filled and duly recorded exploits, according to campaign accounts.
Then, of course, former governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is planning her own eight-episode TV show, "Sarah Palin's Alaska," about the peculiarities of living in the 49th state, and this adventure drives home how porous the borders can be between politics and the media today.
Stripped to its essentials, the designation anti-incumbent also means anti-government and anti-experience, with outsider status having a natural and genuine appeal in such an environment. The novelty of the new is also seductive to many Americans.
However, again to be impertinent, are complicated times the right moment to turn in large numbers to people who might need some on-the-job training in order to command the levers of government? What's reasonable to expect from those who in another line of work would be considered amateurs?
These are questions voters will face in evaluating all of the outsiders in upcoming primaries and in the November elections. As TV announcers are wont to declaim: Stay tuned.
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Robert Schmuhl is Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.

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