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The Reality of Voting
By Damon Circosta
Published: Sep. 6, 2010
RALEIGH - Tell me if you have seen this television show: A dozen or so impossibly beautiful twenty-somethings are being filmed as they interact with each other. Every few seconds, the camera cuts to a documentary-style interview where one of the participants explains the unfolding drama. Later, there will be some kind of vote and one of the contestants will be asked to leave.
Sometimes the scene is a rented mansion in California, other times it’s in the jungles of the South Pacific. But the real allure of reality television is the drama created by the voting. We tune in to see what alliances are taking shape, who is building coalitions and ultimately who gets voted off.
Shows like “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and ABC’s newest edition, “Bachelor Pad,” have made the concept of voting sexy. It is one of the most profitable and widespread television formats on the globe. But while it is exciting to see reality television’s version of democracy played out for our entertainment, our real democracy may be suffering because of it.
The underlying theme in these programs is that the way to succeed is by being disingenuous and cutthroat. Time and again we see the sneaky villain win the big prize because she was willing to do whatever it takes to advance in the game. Backstabbing and duplicity win out over cooperation and mutual allegiance.
In a real democracy, the only way to achieve anything is by forming lasting coalitions based on mutual goals. Government works best when the “players” are dedicated to working with each other for the common good.
Not so on reality TV. Filming usually lasts only a few months, and the format is designed to create the drama that drives the ratings. On reality TV there is no incentive for the contestants to forge lasting relationships or mutual trust.
But it’s just a TV show, right? How could this possibly harm our democratic form of government? Well, no one is saying that Congress is going to conduct its sessions in the Outback or start voting each other off an island. But in a very real sense, reality TV is changing our underlying expectations about what is appropriate behavior in a democracy.
Instead of sending our representatives to the Capitol with the assumption that they will work together to achieve common goals, we expect them to “do what it takes” to win. This manifests itself in several ways.
Our elections are less about setting policy direction and more about beating the other team. Our legislative debates aren’t about explaining ideas, but scoring rhetorical points. Cutting deals is the norm and going back on those agreements is all too common. We expect our politicians to play to win, even if that means skirting the edge of ethical behavior.
Subtly, perhaps even subconsciously, reality TV has trained us to view situations where voting occurs to be like a cage match, where anything goes. It has perverted the idea that democracy is a process designed to engage everyone in common purpose, into the idea that it is yet another system to be gamed.
No one expects our government to fail because network TV has taken a liking to shows where the scantily clad engage in a pseudo-democracy. But when we lose sight of the idea that our government was conceived as a means to work together to sort out our differences, we lose something much more valuable than the prize these shows award their scheming contestants.