'Idol' thoughts on American politics

May 21, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

The phenomenon known as "American Idol" has captured America's attention like nothing I can remember.

There have been talent shows before - "Star Search" and "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour" are two of the ones I recall. But in its fifth season, "Idol" has become fodder for morning-after water-cooler conversation - and impassioned arguments - in thousands of workplaces across the nation.

How successful has the show been? Variety, the show-business daily newspaper, on May 7 reported that the show draws from 27 million to 34 million per episode. To buy a 30-second ad on the May 24 finale for this year's season will cost what Variety says is a "budget-popping $1.3 million."

And, as Franklin Foer points out in the current issue of The New Republic magazine, some contestants have received more votes than candidates for president. That connection has already been turned into a movie called "American Dreamz" that starred Hugh Grant in the Simon Cowell role.


Reviews were mixed; according to Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips, it was because writer-director Paul Weitz was too nice to skewer any of the targets the script presents.

It also failed to answer the key question: Why have Americans gotten so obsessed with a show that has much less to do with their daily lives than the political process?

Let me offer a few answers and some suggestions on how the political process might learn from this phenomenon:

"Idol" is popular because people actually believe their vote counts. On May 2, Lisa de Moraes, TV columnist for The Washington Post, reported on a survey done by Pursuant Inc., a Washington, D.C. public opinion research firm.

The study reported that 35 percent of "Idol" voters believe their votes for would-be winners count more than their votes in a presidential election.

Why would that be? De Moraes speculated that it might be because "Idol" has no Electoral College to interfere with the idea that one vote really equals one vote.

I doubt it. I've voted for more than 30 years and I never think about the Electoral College when I'm in the voting booth.

I believe the answer is simpler. On "Idol," you can see and hear exactly what you're getting. When you see candidates at the presidential level, they're scripted to the point where someone who seems knowledgeable about the national economy may know little more than what's in his or her crib sheets.

And when "Idol" voting is over, there is a clear difference between the winners and the losers. In national politics, it seems that our elected officials have become less important than Wall Street or other market forces. Why else would those officials, who are fully aware of the fact that the U.S. is a society built around the idea of cheap automobile travel, fail to deter the current run-up in gasoline prices?

We elect people to Congress based on their pledges to stay for only two terms, then watch as they spin a rationale for sticking around longer. We elect people to Congress based on a pledge to be frugal with our tax dollars, then watch as they incur record amounts of debt. "Idol" contestants might not be up to running the country, but if they say they can sing Elvis tunes well, they'd better, or they don't get our votes.

Here's my proposal for changing our system of evaluating candidates:

Hold televised "town meetings," but not with audiences packed with candidates' volunteers. Have people write in for tickets and have them drawn at random.

When audiences arrive at the studio, names would be drawn again and the lucky ones would step to the microphone for a chance to ask their question.

The rest of the audience would have keypads and would vote on the quality of the question. If the question were judged a "softball" or nonsensical, the candidate wouldn't have to answer it.

If the question did pass muster with the audience, the person asking it would win a prize - so many dollars to a favorite charity, perhaps.

Then when the candidate answered, the audience would vote again, with vote totals posted almost immediately. For the candidate, the premium would be on answering honestly. Saying "I don't know" would be taken as a sign of truthfulness as opposed to an indication of ignorance.

Would this be undignified or would it encourage superficiality? Perhaps, but is there anything more superficial than those TV "attack ads," which attempt to turn one vote or statement into proof that the targeted candidate is evil incarnate?

Am I stupid for thinking about politics in this way? Maybe, but not thinking about ways to get more people involved in the political process would not only be stupid, but irresponsible.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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