The night is abuzz in Greenville, SC. The theatre is packed to the rafters, humming with anticipation. Suddenly, patriotic music begins to blare, and the opening montage flashes across the towering screens on the stage. A roar rises from the crowd. The stage is awash in dazzling blue and red light as each competitor strides out, met with a wild cheer from their supporters. This could be a scene from the beginning of any mildly popular reality television show. However, the stakes for this competition are set a lot higher than a million dollars or a new car, and the winner will gain a much snazzier title than “the Next American Idol”– they could end up as “the Republican Presidential Candidate,” or if they really play their cards right, “the President of the United States.”
If you’ve been even slightly interested in the current American elections, you may have caught a glimpse of this baffling phenomenon. Whether it was the South Carolina Republican Debate previously described, or any one of the other debates that have occurred in the run-up of this election, there has been a noticeable shift of focus from quality of discussion to the standard of production. Not that the majority of American people seem particularly turned off by this; the fourth republican presidential debate brought in over 13.5 million viewers, and staked its claim as the highest rated program in the history of the Fox Business Network. Obviously, the networks know what they’re doing. However, it begs the question– why are Americans so unconcerned that their political discourse is more Seacrest than Socrates?
The truth is, our society has been wired to expect constant stimulation. We no longer have patience for the politics of the past, for the old men droning on about ideology and responsible government for hours on end. In the current world of 140 characters or less, our attention is painfully hard to win over. Even if it happens to be drawn to politics, it only hesitates for a moment before flipping to the next channel. The fact that Americans can hardly spend a moment listening to the person who may be the next leader of their country is a predictable forecast of the apathy come election time. America’s voter turnout rate is one of the lowest of all developed countries, and one of the most frequent excuses is that “it just takes too long” (in the words of a 2014 survey by The California Voter Foundation). It’s no wonder that news channels have put their own reality-themed twist on politics; sacrificing content is a small price to pay if people are starting to pay attention.
Of course, the loss is much greater than a few less talking points in a television debate. With the decline of discussion and the increase in spiel, so many of the actual issues Americans are facing lose airtime to make room for propaganda. The lack of intensity makes it that much easier for politicians to dodge particularly pointed questions, and the nature of the debates themselves is more that of a high school shouting match than an insightful political critique. However, most importantly, it allows the media to control the content to which Americans are exposed. With carefully scripted talking points, skillful editing processes, and control over a wide range of news outlets, these corporations have an uncomfortable amount of influence over the things we read and watch on our screens. At best, this means that only a select few opinions concerning controversial matters are widely heard; more nefariously, this could mean the conditioning of voters to elect the featured few chosen by media conglomerates.
It’s a dangerous process, and there are no signs of it stopping in the near future. While it is difficult to make a difference as an ordinary citizen, there are still steps one can take to avoid having their political understanding distorted by the media. Of course, the most crucial effort one should make is to simply do their own research. If the media is not properly holding politicians accountable, it is the responsibility of every member of the voting public to do so, and the only way this is possible is if citizens have solid background information on their potential representatives. It can be as easy as following a diverse range of political analysts on Twitter, or reading a few different articles on a candidate’s statement instead of stopping at one. Yes, it is effort spent that could have gone into your own busy schedule; but, in all honesty, wouldn’t you have spent that time on Facebook anyways?
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