Our nation is moving toward a phenomenon we can understand as “pop politics”. We are seeing our political culture and our popular culture merge in ways it never has before, resulting in new and problematic attitudes regarding important issues faced by our country.
During the 2013 People’s Choice Awards, host Kaley Cuocco announced to viewers that 475 million people participated in voting for the show’s award winners. That is 3 times more than the amount of people who voted in the 2012 presidential election. Cuocco went on to say that according to a loophole in the Electoral College, our new president should be Taylor Swift. Although no such loophole exists, what does exist is our country’s growing need to be entertained, even when facing issues that we wouldn’t normally perceive as needing to have an “entertainment value”. The tidal wave of pop politics has reached our shores.
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Although we may ‘never ever ever’ seriously consider a ‘Swift 2016” presidential campaign, the idea of pop-culture icons having a place in the political world is nothing new. What is new, however, is the amount of pop-culture we are continually saturated with, and how this saturation is affecting the way we relate to political and social issues.
According to Nielson Ratings, the first presidential debate between President Barrack Obama and republican challenger Mitt Romney drew in 67.2 million viewers, the most viewers for the first of the three debates since 1980.
Who would have thought that Romney’s attack on Big Bird and Obama’s nap could make for such riveting T.V.? But pop politics strikes again, and that’s what we remember, and that’s what viewers unconsciously tune in to see. The slips ups, the mishaps, we watch the debates and discuss them with the same “omg tone” that we use when discussing the latest elimination on American Idol.
Consequently, due to pop politics, the line between what is important and what we keep in our lives for entertainment value has become increasingly distorted. This distortion is problematic as pop politics becomes more important than regular politics.
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According to a Pew Center for the People and Press study published in September 2012, those in the 18-to-29 age demographic are the biggest consumers of satire and entertainment, but score the lowest for consumption of news and factual information. Our pop-culture has always had fun at the expense of politics, but due to the new and overly pervasive nature of our popular culture, our country faces a crisis of changing priorities.
A change in priorities to the tune of pop politics doesn’t have to be a bad thing though. For example, when my favorite reality show comes on, I always make sure I stop whatever I’m doing so I can watch it. My favorite reality TV show is the presidential debates. I loved the part during the last episode when Romney talked about having binders full of women, but I think my favorite part was when Obama got all aggressive and told Candy Crawly to check the transcript. If the evening’s twitter feed was any indication, my favorite parts were pretty much the same as everyone else’s favorite parts. Seemingly, pop politics affords an incentive for staying up to date with politics.
However, while all of the commentary was entertaining, did anyone remember what they actually debated? This is part of what contributes to our larger issue. This new pop politics method of political participation runs the risk of causing us to base our vote not on what really matters, but on the superficial aspects of each candidate that our popular culture encourages us to focus on.
During an October 2012 broadcast on National Public Radio, author and television critic Bob Mondello argued that,
We have spent the last decade training the public to watch contests on television and then vote. American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, they all start with a field of candidates who compete against each other and then the TV audience determines who’s won.
The debates are set up similarly to reality competition shows. In both situations we are encouraged to watch for the purpose of reacting, but in only one situation does our reaction have the power to impact our paychecks, jobs, and personal liberties. The debates have always been set up this way, but only in the last 15 years have we experienced this onslaught of competition reality television.
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Now, we talk about debate performance, but not the issues debated on, and performance is what our culture has been conditioned to remember. Were they smiling or smirking? On a scale of Paul Ryan to Marco Rubio, how much water did each of them drink? Why do we care? As Mondello goes on to state,
We’ve left serious political discourse and entered White House Idol territory.
Could it be that pop politics has left our minds warped? Now all of this isn’t to say that satire and social media are negative additions to society’s political conversation. In a 2009 survey conducted by the USC Annenburg School of Communication and Journalism,
Those individuals who got their news from sources like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were actually the most informed individuals in the survey.
This makes sense because the jokes in these shows aren’t funny if you don’t know what they’re talking about. While shows based on satire shouldn’t be the only tool we use for information, they are a great stepping stone to get the public engaged in issues that really matter. Thanks to technology, we have many avenues of information available to us, but we need to make sure we are choosing the source of the information wisely, and not solely based on the pop politics trap.
If you get your news mostly from conservative or liberal centered news sources, why not change the channel or open another internet window and check out what a news source from the other side has to say? Better yet, read anything and everything you can get your hands on for a more well-rounded view on the issues.
In addition, we need to remain cognizant of the line between the things we say to poke fun at candidates, and the comments the candidates actually make. For example, Tina Fey’s impersonation of 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, made quips like, “I can see Russia from my house” part of the cultural lexicon. Unfortunately, many Americans actually believed that Sarah Palin had said those words.
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As in the case of Tina Fey and Sarah Palin, we may misunderstand information that has the power to change our entire perception of the candidate. We need to pay attention to what the candidates actually say and believe, and then we can listen to all the satire we want without fear of being misinformed. We will be able to embrace “pop politics” and make our new cultural reality something that works for us, not against us.
As we reflect back on the role pop-culture plays in our political consciousness, here is one last thing to consider. A January 4th 2013 petition posted on the official white house website is calling for the Obama Administration to authorize a recurring C-SPAN reality show featuring Vice President Joe Biden and his interactions with elected officials, foreign dignitaries, and everyday American families. Personally, I think this all sounds like a bunch of malarkey, but it certainly proves that the relationship between politics and popular culture has reached a new level. As the 2016 election season approaches and political parties consider who they want to represent them, the best choice to me seems pretty clear: vote Biden/Swift 2016.