American Idol vs. American Elections

By Liz Egan

America is gearing up for the 2008 presidential election, and pundits are already chomping at the bit. Among the many pre-election guessing games that have yet to heat up is the speculation of voter turnout. Participation rates in American presidential elections and the TV show American Idol have sometimes been compared. In two hours’ time, American Idol collects as many as 35 million votes; in an entire day, 122 million Americans cast their vote for president in 2004. Why do these two elections experience such a difference in participation rates? I believe the difference may be summed up by one word: information.

The viewer of American Idol has everything he needs to know laid out right in front of him. The first episode communicates the volume of the contestants and the wide range of their abilities, and the thousands are narrowed down by the show’s producers and talent judges (Paula, Simon et al) to yield a batch of contestants upon whom the show focuses its attention. This is not altogether unlike the American political process. Anyone meeting an established set of criteria may run for president. A select group of candidates is narrowed down through primary elections and political conventions, and then those left standing are offered up to the voting public. Also not unlike the American political process, the best man does not always win on American Idol, and it is true that many people base their votes on more than just who sings best—who is prettiest, who seems kindest, whose hard life is most “deserving” of this big break, and who is representing a hometown are all factors that enter into the American Idol voter’s

To vote for a contestant on American Idol, all you have to do is watch the show. Everything you need to know is right there, and even if you miss an episode, the station kindly produces a brief recap of what happened last time. Even if you only catch the season finale, that last episode still affords you the opportunity to hear each contestant sing, providing the needed base of comparison from which to cast your vote. But the American voter is not basing his vote on a political candidate’s three-minute performance; ideally, the American voter is casting his vote with the context of more than 200 years of volatile political history in mind. The American voter is not provided with information recaps at the poll booth. Instead, the American voter is left almost entirely to his own devices, to wade through an ocean of conflicting news accounts whose factual accuracy is not guaranteed and which sometimes consist of little more than degrading personal attacks. Imagine if each American Idol contestant had his own newspaper or TV channel, or two or three. Who has the time or the patience for a show like that?

An interesting observation has been made by conservative columnist Tony Blankley. Just as the eras before the invention of the printing press were marked with a severe information defecit that caused many of Europe’s medieval citizens to be oppressed by their own ignorance of political affairs, so too is today’s society experiencing similar sensations of oppression, though for the exact opposite reason. Today, we are bombarded by contradicting headlines, alternative news channels, and an exponentially growing blogosphere that tries the patience of even the most dedicated information-seeker. It is essentially impossible to take the time to absorb everything that is being thrown out there, and then on top of that to sort out what can be accepted as fact and what must be discarded as inaccurate or distorted. Even the best attempts at combating media bias have devolved into talk shows that feature not fresh ideas and creative solutions, but two extremists from opposite ends of the spectrum—sometimes including the moderators—simply screaming at each other. This is not what we meant when we asked for fair and balanced news. How can we be surprised that mainstream America is more interested in voting for the next American Idol than the next American President?

Politicians have been taking advantage of political stereotypes, media bias, and the general ignorance of mainstream America for too long now. Politics is not nearly as black-and-white as politicos in the Beltway would like the rest of America to believe. America may be divided, but it is not an even divide between left and right; within those two ideologies is so much overlapping and are so many exceptions to the stereotype that to graph it out would require more colors than come in a standard box of crayons.

It is up to us as citizens to restore dignity and honor to the political office by holding our representatives accountable, but we can’t call a foul if we don’t know what the rules are. Americans today are overwhelmed by the corrupt state of political affairs and the distorted state of most media sources. While it may be true that there are some honest, objective media outlets in existence, nearly all media outlets advertise themselves with some variation of the “fair and balanced” slogan. If you are new to the political game, how would you know where to start?