Reality TV (and fake news) Nation

We really shouldn’t be surprised by the result of last month’s presidential election. As our nation continues to feel divided and many of us feel lost in our own country, the shift to this kind of election season has been under way for years.

Politics has been reduced to reality TV. Running for elected office, to be leader of our nation, has somehow gotten confused with Survivor. Or Big Brother.

Just imagine you are settling into watch Survivor. We love to see the contestants on reality TV suffer through challenges, and then settle in for a contentious tribal council. You know, the ones where they are interrupting each other, calling each other names, and of course, blindsiding each other by planning behind backs and backstabbing at secret meetings.

This is our entertainment.

Or maybe it is the Bachelorette where dating is reduced to sound bites and filmed flirtations and competition. We love the drama that unfolds. It spikes ratings. The better the emotional mess, the more the audience enjoys it. It’s the TV version of not being able to look away from a car accident while driving. The tears, the yelling, the name calling-- it’s the car wreck.

And now here we are. Our nation embarked on the longest and most intense reality TV show in this election. Ironically, it was led by a reality TV show star himself. Instead of diving deep into the issues, we Americans cheered the sound bites. It was all about the zingers, especially from one candidate, who interrupted, who cajoled, who belittled, who mocked.

Many people cheered on these shallow exchanges like it was a show on TV.

I was on a plane for the last debate, and watching it live after take off. Each time president elect Trump delivered a zinger or insult to Hillary, some people on the plane cheered. They said, “Oh yeah” and “Ooooh boy!” They were thrilled at the show.

The debate was either viewed as a football game, or a reality TV show jabs, punches, and counterpunches. It was about the drama, not about the substance. Trump could have said anything. It didn’t matter. He was performing, and being perceived as standing up for the “regular guy.” He stole the show. He grabbed attention (and bragged about grabbing other things). He created his own truths and realities, while speaking in wild generalizations. The marketing was great: short and effective, Make America Great Again. Light on details, big on promise. Perfect for reality TV nation.

And America bought it. It is not that far to go from cheering on blindsiding, backstabbing, and rumor spreading done by real people on TV, to expecting the same from an election campaign.

Trouble is, this is not a reality TV show. We aren’t really looking for the most entertaining, dramatic, and exciting person to lead our nation, one with a short temper and a defensive streak that keeps things “interesting”. Many people are looking for a calm, grounded, measured and knowledgeable person that can lead our country with a steady resolve and an empathetic heart.

We’ve been duped by our own popular culture. Instead of looking into the policies and practices of candidates, we looked into our own echo chambers on Facebook, even when some of those were fake news—inflammatory, and biased, one sided stories. We shared images without reading the stories behind them. We took a shallow look at the pool and made quick decisions. Opinions, based on fake news, or emotion, or bluster, formed, and formed solid. This polarized us even more. The show became the reality.

The authors of a book called Slow Democracy encourage something else. Susan Clark and Woden Teachout offer a vision for how communities can participate in deliberative decision making by building trusting and sustainable local relationships across party lines. The book holds lessons in how to reconnect with each other, and how to increase civic engagement and dialogue. Susan Clark in a recent commentary for Vermont Public Radio shared:

“A real cure is to sit down with someone who voted differently from you, and ask them whether they have their snow tires on yet. How are their kids? Just remember what it's like to be human with them. Later, once you’ve rebuilt trust, you can listen to them about issues. Take a breath. And try to discover the concerns beneath their stances. The interests beneath their positions.”

A far cry from Reality TV Nation.

This election cycle should teach us to separate reality TV from the reality of electing true leaders into office. Maybe if our popular culture, media, and communities focused more on empathy, equality, and respect, we wouldn’t be here, as a divided nation. Maybe if we had the courage to deeply engage about difficult issues and connect as humans we would be more unified. At least we would be more respectful.

And maybe we can decide to leave Reality TV Nation, and dive into ways to deeply explore what we want America to be like for the generations that follow us. Together.

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