Reality TV: Its Role in the Presidential Election

I am not very interested in politics. I consider myself an independent, because I think that neither side has all the answers. It's not that I don't keep informed -- I do. But this presidential election is unlike anything I've ever seen before. And if you're like me, you can't remember a time when more people have been paying attention during an election year. It's like you can't get away from it. Not only is it dominating the news, it's also rampant on social media and in debates with our friends. Never before have I seen such obvious division, and the two candidates which seem to have the most controversy following them is Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

So that leads me to look at the behavior of these two. I could talk about the other candidates too, but I want to primarily focus on them for two reasons: (1) Trump's bullying behavior, and (2) Hillary's alleged criminal behavior for which she's currently under investigation.

There is some interesting research that has been conducted about both of them (and other candidates as well) that look at people's opinions of their behavior (whether it is real or alleged). This study found that 45% of the people polled think that a person should not be allowed to run for President of the United States if they are under criminal investigation (Clinton). And 25.9% feel someone shouldn't be allowed if they have declared bankruptcy (Trump's businesses).

While that research is very interesting, what I really want to talk about the social behavior that has been exhibited by the candidates, especially Donald Trump. As I said earlier, much of our society does not tolerate bullying or unethical/allegedly criminal behavior. However, not only has a large number of people tolerated it, in Donald Trump's case, they have practically celebrated it.

Now, I don't intend to have this article turn completely political. I am not trying to convince you who or who not to vote for. But what I do want to discuss is the bad behavior of the candidates, and more importantly, a large portion of the public's reaction and acceptance of this behavior.

When I was child, my parents taught me to love my follow human beings. I was taught to be kind, empathetic, and to live by the Golden Rule. They also taught be to abide by the law, and not lie, cheat, steal, or do anything else unethical. I'm sure many of your parents taught you the same thing.

Even our schools have "Anti-Bullying" campaigns. At least I know my children's schools do. They have an anti-bullying policy and have no tolerance for it. Not that it doesn't happen (especially cyber bullying these days), but there is at least an overriding expectation that it should NOT happen. But somehow Trump is getting away with it. We are not holding him accountable for his actions like we would anyone else - especially our children. In addition to bullying, cheating/lying or doing anything unethical is also cause for discipline to correct the behavior But Clinton's overall campaign does not seem to be affected by the allegations she is facing (I'm not making a personal judgment about whether she's guilty or not - I'm just stating facts).

How is this so? Why is it that so many people are cheering on the name-calling, mud-slinging, allegedly unethical behavior that has been seen by the candidates (which many people would argue that the bullying behavior was started by Trump)?

I have a theory.

I am currently teaching a class about the intersection of interpersonal communication and the media. In other words, the media models social behavior for us, and many people in the audience mimic it (called the Social Learning Theory). But, we also talk to people in our lives about what we see in the medial. So it's really two sides of the same coin.

What I have been analyzing and lecturing about lately in my class is why bullying and allegedly unethical behavior is being tolerated and celebrated by a certain segment of the American public.

In my lectures, I also discuss how the behavior you see modeled on TV has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, married characters on television weren't even allowed to be seen in the same bed -- or even have that implied (in the Dick Van Dyke Show, they had twin beds). And no one on television could even mutter the word "pregnant." In the 1970s, we still saw relatively kind, gentle behavior such as in the Brady Bunch or Little House on the Prairie. But in the last few decades, that all started to change.

In the 1990s, you had the debut of the Jerry Springer Show. Ironically, it was originally meant to be a political talk show. However, in 1994, it was re-vamped and started modeling outrageous behavior like fighting, name-calling, cheating, etc. The show eventually became almost a mockery. But here's the kicker - it was wildly popular and has been going strong since 1991. Ultimately, you can't ever tune in to find a serious topic since it was almost like watching a freak how of people with hideous behavior. But apparently, that's what the audience loved. So they kept doing it bigger and better over the years.

Then, in the early 2000s you have reality TV that showed up on the airwaves. Shows like Survivor and Big Brother have further normalized lying, backstabbing, and betraying behavior. Sure, these shows are entertaining. But the bottom line still remains that when the audience tunes in, they expect to see sensationalistic, over-the-top drama. This behavior draws ratings.

And that's just the kind of behavior that has made its way to the political stage now in 2016. And as most people know, Trump himself was a reality star. Kind of makes you think, huh?

Am I saying that reality TV and other shows that model bad, bullying, unethical behavior is the only factor that has caused people to celebrate political candidates this election year? No, of course that's not the only reason. But I think it is probably a much overlooked one.