The American Idol Party

Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell might not turn out to be good candidates, but they make great television
By STEVEN STARK  |  September 23, 2010


In their attempts to understand the Tea Party movement, analysts have looked to the Populists of the 1890s, the followers of Father Coughlin and Huey Long in the 1930s, and, of course, the original Boston tea partiers themselves. But in a nation whose pop culture is its politics and vice versa, the real antecedent for this political happening is a relatively recent phenomenon — reality television.

This is not to denigrate the movement. After all, popular culture is a primary outlet for political expression — a source of both candidates and mass sentiment, as Ronald Reagan well knew. And, while the roots of reality television derive from many sources, the principal one is the notion that "the people" can do a better job than the elites. Reality television is democratic to a fault, premised as it is on the idea that we no longer need "stars" because average men and women on the street are the real sources of talent and energy in the land.

It's a very American sentiment, of course — the product of a nation that, beginning with its first tea party, defined itself as a place in which "the people" ruled. And that concept always has political resonance in eras in which elites on places such as Wall Street have appeared to prosper at the expense of Main Street.

But what has given that old idea a new cast this time around is television. Beginning, really, with America's Funniest Home Videos in the early 1990s, and continuing on through Survivor, American Idol, The Apprentice, and Dancing with the Stars, the television programming that has appealed the most in the modern era has been that which made "the folks," as Fox News host Bill O'Reilly calls them, the stars.

Figures such as Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell are figures straight out of reality television — somewhat narcissistic good lookers (a TV prerequisite) who are proud of their ordinariness and lack of traditional expertise. They and the people who love these shows the most are what Richard Nixon used to call "the silent majority" — the same audience that once made shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw big hits. Put another way, the Tea Partiers are the people who never watch HBO — in part for reasons of taste, in part because they can't afford it. They are older, less urban, and whiter than the rest of America and they know they are no one's favorite demographic.

Once one accepts the notion that anyone can be a TV star, it's only a small jump to the idea that expertise of any sort is a false god and elites of all sorts — intellectuals, journalists, and, of course, government bureaucrats and politicians — must be overthrown. It's no coincidence that the Tea Party movement is linked at the hip to Fox News since it, too, has profited from the same cultural sentiments. Sure, that network has a more conservative slant than its competitors. But what really animates the Fox News universe is the idea (accurate or not) that this is the only network not in thrall to the liberal elite — an enormously popular idea in a populist age.

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