Reality TV and the atrophy of our culture and institutions

I’ve written about the remarkable phenomenon of reality TV before, but just want to make a quick note of something here. The tweet above would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. I won’t say reality TV caused the conditions that made it possible, but one of the things that reality TV does is to totalise media culture and indeed a lowest common denominator of youth culture. What do I mean by that?

Until reality TV, talent shows exhibited a kind of care for the contestants. Judges were polite and as affirming as they could be, even if the contestants weren’t any good. Not any more. Humiliation gets people’s attention. Gets them talking the next day. Gets them tuning in to the next episode as they run their own opinion shows with their friends. In this there’s a kind of regression to the schoolyard. A sloughing off of the codes of adult decency.

There’s also a kind of democratic class bias to this. The middle class has always been a guardian of respectability. It enforced the kinds of adult norms I’m talking about. Of course stable working class culture also protected its young in the same way, but much less so the degraded cultures of the underclass represented in rap for instance.

One can also think about this as relating to distinctions between the public and private realm. In private we do all sorts of things often with irony, which would be shameful to do in public where they would be highly offensive. We often make deliberately politically incorrect statements for fun in private that we wouldn’t make in public. We may not even be registering a complaint against political correctness, just playing with the tensions in our culture between what’s appropriate in public and in private. Our own subjectivity can be expressed more freely, amongst our intimates.

And one of the most fundamental things one learns as one exits childhood, is that it’s not OK to make fun of the disabled – however discombobulated one is about them subjectively. But of course it looks like that’s what the new President of the free world did. Donald Trump’s – now President’s Trump’s – singular contribution to politics is the same as the contribution of a ‘star’ of reality TV contestant (or, as it turns out, host). It’s a window onto the subjectivity of the charismatic. And that’s pretty much the whole of The Donald’s political persona. His presence in front of us amounts to little more than an invitation to share his current state of mind and whatever psychological defence mechanisms this brings forth.

If some (was it?) 9 women have independently corroborated his own admissions to predatory behaviour towards women, then they’re all lying, all put up to it by a Democrat conspiracy. If Megyn Kelly asks him a tough question he goes from describing her in the most glowing terms to traducing her. If a news agency runs stories hostile to him, they’re purveyors of fake news. If judges have ruled that he’s acting outside the law they’re ‘so called’ judges. And if some department store isn’t helping his daughter out, well that’s unfair.

I think even in Australia we have sufficient political antibodies to tackle the worst of this at least today. But America’s system, with its powerful executive, relies on congress to exercise checks and balances. And, uniquely in the developed world, one of the two mainstream parties has pretty much taken leave of its senses. This and the related phenomenon of polarisation has transformed the American scene in the way that’s nicely, if somewhat tendentiously,1 summarised by David Frum. “As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party.”

Still, I’m hoping – I suspect somewhat against hope – that those expectations are misguided. I wouldn’t have expected this treatment of a Republican congressman for not investigating Trump, and the town hall meeting apparently reflected something more than left activism. And I wouldn’t have expected KellyAnne to get ‘counselled‘ over using her position advertise Ivanka’s line. I mean she was just being nice to a someone who was being picked on right?


  1. The fact is that the statement has been far truer of Republicans than Democrats
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11 Responses to Reality TV and the atrophy of our culture and institutions

  1. Alan says:

    I don’t think this is a cultural development. It is an artefact of the electoral system. Consider North Carolina which is becoming a benchmark, in all the worst ways, for Republican governance.

    At the recent election the Democrats won the governorship by a razor thin majority. The same set of voters, voting at the same time, returned a similar result in the elections of the state assembly, senate and congressional delegation. We could therefore expect a razor thin Democratic majority in each of the 3 legislative bodies.

    The actual result was Republican supermajorities in the assembly and the senate. NC sent 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats to the US house of representatives. NC has one of the more famous gerrymanders in the US but it is by no means exceptional.

    What are the oversight incentives for a Republican legislator from a state like NC?

    Your fear is not losing your district to a Democrat because you are protected by the gerrymander. Your great fear is losing a primary to another Republican who will invariably run a more extreme campaign than you do. So year by year NC Republican legislators become more and more dependent on their party to maintain the gerrymander and less and less dependent on the actual electorate who should in theory be all they worry about.

    Trump’s electoral sanding has indeed crashed since the November election. But it has risen among Republicans and those Republicans in Washington are staring at gerrymandered districts where Trump’s popularity is rising.

    Ockam’s razor suggests that we do nt necessarily need a complicated cultural explanation for what appears to ust be a product of gerrymandering. And after all a certain state in Australia’s north managed to be quite Trumpesque quite a long time before reality TV came along.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Alan,

    Steve Waldman wrote this idea up recently and I think it’s compelling. (Though it does have limits. Gerrymandering generally only gives you a few percentage points edge. It can’t easily deliver victory when you’re a long way behind your opponent.

    I agree there are many causes and I specifically disclaimed that reality TV caused Trump in any strong sense, but I think what’s happening is not simply an artefact of these forces or if it is, the culture that is being forged has its own momentum. As more and more adults get drawn into the narcissism and solipsism of youth, the more narcissistic and solipsistic our culture becomes.

  3. Alan says:

    You may care to have a look at Republicans will likely keep their House majority – even if Clinton wins by a landslide – and it’s because of gerrymandering.

    Gerrymandering has become pervasive in a way that ensures a permanent Republican majority in the house of representatives, and in many state legislatures where the Republicans have undivided control of both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, I know and deplore that fact. But is it not also true that the Republicans need to stay over (say) 45% of the two-party preferred vote for their gerrymander to deliver them government? It’s pretty depressing and extraordinary that such a bunch of fruitcakes get anything like that vote.

      Even when I bought the argument that Donald Trump would love the election I was hugely alarmed that he was clearly going to capture well over 45% of the two party preferred vote.

      • Alan says:

        In the recent trial of Whitford v Gill the court found that the Republicans would retain a majority in both branches of the Wisconsin legislature and congressional delegation on as little as 37% of the vote. New software makes gerrymandering easier than it has ever been before. It’s a trifle scary to play with free apps like Dave’s Redistricting App.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks very much Alan,

    A highlight of blogging is to be set straight by people who obviously know a lot more than myself. A nice illustration of the way that what can start as quite small deviations from the ideal can cascade into very pernicious outcomes – like Thomas Schelling’s chessboard model of racial segregation in housing. And also perhaps of senescent decay even if it’s hard to imagine a ‘healthy youth’ for gerrymandering.

    • Alan says:

      It’s not unrelieved gloom and there is progress. 5 states now have independent redistricting commissions which we would call redistribution commissions.

      The California Citizens Redistricting Commission shifted the sate at one stroke from among the most gerrymandered in the country to one of the fairest and also gives us a magnificent example of selecting an important organ of state by random draw.

      The courts are moving, although at glacial pace, to address the problem. North Carolina, at the opposite end of the spectre from California has been ordered not only to draw new districts but to hold an early election to bring the new districts online.

      According to McGann, Smith, Keenam and Latner (2016) turnout in elections is significantly higher in states with a fair electoral system. So the comparatively low turnout in much of the United States does not necessarily represent popular alienation from the systems s a whole, merely the pointlessness of voting in election whose result is often predetermined.

      Lastly, although Republicans are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of gerrymandering, there are Republicans who support redistricting reform.

  5. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    sometimes realty changes things. Take for example affordable health care. The republicans simply do not know what to do because if they change things it impacts just in time for the mid-terms.

    20 million people will realise they are not covered now thus the consternation about the ‘change’

  6. Tim Macknay says:

    And, uniquely in the developed world, one of the two mainstream parties has pretty much taken leave of its senses.

    I sincerely hope it remains unique. However it seems to me that there are ominous signs that the Liberal Party has become so hamstrung by the influence of its far right that it is losing the capacity to articulate rational policy.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, but the difference is that while those on the right of the Liberal Party are certainly influenced by those they see as their ideological cousins in the US, the fruitcakes of the tea party have some fairly solid institutional support – gerrymandered lower house electorates, the primary system, a more divided and unequal electorate, the ‘race’ question and voluntary voting.

      The right in Australia have certainly been trying to ape some of the Republican’s and The Donald’s media playbook, they won’t be able to take the country as far right as can be done in the US (or so I expect. Then again it’s also what I hope meaning I’m not the most objective of sources!).

  7. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Alan, you need to read Andrew Gelman on gerrymandering. If you cannot find his site look at my Around the Traps today

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