On the long weekend, the funeral of U.S. Senator John McCain took up a lot of time and punditry on TV. President Donald Trump wasn’t there, but he was the focus of speeches and eulogies, and commentary. The other absent figure, mostly forgotten and undeservedly so, was Sarah Palin.
The funeral took place almost exactly 10 years to the day since Palin, the self-styled hockey mom from Alaska, made a defining speech at the Republican National Convention. She was there to “fire back” at the “lamestream” media that had caused a frenzy of speculation about her life, politics and family since McCain picked her as his vice-presidential running mate a few days before.
That frenzy generated the impression that the Republicans, in choosing Palin and pushing her family forward into the media glare, had chosen a bunch of Alaskan hicks to save the Republican ticket. This column said at the time that it was reality TV run amok. And it was. Little did anyone understand then what was unfolding and how much it would be rued.
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The reality-TV genre can be defined loosely as “shows featuring ordinary people instead of professional actors.” But it is way more complex. Falling into a grey zone between outright fiction and heavily edited and manipulated reality, it causes the viewer to question the traditional value of “truth.” Watch the U.S. or Canadian versions of Big Brother and viewers can see participants live, in real time, being allegedly “real” – and then can see the edited “reality” after producers and editors have done their work, some of which can also be seen unfolding on the livestream. What is real and what is factual and what simply has emotional impact as being truthful gets very confused.
We are now entirely accustomed to seeing the reality-TV version of “factual” discourse shared almost daily in Trump’s tweets. Does it matter if he tweets the “truth” or does it matter more that it sounds authentic when brayed or shouted through social media? That’s the confusion that reality-TV culture has created.
In the matter of Palin and her family, what the world got, for the first time, was what appeared to be ordinary people instead of professional politicians thrust into the national arena. The Palin narrative connected directly with what had happened over and over again on U.S. TV during the previous 20 years. Ordinary, working-class people, sometimes startlingly inarticulate and with messy personal lives, were thrown into the television spotlight and, by being ordinary – bartenders, truck drivers, hairdressers and janitors on Survivor or Big Brother – they were a good bet for being compelling on TV.
By the time Palin appeared on the national stage, the engine that drove so much of reality TV was the proven thinking that ordinary people, with all their awkward baggage and lack of sophistication, are more authentically American than the fictional doctors, lawyers and detectives being portrayed on network dramas. And so it proved with practised, well-established politicians, too. They looked so inauthentic when compared with Palin. In choosing her and pushing her family and life into prime time, the Republican Party was being driven by exactly the same marketing impulses that drove networks to locate and celebrate compelling, artless ordinariness.
Palin, in fact, played down her experiences as governor of Alaska. She played up her ordinariness and authenticity. “I love those hockey moms,” she shouted in speeches. “You know what the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”
And, of course, she considered herself a “hockey mom.” What she did, in effect, was diminish expertise and political acumen, and play up her averageness. There began the anti-intellectualism that defines much of the politics of the past decade. This is one of the lasting impacts of the conflation of reality TV’s alleged authenticity and politics: Gut feelings and personal disposition triumph over fact and expert knowledge. As a British Conservative politician famously declared when arguing in favour of Brexit, and against facts that challenged his assertions, “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
The dynamic of reality TV also tends to blur the lines between public and private thoughts on matters of gender and race. The arguments that take place on many reality shows – often the core of the drama – tend to include attention-seeking insults about these matters. The casual everyday racism which usually stays private, or inside a closed group, gets articulated loudly and is thus normalized.
The other day, speaking during the McCain funeral, former president Barack Obama said this: “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage.” That statement accurately summarizes what unfolds hour after hour in that category of reality TV that includes Big Brother, Survivor, Real Housewives and others. And those are hit shows.
What happened when McCain chose Palin was the ascension of reality-TV culture in the United States into the political culture. Eventually, and inevitably, came the ultimate expression of that shift and the ascension of an actual reality-TV star in Donald Trump. From The Apprentice, he had learned or intuited that reality TV is, really, reality blurred. And that is what a portion of the public audience likes. He learned what works – a ceaseless accumulation of small dramas and countless distractions, a continuing series of theatrical moments meant to reflect reality but not actually real in any traditional sense; the use of personal gibes and vaguely racist insults that could be categorized as reality-blurred, not real. And much more.
It’s not that television can be blamed for what is a coarsened political process. Reality TV simply taps into what intrigues, captivates and validates a vast public that is uneasy with traditional fiction and uncomfortable with a reality beyond their own immediate one that they manipulate to suit themselves. No matter where this cultural shift goes from here, it started when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate.