Day By Day

Friday, January 18, 2008

Voting For the Worst

In 2004 a website titled "Vote For the Worst" was founded.

At the time the Fox TV talent competition, "American Idol", was an immensely successful show. That is because its producers were providing the viewing public with something they enjoyed. "Vote For the Worst" was a typical adolescent response to prominent success -- supercilious disparagement and subversion.

The website urged people across the nation to call in to the show and cast votes for the worst performers in the contest. The object was to ridicule and invalidate the show's procedures, which the website's founders perceived to be inauthentic and unfair.

Why do we do it? During the initial auditions, the producers only let a fraction of the people who audition advance. Many good people are turned away and many bad singers are kept around to see Simon, Paula, and Randy so that the audience will be entertained.

Now why do the producers do this? It's simple: a show like American Idol is not about singing at all, it's about making good reality TV and enjoying a guilty pleasure. At Vote for the Worst, we get that. The producers purposely cast the show with contestants who they know will never become the next big singing sensation. We think that these contestants are more entertaining than the producer favorites, and we want to acknowledge this fact by encouraging people to help vote for the amusing antagonists that annoy the judges.
There you have it folks. Adolescent contempt for authority, professionalism and competence, a perverse will to destroy simply for the "fun" of it, and smug disparagement of the judgment of the viewing audience -- people too dumb, in the pranksters' opinion, to understand the "suckiness" of the show they enjoy.

Of course there is nothing new in this. Anyone who lived through the "Sixties" or who has endured what is laughingly called a "liberal arts education" is familiar with all this nonsense. Subversion has become a major cultural imperative in post-modern America. Taking things seriously just isn't "cool".

And that would seem to apply to the nation's electoral process too. How else are we to explain the fact that right now voters in both major political parties seem determined to promote the least able and least qualified candidates?

Consider the Democrats, who simply ignored people who actually had some serious credentials -- Gov. Richardson and Sens. Dodd and Biden -- to focus on spectacularly unqualified people like the former First Lady, that well-spoken young man from Illinois about whom nobody knows very much, and that smooth-talking lawyer from one of the Carolinas. Taken together these three Democrat stars have approximately three mediocre terms of Senate experience to their credit. And the current popular choice, Sen. Obama, has the least of the bunch.

And the Republicans aren't much better. Extremely well-qualified candidates like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are languishing in the polls while all the enthusiasm focuses on the loose-lipped second man from Hope, the "Maverick" senator from the southwest, and a TV actor/former Senator.

In both parties successful candidates are running as "outsiders", declaring the "system" to be "broken", and promising to bring about radical but undefined "change". Most disturbing, major candidates in both parties are subtly urging voters to choose them, not on the basis of their qualifications, but on the basis of their membership in some, purportedly aggrieved group.

This, I would argue, is spectacularly unserious adolescent subversiveness, analogous to TV's "Vote for the Worst Campaign". In each election many people, mostly young voters and independents, but this year including a disturbingly large number of adults, eagerly cast their votes, not to choose a qualified and able leader, but to make a "statement". And the statement is always the same, "things suck".

Statement voting is little more than a childish tantrum informed by utter contempt for the mechanisms of the democratic process. And, like the founders of "Vote For the Worst", statement voters dress up their silliness with high sounding pronouncements about the inauthenticity of the system, the suckiness of the candidates, and the need to stand up against the powers that be. And they mask the tawdriness and self-indulgence of their position with the inane observation that the objects of their scorn fall short of perfection.

In the case of a popular TV show such perverse nonsense is of little consequence. In a national election to choose a figure who will be invested with sufficient power to have enormous impact on the lives of people around the globe it is a prescription for disaster.

Grow up!