The convergence of entertainment and politics moves substantive policy debate to the background and deters experienced candidates from entering the fray.
This article appeared in the Toronto Star on October 2, 2016.
‘Politics is Hollywood for the ugly,’ mused Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala in the mid-1980s.
On July 17, 1960, in a suburb east of London, England, Mark Burnett was born. Who could know that Burnett, the son of two factory workers, would one day help flip the American political establishment on its head?
At age 17, Burnett enlisted in the British Army and became a section commander in the Parachute Regiment. In October 1982, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked in Beverly Hills as a nanny and chauffeur to the stars.
In 1995, Burnett purchased the format rights to a French adventure competition television series, the Raid Gauloises. He then brought a similar competition to America. Eco-Challenge would launch his television producing career. With his hit series Survivor, Burnett began reshaping the television landscape and institutionalizing what we now call ‘reality TV,’ an accomplishment for which he is simultaneously lauded and panned.
Burnett changed America, revitalizing what was a failing television industry while masterfully entertaining millions. Today, he is responsible for some 11 programs that span the four main U.S. networks.
But, as almost always is the case, there were unintended consequences to building this voyeuristic genre dependent on cartoonishly absurd people. And one of those consequences was the convergence of reality television and politics.
In January 2004, American’s were reintroduced to businessman Donald Trump on Burnett’s program The Apprentice, ironically billed as ‘the ultimate job interview.’ Trump went on to spend the next 14 years firing hundreds of job ‘applicants’ on prime-time television.
Last Monday, the tables were turned. Trump was no longer in his iconic boardroom lambasting and publicly humiliating contestants. Rather, he was himself being interviewed, in front of 100 million people, for the job of the presidency of the United States.
The result was nearly as absurd as the many hours of The Apprentice had been.
The convergence of entertainment and politics presents challenges for meaningful governance. It moves substantive policy debate to the background. It deters serious and experienced candidates from entering the fray. It further exacerbates the role capital plays in campaigns
On reality television, fans frequently cheer and vote for the entertaining, the vain, the crazy and the downright bizarre. In politics, we can only hope that voters do not base their ballot-box decisions on these criteria, but rather place emphasis on intelligence, experience, judgment and sound policy.
We are fortunate that in Canada, regardless of partisan affiliation, our political discourse has not stooped to this level. Rather than expending time debating the whereabouts of birth certificates or the physical stamina of candidates; Canadians have largely resisted the urge to plunge into that silliness that has gripped the political arena of our neighbours to the south.
We are lucky to live in a country where we can watch a debate among party leaders and witness thoughtful discussion about Canada’s place in the world, about diversifying our economy, and about contrasting approaches to deficit spending.
All too often, like the weather, people complain that Canadian politics is boring, dry, insignificant and uneventful; these commentators may have a point.
When a juicy story comes along, we all chase it like a shiny piece of tin foil blowing down the street. We spent two years debating a $90,000 cheque, and the F-15 procurement fiasco seems to have lingered on the front pages for a decade.
But this doesn’t even come close to reality television material. That said, we too are at risk. At a time when all media are working overtime to construct new business models and people seem to be happy to consume complicated stories in eight-second clips, it is easy to see how we could take a sharp turn into reality TV land.
While his Trump’s candidacy may seem like a harmless diversion in a world fraught with genuine, real and vexing problems, his ability to galvanize so many citizens in the United States should serve as a warning to other countries, including Canada — a warning that we have no idea where the blurring of the line between politics and entertainment will take us.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.