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The Presidential Primaries as Reality TV

01/04/2012 08:10 am ET | Updated Mar 05, 2012

As the media frenzy in Iowa fades to the media frenzy in New Hampshire, the selection of an American President has completely descended into a poorly acted reality TV show. If the winner didn't lead the world's most powerful nation this might almost be funny. The Republican debates have proven to be capable of drawing a reasonable TV audience and every news outlet in the country is hard at work magnifying the impact of the small number of unrepresentative voters that control the nomination process in unique states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Why do they do this? Why do the media focus so much attention on the Presidential campaign? Because people are interested, they will watch and read this stuff, and the demographics of this audience attract advertising. My suspicion is that some of the volatility of the process stems from the media's need for a storyline. A boring march to the nomination by "front-runner Mitt Romney" (I think that is his full name) is not good reality TV. We need drama, pathos, redemption, and deeply textured characters. We need Herman Cain and his mistress, Newt Gingrich and his comeback, Rick Santorum's persistence and Ron Paul's imitation of everyone's weird uncle.

Achieving high TV ratings requires a horse race. In 2008 we had the story of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Hillary sheds a tear in New Hampshire and it becomes a major media event. This year, Newt cries in Iowa thinking about his mother, and the media tries to compare its potential impact to Hillary's tears in 2008. This is nothing short of amazing. But it is good business.

Whether or not you want to be influenced by this barrage of irrelevant information, you cannot ignore it and it influences policy and politics. We are told that these personal details and moments are needed because we must assess the character of those who seek to lead us. It is true that we need to elect honest, ethical and courageous people, but running this media gauntlet is no test of those virtues.

In fact, it seems more and more that our political process has evolved into a place where a normal, idealistic, civic minded person would be crazy to ever go. The media dissects your history and personal life like an institutional peeping Tom. Your opponents conduct research and learn every word you've uttered and every action you've taken since junior high school. Herman Cain may sell more books as a result of his Presidential campaign, but his reputation has been sullied beyond repair. I hope Rick Santorum is ready for the assault.

And then there is the fundraising. Even minor elected officials now must fundraise constantly to gain and retain office. While the internet opens up possibilities of mass participation in funding political campaigns, I suspect that mass campaigns like Obama's in 2008 will be relatively rare. Although the 2008 Obama campaign raised hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions from the web, even Obama decided to rely on fat cat fundraising to augment the internet in 2012. The stakes are constantly raised. The 2012 Obama campaign is trying to raise a billion dollars. According to Jeff Zeleny in the New York Times:

The Obama campaign raised about $750 million in the 2008 campaign, setting a record that is expected to be surpassed in the 2012 presidential contest. The race could see the first $1 billion campaign, a figure that Republicans have repeatedly invoked to encourage their donors to raise more money for candidates and the national party.

Once the Supreme Court decided that campaign contributions were a form of free speech protected by the constitution, the fundraising rocket left the launching pad. The force of money in politics is obvious and a degree of institutionalized corruption has now become commonplace. The political influence of wealth is sometimes blatant and easy to see, but typically it is relatively invisible and can only be seen in the subtle mechanism of political agenda setting. This is when the political center gets defined and issues are labeled as either legitimate or fringe. The process of defining the legitimacy of an issue is influenced by the media barrage driven by political money. The wealthy control the terms of the dialogue by defining what is "realistic." The emphasis on the national debt as compared to unemployment and underemployment is an example of that form of influence. It took the drama, visibility and web savvy of the Occupy Wall Street movement to even get another view into the public's consciousness.

This is not a new story. The influence of economic power on our political process is part of the story of this country's success as a nation. Starting with Alexander Hamilton and up to the present day, American business and government have always acted in partnership. So too is the tradition of mass protest, from the original tea party to the Civil War's draft riots to the labor struggles of the early 20th century. More recently we experienced the civil rights, women's and anti-war movements of the 1960's and '70s. Today we see the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Unfortunately, the traditional partnership between government and business has once again become unbalanced. The focus on private, privileged advantage threatens to completely crowd out the public good. Our ability to act as a community has been impaired by three decades of anti-government rhetoric. The Presidential campaign provides a visible example of how this process has come to operate. The full media machine is focused on Iowa and New Hampshire. The first test of a Presidential candidate is to survive the scrutiny of a very select segment of the American people.

The campaign reality show will continue through the winter and into the spring. Several contestants will be thrown off the island. With re-runs and conventions over the summer, the fall season opens up with a whole new horse race: President Obama (the battered champ) vs. "who knows who?" (the determined challenger). For the media, the challenge will be to ensure that the race is close enough to stimulate viewership and high ratings. For the nation, the challenge will be to select the person most qualified to lead the American people. How will it end? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!