Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute, Senior Fellow of the Manhattan Institute, and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
If you watch T.V. programs, you know that to watch is to be a participant. Television has gone from being a passive medium to a reactive medium. Everyone is a judge, and judges are supposed to determine a winner. On "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars," you, the audience, must judge, "select your favorite." The selection may not be the best singer or dancer, but it is your choice. Entering the equation is the likeability factor. This could be related to appearance or charm or eccentricities - whatever turns you on or as they say on television, whatever floats your boat.
Now these judges are also voters. The loose and adjustable criteria for selecting an "Idol" are transmogrified into standards for selecting a president. The results are easy, almost casual prototypical assessments. Romney is stiff; Obama is cool. Romney is pointed; Obama is flexible. Romney is a dispassionate banker; Obama cares. Lost in this winner takes all game of judging are real stakes, even if the criteria are unrelated to performance.
For example, is the man who cares better prepared to preside over the country than someone who is calculating? Is appearance a standard for sound judgment? Whatever the answer, selections will be made as if the "Voice" were a national lottery.
Judges who sit in a courtroom are there to uphold the law about which they should know something, at least that is the presumption. In the case of television judgeship, everyone is an expert and one participates to select a winner. Its not as if Fred Astaire makes the ultimate call about "Dancing With the Stars." After the judges give their ratings, the public weighs in, sometimes agreeing with the experts, but not always.
Needless to say, it is assumed the public knows something about dance. This, of course, is silly. They may like certain dancers, but very few in the viewing audience - if any - can tell you what are the required steps in the Argentine Tango. Yet we act as if full participation is desirable.
A large turnout in a presidential election is invariably deemed a positive expression of democratic impulses. But what does it really show? How many of those voting know or care about the issues? How many apply the variable standards of performance from "Idol" to the presidential vote?
As I stood on line to vote in the recent election, several youthful voters said they were supporting Obama because he is "cool." Reluctant to pour ice water on this comment, I merely asked, "Why?" "Why," they noted, "because he knows how to reach us." I have long believed that narcissism accounts for many national ills; now I know it is also a factor in determining candidate appeal.
Since T.V. insists we act as judges, valid criteria for judgment are unnecessary. Just pick up the phone and identify your choice. Everyone plays and, who knows, maybe you'll pick the winner. Harvesting votes is an art form. "If you want us to return, please get on your phones now." Interactive television gives an audience power and belonging, even if these conditions are ephemeral.
Marshall McLuhan was right - the medium is the message - and that medium is judging. Since this judging on T.V. is anonymous, any reason for selection will do. In a sense, it is different from public choice in which the censure of opinion could chasten selectors. One need not worry when the telephone recording comes on.
What this means is that viewers are offered the illusion of great power without responsibility. Judgments can be made without knowledge. Everyone is a judge without robes. Is it any wonder that presidential elections have the feel and superficiality of "American Idol"?
Discriminating or non-discriminating voting is ultimately meaningless. This is pure, dumbed-down democracy in which everyone participates and everyone is a judge. *