The Reality Show Politics of 2010

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Newser's Michael Wolff notes that the more a candidate seems to lack "gravity," "probity," and "confidence," the better he or she seems to do this cycle. (I'd add: when the media points out their lack of such qualities, the reaction from people who support these candidates is to say to themselves, "See? The media is attacking US. Let's spit in their eye.") "Can anybody be president," he wonders? Wolff suggests that wackiness cuts through the clutter.

I've got a different thesis. Wackiness will always cut through the clutter. But the difference this cycle is that wackiness has been MAINSTREAMED. Hecklers and provocateurs have been mainstreamed.

Then the question becomes: How did we get here?

Look at our fascination with reality shows and pornography. The ubiquity of pornography and its ease of access has made it more acceptable to view and joke about, and has made the industry itself insanely profitable. Reality television brings "real" life into our living rooms every night. Shows are hugely popular. And most of the people who participate in those shows are presented as slice-of-life ordinary Joes ... who just happen to be bat-dung crazy at times. We root for the most devious, the most Machiavellian characters. We delight in their trials and tribulations. We identify with them, in a way. They're an outlet. 

Maybe we've become, as a culture, conditioned to accept a significant amount of deviation from the norm in a way that would not have been imaginable before Mark Burnett invented the concept of reality television.

But all the reality shows -- and the characters who have been mainstreamed and are now a part of our lives, people who we would otherwise encounter when we browsed the tabloids at the supermarket -- have conditioned us for "wild and woolly" candidates. Culture bleeds into politics, and the other way around.

Now, at this juncture, you're probably saying: these candidates, these wacky candidates, are all right of center, and they're clearly enabled by technological factors to find audiences that they never would have had access to before. True. But why do audiences accept them? I think that elite media derision, as it always has, helps to legitimize people for a large segment of the American public that believe themselves to be at odds with the establishment. But that doesn't explain the wackiness factor.

My theory...just a theory...is that culture does.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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