Electoral politics are, in the best ways and also in the worst, reality shows. They are heavily structured. They thrive on “competition” that’s more accurately framed as “Darwinian struggles for survival.” No one will be there to make friends. Someone will, with a reassuring predictability, get voted off the island. Someone will sing, inevitably. Someone will cry, inevitably. Someone will be there for the right reasons. Someone will be there for the wrong ones. But in the end, finally—because this is how the Founders, which is to say the show’s producers, have declared that it shall be, on our way to our more perfect union—someone will win America’s Final Rose.
It’s fitting, then, that one of the characters who emerged from her own time competing on America’s Next Top Candidate might soon be starring in her own reality show. People reports that Sarah Palin, former vice presidential candidate and current Trump supporter, “has been tapped to preside over a new reality court show that would premiere next year.” The show, as People describes it, will be similar to Judge Judy. (The name has not yet been announced; possible contenders, however, courtesy of Atlantic staffers, include Beyond the Palin, Nailin’ (Justice With) Palin, The Palin Comparison, Alaska ‘Bout Justice, Plain Tiffs With Sarah Palin, and—it’s yours if you want it, producers—Palin’ Around With Justice.)
Palin, who studied journalism at her various colleges, does not have a law degree; this seems to matter not all. Because, a source notes, what she does have are a “telegenic personality, wide appeal, and common-sense wisdom,” all of which “make her a natural for this kind of format.”
It’s probably true! And if you are familiar with Sarah Palin and/or with the moral aesthetics of reality TV, nothing about this turn of events will likely be terribly surprising to you. But it’s worth taking a moment to consider why, precisely, it’s unsurprising.
It’s a common thing, now, to point out the “revolving door” that filters staffers of presidential administrations to other industries, and vice versa. The revolving door with Wall Street. With Silicon Valley. With lobbying firms. With the “private sector” in general. But there’s also the door that gets less angst-ed about, not because it’s any less problematic than its counterparts, but because it’s so deeply embedded in the logic of an election system that takes so many of its cues from American Idol: the revolving door between politics and television.
Palin, having lost the election but won some hearts, became a commentator on Fox News. So did Mike Huckabee. Van Jones, President Obama’s former Special Adviser for Green Jobs, is a regular on CNN. So is Donna Brazile, a political strategist and the former interim Chair for the Democratic National Committee. And on and on. And, certainly, it makes sense: Who better to offer expert commentary on the daily doings of American politics than the people who have been in the trenches?
But. Now we have Palin, moving not just from politics to talking-about-politics, but from politics to something-that-has-nothing-at-all-to-do-with-politics. Here she is, channeling Reagan and Schwarzenegger and Fred Thompson and Sonny Bono, in a door that filters people not just between campaigns and TV news, but between campaigns and pure entertainment. Palin Judge Judy-ing herself is, of course, only the latest example of candidates, and former candidates, feeding—and feeding from—the reality TV-industrial complex. Tom DeLay on Dancing With the Stars. Donald Trump on The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice.
It’s no surprise, given all that, that The Huffington Post expressed ontological confusion about what Trump, as a candidate, is. Nor is it a surprise that this particular campaign season has given us a series of debates that are so dramatic—and so reliant, for their narrative tension, on the culling of their stars’ own numbers—as to read as installments of Survivor. Palin’s new show is a cashing-out answer to Barack Obama’s appearance on Running Wild With Bear Gryllis, and to Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Broad City: It is recognizing, just as the reality-TV industry does, that screen time—whether it speaks to the American superego or the American id—is its own kind of currency.
In 2012, in The New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker compared electoral politics to reality TV. And yet, he added: “An American presidential campaign isn’t just ‘a reality show’ or even a mere ‘story.’ It is a transmedia meta-narrative. By transmedia I mean that it plays out not only in televised debates but also in ads, books, events, the daily paper, social media, and shouting matches in bars.” And now, an election cycle later, you can add one more place to the mix: a fake courtroom, presided over by a fake judge.
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