Reality TV Politics

Soundbites and slogans might work in Washington, but closer to home voters expect results.
September 2019
Democrats are increasingly adopting simple phrases to break through the noise, such as “Medicare for all” or “cancel student debt.” (AP)
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Can we get past the idea that politics is a reality show?” a television critic wondered in the aftermath of one of the Democratic presidential debates. A team of Italian economists thinks the answer is “no.”

A popular Italian entertainment network, Mediaset, came onto the scene in the early 1980s. Those who watched a lot of its reality TV shows, the researchers found, came to expect that kind of entertainment from political campaigns as well. It then set the stage for a generation of populist leaders who gave them reality TV politics.

It’s not just Italy, of course. And it’s not just TV, either. Social media is a culprit, too. There are billions of Google searches every day, nearly 14 billion hours of shared video on YouTube, 50 billion WhatsApp messages and 500 million Tweets. Most people with a smartphone check it 50 times a day or more. As a result, some critics jibe, the attention span of humans (8 seconds) is now less than that of a goldfish (9 seconds). Moreover, “the more we know, or can see, the less we trust,” the research firm Axios concludes. About 62 percent of us get our news on social media, but most of us—68 percent—don’t trust the news that crosses our screens.

This has fundamentally transformed our presidential campaigns. Democrats are moving to simple phrases to break through the noise, such as “Medicare for all” or “cancel student debt,” and away from complicated ideas, like how to address climate change, that require a lot of words. Of course, they’ve learned from the very best at the game, President Trump, the global king of Tweets who bottled electoral magic with his “build the wall” pledge.

And that, in turn, has radically transformed election-year promises for programs dealing with states and cities. Until very recently, no self-respecting candidate for national office could shoot for the presidency without at least a couple of significant local arrows in their quiver. Even the 2016 presidential campaign had a debate about investing in infrastructure, seemingly a sure bet to pass a divided Congress, but the idea evaporated in the blizzard of reality TV national politics.

Reality TV politics seem destined to dominate the coming presidential election. But state and local candidates aren’t likely to get far with that campaign style. Outside Washington, officials have to deliver on the things voters need, and what we really need requires more focus than shallow TV entertainment can provide. In fact, there’s probably never been a time in American history with a bigger gulf between national leaders and local realities.

In 2017, Politico ran a story on “America’s 11 Most Interesting Mayors.” There was Eric Garcetti from Los Angeles, who told the reporter that “my main job, and my overwhelming job, starts with my family, my street, my neighborhood and my city.” He managed to win a campaign for higher taxes to pay for mass transit and housing for the homeless. Reno, Nev.’s Hillary Schieve is helping to build her city into a high-tech center. In Louisville, Ky., Greg Fischer is a self-proclaimed data geek, while Boston’s Marty Walsh is a “union hall progressive” and has flown the transgender flag over city hall. These and other top mayors have made their mark on their cities—but none of them have done it as reality TV candidates. They make commitments and must be seen working to honor them.

The same goes for most of the nation’s leading governors. Those who tried the reality-style approach had short-lived success. In Kansas, Sam Brownback was a soundbite conservative who lived and died on punchy slogans. He pushed through big tax cuts aimed at fueling economic growth. What he got instead was sluggish growth and big deficits. Republican leaders turned on Brownback, and the legislature pushed through tax increases to balance the budget. He left office with two-thirds of his citizens having an unfavorable opinion of him. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker did little better, as he became increasingly unmoored from his conservative identity in battling the king of reality TV for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg says that “people are desperate for government to show it can do big things.” What they seem to want from their presidential candidates is what mayors and governors, both Republican and Democratic, do every day. But these efforts don’t translate well to reality show politics—and reality show politics don’t work well on the ground. It’s getting harder for tangible local issues to break through in presidential politics.

The result is that everyone is frustrated. Presidential candidates are searching for the perfect catchphrase, because that’s what resonates most with voters. But voters don’t trust most of what they hear. They might vote for slogans, but they expect results that matter to them in their communities.

The search for that magic slogan couldn’t be more different from the reality of state and local politics—real programs that affect real people on their doorsteps. We’re heading for two tiers of politics, with presidential campaigns increasingly disconnected from what citizens really claim to want. The result is that this presidential campaign is shaping up to be particularly barren of ideas that connect with state and local governments.

Next year I am releasing a book, The Divided States of America, that looks, in part, at federalism and the shrinking number of places to discuss it. Now that Governing is shutting down, the loss of this column is the loss of one more such space, a place to examine how, among other things, reality TV politics is impacting federal, state and local government. I’ve had the great privilege of sharing ideas with you here for 22 years. Along the way, I’ve heard from many of you, and it’s been an honor to talk with the most engaged and thoughtful people I know. We’ll all miss Governing—surely even more than we know.