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Watching Reality TV’s Ultimate Show: the 2012 Election

From Obama to Palin to Gingrich, it promises to be a show with an initial cast of peculiar personalities — but it’s better than blood in the streets

The preparations started months, even years, ago, though the pronouncements remained somewhat muted. But the curtain started to rise in November and will continue to do so in December. And once the New Year begins, it will be time for the ultimate American reality show: the 2012 Presidential Election.

Other than here in Washington, where it is hard for residents to think of anything more entertaining than politics, a lot – likely most – people around the country will cringe that just a few weeks after being saturated with commercials for the 2010 midterm elections, they are about to go through this all again. And make no mistake, 2012 promises to be a show with an initial cast of peculiar personalities.

The suffocating realities of being the most powerful person alive aside, Barack Obama is still one of the most compelling politicians in years. And on the Republican side, the stories, side-stories, and silly stories of a list including Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee, among others, will supply networks, cable news, and internet bloggers with an endless number of things to yack about.

The process will tax us more than a refusal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, but it’s worth keeping a few things in mind as we watch/endure this spectacle for the next two years.

First, as wearying as this whole process will become, it’s better than blood in the streets. People forget that democratic elections and court trials take us a step beyond killing and thuggery – which is not to say that there isn’t occasional thuggery and sadly even killing – as part of the American political process. In a lot of places throughout history and around the world today, succession of power has taken place at gunpoint and dispute-resolution has been achieved by violence.

The system now is one where you can turn off the channel. So, it’s not as bad as we might think and is worth putting up with more than we might care to admit.

Second, politics is entertainment. I’m not talking about how an entertainer like Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger becomes an elected political leader. I’m not even talking about how enthusiastic political advocates might even cast an amazing number of votes for Bristol Palin. I’m talking about how politicians instinctively realize that their best chance at getting elected is to be entertaining.

After all, what is the staple of EVERY political contest? A SPEECH. And you are not going to motivate people to do something if that speech doesn’t have some cleverness in it. This isn’t just today; over 150 years ago, people in my home state of Illinois flocked to little towns strewn all over the Land of Lincoln to hear Stephen Douglas debate the guy after which the state became nicknamed. Politics is meant to be entertaining.

Third, it’s become very clear over the last several years that the coverage of politics is entertainment as well. Ted Koppel recently called out FOX and MSNBC among others for failing to rigorously and objectively pursue the news and instead simply entertain already-committed political audiences; i.e. FOX for the conservatives and MSNBC for the liberals. And there has been a dust-up over political contributions made by commentators.

As an ethicist, I get the conflict of interest issue pertaining to Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough. And, as a committedly moderate television viewer, I much prefer a Koppel or Cronkite (though I know charges are made as to how objective each was) to today’s cable shows. But I’m hardly surprised and rather than having a rule that prevents the commentator or even anchor from exercising their First Amendment rights, I’d just as soon see a screen each week that announces who the person gave money to and let folks have at it with that.

In short, we’ll get bored with the election in large part because it is about 18 months too long, but I’ll take it (even with biased media coverage) over the alternatives and, you know, it might just provide some entertaining moments if we listen in. It’s the ultimate reality television show where we get to vote and it tends to have some impact on our daily lives.

Dr. Timothy Fort, is the executive director of the Institute for Corporate Responsibility, holds the Lindner-Gambal Professorship of Business Ethics at George Washington University School of Business.