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Once, it seemed as if no politician could test the line between reality TV and modern campaigning as boldly as Donald Trump. But now, there’s Caitlyn Jenner. Shortly before announcing her bid for California governor, the athlete-turned-reality-star strutted across the stage in a gaudy phoenix suit on “The Masked Singer.” On the trail now, Jenner travels with her own film crew. And late this week, Australian tabloids reported that she has absconded from the state altogether—and is currently in Australia, preparing to film “Celebrity Big Brother.”
You could chalk it up to a typical career move for Jenner, a veteran of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and the post-transition spinoff “I Am Cait.” But the former Olympian is hardly the first Republican to cross over from politics to reality TV, and vice versa. In recent years, GOP politicians and operatives—even some who aren’t as openly theatrical as Jenner or Trump—have embraced the cheesiest and most outrageous corners of reality TV, unafraid of ridicule, artistic failure or the scrutiny of a thousand entertainment recappers.
Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer did a controversial turn on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2019, not long after former Texas governor Rick Perry and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did their own two-left-feet tours on the show. Trump’s former comms director Anthony Scaramucci and aide Omarosa Maginault-Newman—who first met Trump on season one of “The Apprentice”—went almost directly from the Trump White House to “Celebrity Big Brother.” And of course, there was Trump himself, whose springboard to the presidency was a character he played on “The Apprentice”: a successful, no-nonsense businessman with a tangential connection to actual reality and a ridiculous catchphrase, “Ya fired.”
But while over-the-top reality TV has become a familiar launching pad and soft landing spot for Republicans, there is something curiously missing from that ecosystem: Democrats.
You could chalk it up to yet another irreconcilable difference between the parties, driven partly by history, partly by demographics and partly by Trump himself, who applied the rules of reality TV to the Washington news cycle. If Trump was an affront to liberal sensibilities, so might be any reality show that feels bawdy, brash, over-the-top and open to showboating.
“There’s an enormous dignity gap in the culture,” says Steve Schmidt, a onetime Republican political consultant who left the GOP in frustration over Trumpism and co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. He says Biden and Trump voters have different standards for a public servant’s behavior. A Biden fan is inclined to judge politicians by “your bearing, how you comport yourself, how you act,” he says. “‘Am I going to go on ‘Dancing With the Stars in a sequined outfit?’ ‘No, I’m not.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I was governor of Texas for four years.’”
But Schmidt also acknowledged that reality TV has become, not just a useful political tool for anyone who is sufficiently shameless, but a game-changer in public discourse. “It represents a slice of the communications ecosystem in which a goodly portion of the country receives their information, right?” he says. And the tropes and values of the medium, zapped into households every night, have changed expectations for the way public figures can and should behave—with humiliation-proof Trump as the chief example.
“Has reality show culture, on a 20-year basis, shaped the character of the country?” Schmidt says. “Every bit as much as the wars … that were fought over the exact same amount of time. Probably more.”
And right now, it’s mostly Republicans who are taking advantage.
The reality genre, a television staple for nearly 30 years, is so broad by now that it’s impossible to assign it a single aesthetic or political bent. It encompasses social experiments (from MTV’s classic “The Real World” to the current Netflix series “Love is Blind); creative showcases (“Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” “Cupcake Wars”); docu-series that mock the rich and famous (“The Simple Life,” “The Osbournes,” the Kardashians universe); docu-series that celebrate blue-collar work (“The Greatest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers.”) Most shows purport to be politically neutral, even as they play-act the culture wars; “The Bachelor,” has, with notable stumbles, taken on gender relations, religion and, most recently, race, while trying somehow to remain popular with everyone.
Some shows really are popular with everyone; polls consistently show that “Survivor” ranks high with both Democrats and Republicans. But in general, TV preferences over the years have broken down along political lines. A 2011 report by the consumer research firm Experian, commissioned for Entertainment Weekly, surveyed self-identified “liberal Democrats” and “conservative Republicans” about their favorite shows. Liberals preferred “literate media-savvy comedies” like “The Daily Show,” “30 Rock,” and “Parks and Recreation.” Conservatives were drawn to crime dramas like “NCIS” and “The Mentalist.” And, more than liberals, conservatives were drawn to reality shows, from “Swamp Loggers” and “Pawn Stars” to “The Bachelor” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
In part, Schmidt says, that’s a function of education. Whether you have a college degree, he points out, is a major predictor of which political party you’ll support—and cultural preferences are often intertwined with political ones. When highly-educated liberals watch reality TV, it’s often with a sense of detachment: taking part in a guilty pleasure, as opposed to an outright pleasure. But fans of “Dancing With the Stars” are generally there for unironic joy. And at this point, “Dancing with the Stars” base is, for all intents and purposes, the GOP base, too. A 2019 report in Variety noted that of the 10 markets where the show had recently performed best, eight were in states that went for Trump in 2016, and the top one was the Florida market that covers Mar-a-Lago.
Politicians understand what’s in it for them—and what isn’t. In 2010, when Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol was cast on “Dancing With the Stars,” a casting director for the show told the Los Angeles Times that she often reached out to Democrats, to no avail. By 2011, Al Sharpton had turned down the show three times.
When Democrats do entertainment, they tend to choose a different approach—less risky, less broad, more consciously self-aware. When President Barack Obama wanted to drum up support for the Affordable Care Act in 2014, he deadpanned with Zach Galifianakis on the droll hipster web show “Between Two Ferns” and bantered with Jerry Seinfeld on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” making certain the audience knew that he was only playing the game because he had a policy to plug. In 2018, the Obamas inked a Netflix deal that called for documentaries and scripted series with a high-minded mission: “to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples.” And while Hillary Clinton did good-natured, scripted turns on “Saturday Night Live” during her presidential campaigns, US Weekly reported that in 2017, she was offered a spot on “Dancing with the Stars” and declined.
Given her base, that probably felt like a logical move. Longtime Democratic consultant Joe Trippi muses that prominent liberal politicians would face a penalty from voters if they skipped straight from government office to goofy reality shows. “I think a lot of Democrats would think it lacked seriousness,” he says. “’With all the things that you could be doing with the experience you built up, that’s what you decided to do with it?’”
But on the right, there’s no apparent penalty for good-natured humiliation; if anything, you win points from the base for being approachable, anti-elitist, and a good sport. Within months of his high-camp appearances on “Dancing with the Stars,” where he spun around a tractor in a pink satin vest to the sounds of the “Green Acres” theme song (and spent some of his airtime talking about the needs of veterans), Perry had a new job in Trump’s Cabinet, as secretary of energy.
The first GOP politician to fully embrace the possibilities of reality TV—as a medium for image-honing, star-making, and sticking it to your foes with a smile—might well have been Sarah Palin. After her polarizing turn as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008, Palin resigned the Alaska governorship and doubled down on television. “She became, in all the history of the country, the first politician to quit mid-term to become a celebrity,” says Schmidt, who, as a senior advisor to McCain’s campaign, unwittingly helped launch her into the stratosphere.
Before long, Palin had booked a TLC reality show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” which portrayed her as a combination of fierce mama bear and backwoods pixie dreamgirl: scaling rocks, wrestling fish and shooting a caribou. If it didn’t extend her career in elected office, it at least solidified her image as a kind of conservative mascot, proudly antithetical to the liberal establishment.
Years later, Palin is still using reality TV to stay relevant. She went on “The Masked Singer” herself in 2020, dressed as a pink-and-lilac bear in fuzzy leg warmers, and sang an exuberant if off-key version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Liberal literati was predictably aghast: “Sarah Palin Marks End Times With ‘Masked Singer’ Performance,” read the headline in the Daily Beast. But to the cheering crowd, Palin delivered a joyous performance and, if you squinted hard enough, a sly feminist message. (She pointed out that she had put a gender twist on the song, and while she never would have put it in these terms, she was essentially making a statement about the male gaze.) On the aftershow, Palin told host Nick Cannon that she thought of her appearance as a “walking middle finger to the haters.”
For Republicans who have been battered in the mainstream press, reality TV can be an attractive way to fight back. Sean Spicer was mocked mercilessly on “Saturday Night Live” during the Trump administration, played by Melissa McCarthy as a grumpy troll who bleated out insults to reporters. When Spicer turned up on the “Dancing With the Stars” premiere, he seemed, to the naked eye, equally emasculated; he wore a lime-green ruffled shirt and shook his booty arythmically to a Spice Girls song. But Spicer had the cheers of the crowd behind him and a paycheck to take home in the end. And as the weeks went by, his profound lack of dancing ability become its own front in the culture wars, as his supporters—goaded on by Trump—kept voting for him, over the objections of the professional judges.
Spicer didn’t win the show’s mirrorball trophy, but he walked away with a bolstered sense of goodwill from the GOP base and another TV job, this time at Newsmax. That seemed a natural fit, too; the most pugnacious right-wing networks are, in many ways, an extension of the reality aesthetic, and a turn on a competition show can feel like a dry run for a firebrand hosting gig.
Indeed, it might be possible to trace the roots of Tucker Carlson’s reinvention—from conservative intellectual to unapologetic Fox News bomb-hurler—to his own appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2006. Carlson, an MSNBC correspondent at the time, was an objectively terrible dancer who only lasted long enough for one performance; for much of it, he simply sat in a chair as his partner gyrated around him in a feathered leotard. And though the judges were cruel—“You looked like you were sitting on a toilet!” said Italian choreographer Bruno Tonioli—Carlson seemed unfazed. He credited Tonioli for “kind of an artful put-down” and overall seemed giddy about the experience: “I can’t believe I just did that! I loved it, actually!”
It was almost as if Carlson had decided, in real time, to embrace a reality culture that favors a certain type of figure—bold, showboating, fearless, aggressively of-the-people. Some of the biggest stars in politics today—figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene—have parlayed those same qualities into elected office and fundraising success. From the earliest days of Hollywood, the entertainment industry has inspired the way politicians carry themselves, says Purdue University historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell, whose book Showbiz Politics traces the behind-the-scenes relationships between Washington and Hollywood. “One of the things I’ve … come to see in my research,” Brownell says, “is that how we define success—how political operatives, how journalists, how commentators, how elected officials, how they define success—can create new cultural values about what we’re looking for in elected officials.”
Those reality traits are destined to land differently with Republicans and Democrats, Trippi says. In focus groups, he’s found that voters of the two parties have conflicting ideas about what makes an ideal leader. In election years when voters are craving change, for instance, Democrats tend to gravitate toward candidates with out-on-a-limb policy ideas, while Republicans talk about simply throwing everybody out. It’s easy to guess which of these would also be the ideal reality TV character: the one who comes in and turns everything upside down, for better or worse.
Still, every once in a while, a Democrat turns up with a glimmer of reality TV spirit—a willingness to use a little mild humiliation to project a populist appeal, and to stay famous, on some simmering level, forever and ever and ever, perhaps until the next political opportunity comes around. When he ran for president in 2020, Andrew Yang went from obscurity to notoriety by accepting that no publicity is bad publicity and testing out Trumpesque slogans (“MATH”). Now that he’s lost his bid to be mayor of New York, it’s not hard to picture him tripping over himself on a celebrity dance competition, or even jumping on giant balls on some version of “Wipeout.” On the next season of “The Masked Singer,” who knows who could be inside one of those suits.
‘It’s 2021, it’s not 1950:’ Women politicians in N.S. show support for Robyn Ingraham – Global News
Pamela Lovelace is no stranger to the sexism encountered by women in politics.
She ran for Liberal nomination back in 2013, and is now a Halifax regional councillor for District 13 and says she’s encountered all sorts of comments — because she is a woman — while trying to get elected.
“I remember someone saying ‘why are you here? Why are you doing this, you have a family?’” said Lovelace. “I said, ‘well my opponent has a family too’ and the response was ‘yeah, he has a wife though.’”
While Lovelace says politics is still very much an old boys’ club and that it’s hard for women to get into office, she says parties should support diversity among their candidates.
She says it was discouraging to find out a Liberal candidate in this provincial election was kicked out of the party for posting and selling boudoir photos online.
“I was really disappointed to hear that the political landscape is talking about what a person has done with their body rather than the actual ideas that Nova Scotians care about,” Lovelace said.
Earlier this week Robyn Ingraham withdrew as the Liberal candidate for Dartmouth South. She originally posted online that it was due to mental health reasons, but then she later posted to her Instagram account that the party had taken issue with her boudoir photos and Only Fans account despite her having disclosed that during the nomination process.
A barber and small business owner, Ingraham also published an email she said she had sent to Rankin, which stated the party had made a mistake by forcing her out. “The misogynistic behaviour of those above you is not tolerable,” she wrote to the premier. “It’s not my job to make old white men comfortable.”
Former Liberal candidate says party ousted her over ‘boudoir photos’
On Friday, Rankin’s news conference in rural Cape Breton about tourism funding quickly turned into a barrage of questions from reporters about how the ousting of Ingraham occurred, what was said and who was responsible. He confirmed his team “assisted” Ingraham with her resignation statement and said he has been repeatedly trying to contact her to learn her version of events.
But in a brief interview with The Canadian Press at her barbershop in Dartmouth, N.S., Ingraham said she doesn’t plan to speak with Rankin.
“I haven’t spoken to him and I have no intention of speaking to him,” she said. “I just wanted my story to get out there.”
She also said she doesn’t want to run for any other party. “I just want to get back to running my business,” she said at her shop, called Devoted Barbers and Co.
Lovelace said what was done to Ingraham was an injustice.
“Let’s get her back on the ballot,” said Lovelace. “It’s 2021, it’s not 1950, so let’s move on to better politics in Nova Scotia.”
Claudia Chender is running as the NDP candidate for the same riding Ingraham has dropped out of and says this whole situation shows the double standard for men and women in politics.
“I think we are past the point where we should be embroiled in this type of situation as a scandal, but unfortunately we still have a lot of misogyny, frankly, in Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia politics.”
Chender says whether or not someone takes or sells revealing photos of themselves does not have an impact on how they can help the community.
Nova Scotia housing prices an election issue
“Political candidates should be judged on how are you going to make things better, how are you going to fix things?” said Chender.
“I think anything else that’s happening in their own personal lives that isn’t causing people harm is nobody’s business.”
Ingraham’s removal from the ballot has caught the attention of women across the country and many are showing her their support.
In a Twitter post, Mackenzie Kerr, a Green Party candidate in British Columbia posted her own boudoir image with the caption “It’s time we change the definition of professionalism.”
Back in Nova Scotia, a former PC candidate for Dartmouth South says she can’t believe women are still being judged for taking control of their own bodies.
“It’s horrible because Robyn is experiencing what I went through,” said Jad Crnogorac.
Crnogorac is a fitness instructor and says she herself has had professional boudoir photos done and hasn’t been shy of posting those photos or bikini photos of herself online.
She says when she was nominated as a PC candidate the party knew all of this but says just before the writ dropped she was approached and asked to remove some of her photos.
“I was really really angry,” said Crnogorac. “This is why strong women don’t go into politics because someone always finds a way to drag you through it and it’s just not appealing.”
Crnogorac was ultimately kicked out of the PC party as a candidate after tweets deemed racist surfaced but she maintains there’s a double standard for women in politics versus men.
“The leader of a party can do something illegal and have two DUIs and still be the leader of the party,” she said, referring to Iain Rankin’s recent admission to past impaired driving charges.
“Why do we have to have this picture-perfect female versus the men who can do whatever they want and still be a politician?” she asks.
–With files from The Canadian Press
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Politics: The Minders and Mandarins of Capitalism – The Wall Street Journal
James R. Otteson’s “Seven Deadly Economic Sins” (Cambridge, 305 pages, $27.95) is a fine effort to introduce readers to the basic principles of market economics. The hamartiological framing—the “sins” are bad assumptions about how markets work—is part of the author’s effort to make the subject more engaging than a typical treatise on economics. It works. Mr. Otteson, a professor of business ethics at Notre Dame, writes with an apt combination of casual wit and rigorous logic.
I only regret that the book had to be written at all. There was a time in this country’s history—if the reader will allow a bit of declinist gloom—when America’s political class understood by instinct that wealth in a market economy comes about by voluntary exchanges in which all parties benefit. We do not live in such a time. About half of this country’s high-level elected officials appear to believe that some Americans have money because they took it from other Americans (the rich got rich “on the backs of workers” is a common trope). And so it is left to scholars such as Mr. Otteson to spell out the difference between zero-sum and positive-sum economic relationships.
A transaction based on extraction or theft is zero-sum (1 – 1 = 0). A transaction based on a mutual exchange is positive-sum (1 + 1 = 2). Wealth in most societies before about 1800, he reminds us, was based on the former model; wealth in market economies is based on the latter. What we need is someone able to explain to our well-intentioned politicos that the wealth they want to reallocate came about from mutually beneficial positive-sum transactions and not from zero-sum extraction. The way to diminish poverty and aid the disadvantaged is therefore not to punish positive-sum exchanges by taxation, but to allow more of them.
Other chapters in the book treat the “Good Is Good Enough Fallacy,” or the idea that every beneficial end is worth pursuing by all available means; the “Progress Is Inevitable Fallacy,” or the idea that a certain level of prosperity is guaranteed no matter what we do; and the “Great Mind Fallacy,” or the idea “that there is some person or group that possesses the relevant knowledge to know how others should allocate their scarce time or treasure.”
This latter point isn’t new—you can read the gist of it in Friedrich Hayek’s essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) or Thomas Sowell’s book “Knowledge and Decisions” (1980)—but Mr. Otteson helpfully elucidates it in terms of individual experience. The experts may know that high-sugar carbonated drinks are on balance bad for your health, but they cannot know if you, in your circumstances, should or shouldn’t have a Coke. Most people would agree with that observation, but it is remarkable how many government policies are premised on its antithesis. City bans on unhealthy habits, state subsidies for favored industries, tax breaks meant to encourage virtuous behavior—these and a thousand other state-backed strategems assume the authorities and their experts understand immeasurably complex circumstances that they can’t possibly understand. But the alternative—allowing the people who do understand them to make their own decisions, even if they’re wrong—isn’t so satisfying to our governmental minders.
“The Power of Creative Destruction” (Belknap/Harvard, 389 pages, $35), translated by Jodie Cohen-Tanugi, is a full expression of the Great Mind outlook. Not that the authors—Philippe Aghion, Céline Antonin and Simon Bunel, all associated with the Collège de France—are socialists or militant redistributionists. They are mandarins. They recognize that you can’t pay for the modern welfare state or enjoy high levels of prosperity without robust economic growth. But capitalism, in their view, is constantly menacing itself and requires the aid of sage policy makers to prevent its collapse.
The authors are heavily influenced by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. In “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” (1942), Schumpeter contended that capitalism was doomed by its own logic. The capitalist system depends on a constant succession of entrepreneurs dislodging established firms—a process he called “creative destruction.” But eventually, he saw, yesterday’s innovators become today’s monopolists and learn to use the levers of power to prevent further innovation. Growth diminishes; a dissatisfied public demands welfare-state protections and restrictions on entrepreneurial activity; and capitalism, deprived of growth, slowly transmutes into socialism.
Clearly some parts of that analysis are valid, although Schumpeter was mistaken, in my view, to think of capitalism as a “structure” that can’t adapt to the demands placed on it by an intermittently irrational public. Mr. Aghion, Ms. Antonin and Mr. Bunel share Schumpeter’s overdefined understanding of capitalism. “Capitalism must reward innovation,” they write, “but it must be regulated to prevent innovation rents”—rents meaning profits accruing to incumbent firms—“from stifling competition and thus jeopardizing future innovation.”
And what sort of regulations do they think will encourage innovation, foster competition and save capitalism from itself? You may have guessed already. Industrial policy: tariffs and other protections, subsidies to viable industries and firms, “investments” in R&D and higher education, and so on. What capitalism needs, if I may put their argument in my own words, is more public officials ready to heed the advice of centrist academic economists.
The book is rife with charts and graphs, and the authors cite a bewildering array of highly specialized studies. Much of this technical argumentation strikes me as overdone. I appreciate, for instance, the conclusion that lobbying and barriers to entry are likelier than innovation and competition to aggravate inequality. But people who think markets worsen inequality are committed to an unfalsifiable ideology and won’t be moved by any combination of graph-packed quantitative studies.
Love and death in a utopian community, the remorseless business of slavery, a passion for peacocks, updating Sir Gawain and more.
“The Power of Creative Destruction” is an impressive book in its way, but the authors don’t acknowledge the—to me—obvious objection. Once you afford governmental bodies the power to manage the economy, you also give established firms the tools with which to insulate themselves from competition. Wouldn’t it be easier and more effective to deprive incumbent firms of any special privileges and let them figure out how to survive? Then again, if we did that, we wouldn’t need so many mandarins.
Book review: Border politics serve up racism, human exploitation – Vancouver Sun
Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism
Harsha Walia | Fernwood Publishing (Halifax and Winnipeg, 2021)
$27 | 320pp
Borders are far more than lines on paper.
As local organizer, activist and scholar, Harsh Walia demonstrates in her passionately felt, deeply researched and closely reasoned new book, Border and Rule, that borders can serve as lethally intricate mechanisms of imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism and class exploitation.
They work to divide workers and undermine international solidarity, while inscribing cartographies of privilege and oppression on the long-suffering face of the Earth.
And yet in mainstream discussions, borders are only questioned when heart-rending images of migrant children huddling miserably in U.S. border holding pens or drowned on the shores of the Mediterranean inspire brief and self-congratulatory spasms of outrage and pity among comfortable observers on the “right” side of the borders.
Walia, who has spent much of her adult life doing the hard work of organizing solidarity activity and saving lives of those threatened with deportation back to the dangers they are fleeing, is understandably dismissive of such liberal responses. She points out that centuries of imperial conquest, colonial occupation and gendered, racist segmentation of the workforce have set the stage for the current global crisis, which saw over 80 millions of our sisters and brothers driven forcibly from their homes last year, according to the United Nations, while hundreds of millions more have been forced to migrate by climate disasters, poverty and famine. Such disasters are, Walia persuasively argues, not so much “natural” as created by economic and social relations (aka predatory and racialized capitalism and a world order designed to serve the needs of the rich over the needs of the rest of us).
Walia’s analysis is dense and complex, and her language occasionally overburdened with abstraction. But even where her thought is difficult, it is always worth the time it takes to grasp.
This is a remarkable book that reflects a lifetime of activism and reflection on the author’s part — Walia has been in the news lately, resigning as executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association after a controversial social media post on arson committed at several Catholic churches. Still, this book is rich with learnings for us all.
Her core argument, that “a political and economic system that treats land as a commodity, Indigenous people as overburden, race as a principle of social organization, women’s caretaking as worthless, workers as exploitable, climate refugees as expendable and the entire planet as a sacrifice zone must be dismantled,” will challenge and inspire readers.
Tom Sandborn crossed a border to live in Vancouver in 1967. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at email@example.com
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