Thursday, April 7, 2011

Politics as Reality TV

. Thursday, April 7, 2011

One of my good friends (and grad school colleagues) asks Tyler Cowen a question:

By email, from Joshua Miller:

Do you think there is an audience for a public policy game show? The idea would be to ask contestants to solve policy problems instead of asking them to navigate obstacle courses or eat spiders.

Much of my research is on deliberative democracy and civic engagement, but though Obama used that rhetoric in his campaign there haven’t been any major policy moves to increase civic engagement. So I wondered:

What would the world look like if people talked as much about financial regulatory reform as they do about American Idol?
If you have any comments, I’d appreciate them. I don’t imagine this as some sort of televised town hall meeting; rather, I envision judging contestants’ policy choices according to realistic projections of their impact.

Cowen responds by pointing to Alex Tabarrok's years-old post discussing a hypothetical game show -- "So You Think You Can Be President?" -- that would be structured in ways similar to those Josh proposes. Well, I can play that game too. We've discussed similar things, e.g. here and here.

More seriously, this taps into a larger running conversation that Josh and I have had over the years. He argues that deliberative democracy is a Very Good Thing, and has focused a lot of his research on how to create space in the public sphere for more of it. I argue that unicorns are also Very Good Things, and are about as realistic as a robust deliberative democracy in the sense that he'd like to see. For most people politics is much more like sports (or American Idol) than an ideal academy: it's about winners and losers, backstories and narratives. It's not about a high-minded struggle with the contradictions inherent in political and economic systems and trying to build consensus according to some sort of egalitarian principles.

In short, I think a reality show (or actual society) in which people debated financial regulatory reform would be roughly as vapid and empty of serious discussion in popular culture as the real world is. Rather than elevating society towards the heavens, it would quickly descend into name-calling and reputation-smearing. If you think of cable "news" networks as a microcosm of how this would work in practice, you'll see what I mean.

UPDATE: Welp, just talked to my friend Joshua Miller, and he didn't write that e-mail to Cowen. Eerie, because it reads like him, and both Josh Millers seem to be researching similar things. Anyway, the rest of the post stands.


Politics as Reality TV
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