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The Real Reason We’re in This Mess

As a morbidly fascinated world looks on with a mixture of horror, incredulity and schadenfreude, each day brings further evidence that a person unfit to hold even the office of dogcatcher – except in a town with no dogs – has somehow been elected as the leader of a nation widely considered the most powerful on Earth. In the orgy of second-guessing over how such a surreal turn of events could have come to pass, accusing fingers point toward Vladimir Putin, James Comey and other convenient culprits. But such recriminations ignore an obvious, elephant-in-the-room reason for last November’s shock – and it’s a factor that could have a similarly disastrous impact on future elections.

That factor is the insidious effect “Q-rating” has on the choices we make. Q-rating is an advertising term for public familiarity and appeal, and while its operation in the political sphere seems to be a cultural blind spot, its effect there has become amplified to such a degree by television and the Internet that we now have an unprecedented situation in which not only is the cart pulling the horse, but the clown is, quite literally, running the circus.

Such a travesty was bound to happen sooner or later, for the simple reason that any candidate who’s already a media star when he or she enters the political arena starts out with so lopsided a Q-rating advantage that career politicians would have to spend inordinate sums of money just to level the playing field, which could take years. TV advertisers have known for decades that even the most annoying commercials succeed in boosting a product’s sales, because the annoyance they provoke is eclipsed in its effect on consumer behavior by the increase in Q-rating that results from repeated exposure. This means that what’s being said can matter far less than how often we hear it being said.

Add to this the fact that television makes it easy, if not obligatory, to present a carefully doctored image of the person who’s in front of the camera – to the point where what we see on the screen often bears little if any resemblance to what he or she is really like. Yet so convincingly does television counterfeit a live exchange taking place right in our own living rooms that, at least on an unconscious level, we tend to relate more to the image than to the person behind it – as if we’d actually met him or her and, in the case of recurring roles, were even on intimate terms.

As illogical as this may seem, it’s a well-known phenomenon in Hollywood, where actors who play villains in TV series are liable to encounter hostility when they’re out in public, just as those who play doctors are liable to be asked for their medical opinions. And don’t be misled by the term “reality shows,” because these are, if anything, even more manipulative than overtly scripted fare, precisely because of their pretensions to the contrary. Imagine, then, what kinds of feelings might be stirred up by a candidate who’s played the role of an omnipotent boss in a long-running and popular reality series.

What all of this adds up to is a situation that gives TV stars a huge and unfair advantage in elections. While it might be argued that all citizens in good standing have a right to run for president, this should be overridden by their far-more-important right to be protected – insofar as is possible – from being manipulated into making voting choices that are against their best interests. On the whole, American voters are neither stupid nor gullible – but they are human beings. And being human, they’re vulnerable to the kind of TV-enabled, Wizard of Oz illusion that has resulted in a mockery being made of our country’s highest office – with the threat of much worse to come.

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