This quarter, I’m teaching a course in the Electoral Process. It’s definitely timely subject matter as the we are in the midst of the 2012 presidential election.
In the beginning of the course, I spend about a week talking about the normative reasons for why American elections are set up in the way that they are. For students not familiar with normative discourse, the conversation can be difficult to grasp. I start the conversation by drawing a comparison to the game of football. Football has seemingly arbitrary rules. I mean, who decided that you score six points for a touchdown and three points for a field goal? Why not three points for a touchdown and six for a field goal? As a former high school football player, I can tell you these rules had serious implications for who won and who lost games. (Our team usually lost. Seriously, I think our season was 1-9.)
Although last week’s referee debacle helped illustrate my point, I unfortunately do not follow football anymore. The point is simple: the rules, and their interpretation, can change outcomes easily. Different countries employ different electoral systems, which determines who wins and who loses elections.
As an aside, I threw in a reference about how competitive reality shows work in a very similar way. Reality shows are not about electing a representative to public office, but about selecting a winner in some inane competition. These competitions employ different sets of rules, some of which are modeled after political processes. At least initially, I made the comment in jest, but the more I thought about it, I became surprised about how much these reality shows are adapted from political life.
First, the grandfather of competitive reality television, Survivor, prides itself on being an innovative social experiment. Sixteen contestants are put on an island, and vote in a plurality system, until only one person is left standing. Survivor is somewhat of a democracy, without the protections of the minority. The needs of the majority always win out, and a huge part of the game is ensuring you are in that majority to not get voted out.
Big Brother is yet another competitive reality show where one competitor is left standing to win $500,000. It’s also a plurality system, with a nomination system in place. Two candidates are nominated by a house leader, and the player with the most votes, ends up leaving the house. The producers of Big Brother frequently intervene, often introducing new competitions, rules, and punishments that change the direction of the game. Thus, while Big Brother is a modified system, it’s competition is unfairly swayed by super electronic cigarette its officials.
Top Chef is an oligarchy, where decisions about who wins competitions is decided by a panel of expert chefs. Most “judging panel” shows follow the same format, a group of judges criticize the contestants, and then who decides who goes home. Think America’s Top Model, X-Factor, American Idol, and Project Runway. In some of these shows, power is concentrated in the hands of only judges, but X-Factor, Idol, and Dancing With the Stars eventually ask America to vote for who stays and who goes. In that sense, it’s an elitist democracy, but the people ultimately have some hand in electing these representatives to office.
The Apprentice can only be described as a dictatorship. Real-life presidential hopeful Donald Trump stands at the head of his boardroom and fires his contestants one-by-one until only one remains. Sometimes Trump is criticized for making decisions that are completely nonsensical. Not surprising for a powerful leader drunk on his own power. However, his decisions are often made to keep the most controversial and not the most proficient candidates on the show, which ultimately increases his ratings. While it appears nonsensical, perhaps Trump is a diabolical genius.
The Bachelor(ette) is difficult to categorize. It’s much like The Apprentice in that one person is responsible for deciding who stays and who goes. However, the aims of the game are much different in Bachelor. Men (or women) are looking for their future wives. In that sense, I would characterize The Bachelor as a ridiculously misogynistic backwards-monarchy.
Finally, you have competitive reality shows that are exclusively based on merit, at least in theory. The Amazing Race, The Biggest Loser, and The Mole determine their winners by who performs better on the assigned task. Whether it’s a race around the world, a quest to lose the most weight, or get the most correct answers on an exam, these winners are determined by performance. However, in the world of television, this quickly loses its luster, and then rules change. For these three shows, producers have complicated the process by allowing contestants to interfere with each other’s progress.
Nonetheless, this (fun!) exercise is a good demonstration about how rules determine winners and losers. The rules in each of these examples are vastly different. And in many instances, a slight change in the rules can drastically affect the outcome. Elections work the same way. Countries employ different electoral systems and these systems determine who wins office. Different officeholders mean that different policies will eventually be instituted. Thus, while we are vastly concerned about who will win in 2012, we should always keep an eye on how we elect these officials to office.