Why you should care
Because the politicians we’ve already elected deserve scrutiny too.
In its 15 years on television, American Idol, which aired its final show last Thursday, drew millions of viewers and brought an aura of democracy and meritocracy into the star-making apparatus of the music business. But no retrospective of the popular singing contest is complete without the infamous “Sanjayamania” of Season 6, in which a “Vote for the Worst” movement helped advance the off-key talent of a shy 17-year-old named Sanjaya Malakar and temporarily made a farce of the competition.
Sanjaya, like Donald Trump, is important, not because there’s a chance of either man winning his respective contest, but rather because of how the hoopla surrounding their rise reveals Idol and the U.S. presidential election — despite their grand democratic pretenses — for what they really are: theater. As the news media continues its almost yearlong election binge, obsessing over the tweets and delegate counts of candidates like Trump, the real story in American politics in 2016 has been flying below the fold and the Trump headlines. From Michigan to North Carolina to Alabama, that story is not about the rabble-rousers seeking office but the damage being done by those who have already been elected.
You don’t have to imagine a Trump presidency to realize we’re already immersed in a cesspool of rancid government.
Clay Aiken, the 2003 Idol runner-up and 2014 congressional candidate, learned the hard way that 12 million television votes will translate to about 85,000 at the ballot box when you run in North Carolina’s highly gerrymandered Second Congressional District. Aiken, an openly gay Democrat, brought some national attention to North Carolina politics in his unsuccessful run, but current Republican governor Pat McCrory has turned an even bigger spotlight on the state by signing a new law that bars any municipality in the state from protecting North Carolinians like Aiken from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The law addresses a phantom menace: the alleged threat posed to women and children from biological males sharing their restrooms. But the decision by McCrory, a so-called pro-business moderate, and fellow Republicans that the state should dictate bathroom assignments while providing a shield for individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans has stirred a national uproar, drawing denunciations from major state employers like American Airlines, Lowe’s and Bank of America, one of the major donors to McCrory’s 2012 campaign. “North Carolina has been the target of a vicious nationwide smear campaign,” McCrory has said of the protests, but when Bank of America, which paid a historic $17 billion to settle the toxic mortgage claims against it in 2014, takes the moral high road above you, you know you are on shaky ground.
It’s also generally not a good sign on the civil-rights front when Mississippi jumps on your bandwagon. The ink had barely dried on North Carolina’s landmark bigotry when Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, also a Republican, made a bid to surpass it. The list of executives not making America great goes on, from Michigan head Rick Snyder, whose administration helped create a man-made lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, to Alabama’s phone-sex caller-in-chief, Robert Bentley, who didn’t respond to a request for comment but may face impeachment over a highly publicized sex scandal involving his top adviser and allegations that he fired the state’s top law enforcement officer over the matter.
And that’s just Republican governors. You can also add in some Democrats, and mayors, like Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, besieged with allegations that the city engaged in a systemic absolution of police officers involved in fatal civilian shootings. And don’t forget the Senate Republican leaders, who have inverted Emanuel’s old credo into an “every opportunity is a crisis” strategy, converting the Supreme Court vacancy created by Antonin Scalia’s death into a constitutional standoff that could cripple the court for over a year as the Senate uses its “advise and consent” function to deny a hearing to nominee Merrick Garland.
It’s no wonder that congressional approval is down to just 15 percent in the latest CNN poll. And you don’t have to wait for a divisive convention or imagine a Trump presidency to realize we’re already immersed in a cesspool of rancid government. And if you think things are ugly now, just wait until more revelations come forth from the Panama Papers. When asked about the dearth of Americans implicated in the original release, the editor of the German newspaper that broke the unprecedented financial data leak responded, “Just wait for what is coming next.”
And just waiting is also all we can do when it comes to another data release sure to rock the corridors of U.S. leadership: more names and addresses of the clients implicated in the infamous “D.C. Madam” sex scandal in 2007. The lawyer who represented the late madam says those records are “very relevant” to the 2016 election and vows to release them even should a gag order on the records not be lifted by the courts.
American Idol voters made their share of mistakes through the years, and by the end, as The New York Times put it, the show “began to resemble a combination day-care and elder-care facility, nurturing young singers and outmoded music.” America’s prime-time election show, however, continues to nurture its own overhyped candidates and outmoded politics. Yet, unlike TV and music, where consumers can just tune out once the contest is over, American voters have nowhere to go once the winners start singing their discordant tunes.