Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

On the Popular Vote

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

On the Popular Vote

Article excerpt

Over the past few years, voting has become a central dramatic element on a variety of shows in the highly successful reality TV genre. Treating the "voting drama" as a shadow realm to the political, one in which anxieties and tensions produced by the practice of democracy are given free play, this essay offers a critical consideration of some of the hidden aspects of the cultural and social significance of political voting.

"In 2000, more Americans watched the Survivor finale than voted for George W Bush or Al Gore."

-USA Today July 3, 2001

"Politics is show business for ugly people."

-Jay Leno

In the United States today, there is perhaps no political truth more self-evident than that Americans hate voting. In recent years, voter turnout in popular elections has hovered around just 50 percent, an embarrassment in a country whose core self-understanding rests on a commitment to democratic self-governance.1 Even the hotly contested presidential election of November 2004 lured less than 60 percent of eligible voters to the polls-a significant leap over rates of participation seen in recent decades, but still far below the levels of engagement common in Western Europe and other democratic regimes around the world. But if voting is "out" as a matter of political fashion in the United States, it is very much "in" when it comes to popular culture. Over the past few years, voting has become a central dramatic element on a variety of shows in the highly successful reality TV genre, including Survivor; Big Brother, The Bachelor, The Apprentice, The Biggest Laser, and American Idol.2 For the purposes of the following discussion, I will refer to these programs as "voting dramas"-shows in which voting serves as the narrative engine, and the at-home viewer is figured, either directly or indirectly, as the ultimate chooser.3

Although voting is widely taken to be the quintessential act of political participation in a liberal democracy, the subject of voting-when conceived not simply as a political act but as a cultural practice-long has suffered significant scholarly neglect. While empirically oriented social scientists have examined a wide array of factors contributing to voter preference and turnout, most have steadfastly avoided confrontation with issues not readily amenable to exploration through measurement, including questions pertaining to the role that culture plays in defining the meaning of the vote as a core citizenship practice.4 On the other end of the methodological spectrum, political theorists also have neglected the subject of voting, concentrating their attention instead on practices such as deliberation, coalition-building, and other, more associative modes of political participation.5 One notable exception to the general pattern of scholarly avoidance of the topic of voting as a cultural practice, however, is research emanating from the legal academy, where there is a record of recognition of the significance of the political and social factors influencing the distinctive form of legal institutionalization of voting in the United States, from studies of the origins of the electoral college to considerations of the causes of historical shifts in rules governing voter eligibility. Following the presidential election debacle of 2000, sociolegal scholars once again have been at the forefront of efforts to assess what went wrong and why, taking up such matters as the reasons for the marginalization of voting rights in the U.S. Constitution to the significance of an election which ultimately privileged the decision of nine elites over the will of a popular majority.6 In what follows, I aim to contribute to the socio-légal literature on voting by pushing beyond the usual focus on political culture to consider the role that popular culture plays in defining the social meaning of the vote.

To be sure, a foray into the world of reality TV will strike many as an improbable, if not ill-considered, means by which to deepen understanding of a subject as important as the significance of voting as a contemporary citizenship practice. …

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