Democrats Are Killing It on Prestige TV
But conservatives have reality TV — and reality itself — on lock

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 26 October 2018

I was channel surfing the other night and came upon a shot of Hillary Clinton in some sort of conversation with Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. They were talking about the dangers of nationalism — how it’s like a virus that destroys the bonds that keep the world safe. Diversity was the key to security. And I remember wondering: What sort of TV program is actually letting this sort of lofty, idealistic conversation take place?

Then the camera cut to Téa Leoni, and I realized what was going on. This was the CBS series Madame Secretary — not the news at all, but television drama, perhaps the only place left where we can witness discussions of this depth and sense of purpose. And the scene wasn’t simply cut together from existing news footage. The former secretaries of state were on the show, in character, reading scripted lines about the inclusive nature of real democracy and the danger of letting our vigilance wane.

This kind of entertainment may be satisfying at a time when our president reflexively defends tyrants and makes up facts. But it’s a dangerous place to safeguard our true hopes for democracy.

We have relegated our best selves and highest ambitions to the fictional worlds of prestige TV. Meanwhile, the rowdy insults and degenerate behavior of reality TV have moved into the real White House. How did this happen?

It all started with Dan Quayle. Back in 1991, shortly after the L.A. riots, the vice president blamed the uprising on “a poverty of values.” He criticized prime-time TV for having “Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice. He used terms like “family values” and decried Hollywood’s “cultural elite” and the decline in morals on America’s wicked coasts.

It was a brilliant if shortsighted move: Attack the press (Brown was a newscaster) without actually attacking the press. Additionally, as voters knew at the time, Bill Clinton had been raised by a single mother and Quayle was implying that this would make for a leader with questionable morality.

But impugning a fictional television character proved disastrous. That year’s Emmy Awards turned into an all-out assault on Quayle for attacking the industry’s values, women’s rights, and one of their beloved creations. Then it was the fictional character’s turn to respond. The much-anticipated 1992 season premiere of Murphy Brown aired in the same weeks as the presidential debates. In it, the fictional newswoman tries to soothe her fictional crying infant as the the real Dan Quayle disparages her by name on her own TV. “What planet is he on?” she yells at the screen. “I agonized over this decision!”

She goes on to respond directly to Quayle from her fictional news desk in a heartfelt speech written for her by the show’s real producers, who were already high-level Clinton supporters. “In searching for the causes of our social ills, we could choose to blame the media or the Congress or an administration that’s been in power for 12 years, or we could blame me… Perhaps it’s time for the vice president to… recognize that whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes.”

As I analyzed the situation at the time, Quayle was doomed — no matter his politics — because he was fighting a fictional character. More than one paper cited Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as the closest cultural reference to Quayle’s willing self-immersion into a fictional world. He even sent a stuffed animal to Murphy Brown’s fictional baby, as if to apologize. The producers thanked him and said they would be sending it to a homeless shelter “for a real child to enjoy.”

Fictional television became the safe haven for progressive ideals. During the disastrous George W. Bush era, The West Wing provided progressive elites — and even intellectual conservatives — with the sustained fantasy of a thoughtful, college-educated administration that stayed up at all hours of the night to wrestle with the moral complexities of geopolitics.

While progressives were busy building fantasy republics for their ideals to be realized on fictional television, the other culture industry was colonizing reality TV. Cops showed the way people in the depressed red states really lived, in stark contrast to the manicured sets and comforting of the Huxtables. The long-running reality show established the genre’s conventions, funded the Fox empire, and helped promote the idea of African-Americans as perps deserving of restraint by valorous police.

American Idol successfully replaced the countercultural aspirations of rock and roll with the commercial compromises of pop — and reduced our definition of “democracy” to a consumer choice made from a smartphone. Survivor sold America on the libertarian ethos of winner takes all, by any means necessary. And, of course, The Apprentice positioned a ruthless New York real estate developer and money launderer as a business executive worthy of a cutthroat competition — even between former celebrities — to earn his respect.

Reality TV galvanized audiences who didn’t see themselves in Hollywood.

Staged and contrived as it may have been, reality TV offered a glimpse of something like reality. In stark video and low-budget lighting, it showed us people, places, and perspectives once considered too raw for Hollywood: crack addicts, pregnant teens, and wannabe musical sellouts. Without pretense or shame, everyone is in it for themselves: gunning for fame, money, sex, or just the win.

This was a different set of ideologies, as perfectly matched to its genre as Enlightenment values were to traditional narrative. Except that Jersey Shore did a whole lot more for the deplorables than HBO’s Newsroom or Homeland was doing for the progressives.

Reality shows galvanized audiences who didn’t see themselves in Hollywood’s high-minded passion plays and didn’t hear themselves in the erudite banter of intellectuals. The stories on the real news were too complicated and unsolvable. Scripted reality, with it’s satisfying sensationalist simplicity, gives viewers the chance to experience not their aspirations but their rage. As culture raced to the bottom, so too did our politics and government. Scripted reality merely whetted our appetite for the fake news soon to follow.

The picture of reality envisioned by progressive idealists may work better in narrative fiction than it does in the messy real world. But if we insist on getting our “fix” of social justice, economic equality, and complete sentences from television characters, we may have to content ourselves with fictional victories as well.

Now, as if on cue, Murphy Brown is back after 27 years, attacking Donald Trump from her fictional soapbox. And he’s tweeting insults back at her — but only on the show, as imagined by its writing staff. The real president has not tweeted about Murphy Brown, however much the show’s producers likely wish he would.

Progressive values may be the rule for Hollywood fiction, but it’s reality TV that’s ruling the world. The ballot box, not the cable box, is the place to change that.