Last Wednesday, MySpace and the creator of Survivor announced a new American Idol-style interactive political reality TV show/internet hybrid that will select a candidate for the 2008 Presidential campaign. Naturally, it’s going to be called Independent.
More press coverage here and here.
Here’s what we know: the “primary,” so to speak, will take place on the internet, where hundreds of self-anointed candidates will submit video to enter and compete via specialized pages on MySpace.com. Web voters will then narrow the slate down to 100 (or so) candidates, who will then appear on national television (presumably on Fox, although the creators haven’t secured a deal yet), where they will debate every week, followed by more voting (both on- and offline) and feedback from web users, who will also determine the topics to be debated. The winner of the show will receive $1 million toward his or her actual Presidential campaign (or, if the winner is too young for President, toward some lesser public office, or charity).
Depending on how the show is designed and received, it has the potential to be extremely disruptive to our political system, involving a generation of young viewers in a political process they can understand and really feel a part of. The base of legitimacy this might lend to the winning candidate (or perhaps some runners up!) could be very powerful, to say the least.
No doubt, depending on how the show is designed, it has the potential to put our political system to shame. A whole hour every week on primetime TV devoted to political discourse among actual candidates? Wow. A common forum on the internet for voters to hash out what’s most important to them and give feedback to candidates who are actually listening? Holy cow! A no-party system where candidates don’t have extreme elements to cater to? Keep in mind that the party primary system we have today means that primary candidates have to run to the center of their party in order to be elected their party’s Presidential nominee, which means each candidate ends up being far away from the center of America’s political preferences as a whole. With no party primary, this show could eliminate that bias and force candidates to run for and be accountable to the center.
Here’s another implication: This show is almost like complete public financing for the Presidential election, only privately-funded (by advertisers). If candidates are barred from campaigning outside of the internet/television show’s purview, essentially this means that anyone with just about any income level has a chance of being elected, also eliminating the need for all fundraising and campaign contributing, which add very little to the quality of our democracy (and take much away). The one catch to this will be: how do those 100 or so primary candidates get themselves selected? Hopefully not through lavish expenditures of money. But I can see where the devil will be in the details.
Here’s the clincher: What if we really like the winning candidate (or runners up)? What if we like them so much we want them to enter the race themselves? It’s quite likely that the person who emerges will inspire and unite us. So what, then, would stop us from putting her or him in the Presidency for real?
I’m having a hay day thinking about all of the implications. This show could be transformative for American democracy. It could grab the whole country’s attention. Or, it could just be another superficial beauty pageant (although it’s hard to imagine anything more superficial than what we have now). There is also the potential for corruption of the process, given the stakes, and the show will have to be designed to minimize that possibility.
Either way, this is something to pay very, very close attention to. For everyone who said that TV and the internet would be detrimental to our democracy: think again. The only thing we’ve been lacking is the creativity and the influence to harness them properly. We might have what it takes now.
This new show isn’t surprising to see from the folks who run MySpace, who are part of an entire generation of idealistic and innovative leaders in the internet and technology sector. But MySpace is owned by News Corp, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Maybe there is some idealism left in that old fart. Then again, this show could mean big bucks for his media empire, especially if it’s hosted on Fox, which he also owns.
The Invisible Hand, actually working for our democracy? Imagine that.