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The Realities of Democracy


One controversial figure divides the American public today. Many say that he is flatly incompetent, sliding by on charm. Perhaps you saw his appearance on television this week. Members of the media criticized his performance, wondering how American voters could possibly have supported this guy, voting for him more than once.

American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar has it almost as bad as George W. Bush.

The 17-year-old sensation has made the biggest splash on the latest season of American Idol, not for being so good, but for being so bad. He has lasted through seven weeks of voting, confounding his critics while showing off a dazzling variety of hairstyles. He has also managed to call into question the accuracy of the democratic process itself.

For example, there was the Indian Call Center Theory; that is, Indian call center operators were phoning in votes for Malakar, whose father is a Bengali Indian (his mother is an Italian American). That got shot down pretty quickly by Spot-on’s Gopika Kaul “He’s not known here at all,” she said.

Another theory proposed that residents of Hawaii were tipping the scales, since Malakar once lived there. The more interesting factor is the reverse Swift Boat stylings of Howard Stern and Vote for the Worst. On his satellite radio show, Stern has been encouraging his listeners to voter for Malakar, in an attempt to destroy the credibility of the Idol program. The Vote for the Worst‘s site has been around for a couple years, but seems to be definitely driving votes for Malakar this season to protest the low quality of the singers in the competition. As Vote for the Worst‘s creator Dave Della Terza put it “We think, ‘Well, if you’re going to put those people in there, we’re going to vote for them, because those are the people that we like to watch.’”

But despite all of this sturm und drang, I don’t think that these efforts have affected voting much at all. The number of Idol viewers and voters each week is so large, that I believe the effect of any particular campaign for or against any competitor would be negligible. Instead, I think the more valid lesson to be drawn is why people vote.

The fact is, I don’t think Sanjay Malakar is all that terrible. He’s not a good singer, but I’ve heard worse on Idol. I have noticed in the past that even as the program would get down the final performers, I could still hear off-pitch warbling. In that context, at least Malakar has style and panache and is having a good time.

Idol does represent a form of true American democracy. The people watch and then express their desires. In fact, they are participating in the Idol democratic process more than the political process. In last season’s finale, 63 million people voted, more than the 54.5 million voters who supported Ronald Reagan in 1984 – the most votes ever obtained by a U.S. President. Over the entire 2005 season of American Idol, just over 500 million votes were cast, compared to 122 million votes in the 2004 Presidential election. There’s a certain amount of irony in how low the barriers are to vote for a singer (just text or jump on the web) as opposed to how high the roadblocks are that are thrown up during a Presidential election (voter identification requirements, no paper record, can’t vote online).

And on Idol, just as on other programs like Dancing with the Stars and Rock Star: Supernova, viewers are voting for a variety of reasons. They may like a person’s hair or their struggle up from poverty. They might pick the cutest contestant or the one they can personally relate to. But they are clearly not voting based strictly on which contestant is the most talented. I am reminded of Churchill’s observation that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

The American people vote. We get George Bush for eight years and Sanjay Malakar. We sure do seem to love regular guys who succeed despite their obvious shortcomings. I shiver in anticipation with what 2008 will bring.

Share  Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 2:26 AM | Permalink

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