Monday, November 22, 2010

Tripping the Right’s Fantastic

Okay, maybe the controversy about Bristol Palin outlasting better dancers on Dancing with the Stars is being overblown. Maybe it’s just on my mind because DWTS is one of the few T.V. shows I watch. But there does seem to be a political dimension — however inchoate — to her ascension on the show via a dubious voting system.

Everyone reading this probably knows the story by now: The T.V. series Dancing with the Stars is a “reality” show that pairs 12 celebrity contestants with an equal number of professional dancers to perform some particular ballroom dances. For 10 weeks, a combination of professional ballroom-dancing judges and viewer votes eliminates one celebrity dancer per week until three of them (supposedly the three best dancers) are left to compete for the show’s “finals” round, where the ultimate winner claims the grand prize: the mirror-ball trophy. This eleventh season of the show, Bristol Palin, daughter of the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah, has endured the competition, making it all the way to the finals, after consistently landing at or near the bottom of the professional judges’ leader board.

Obviously, the votes from viewers have tipped the scales and allowed Bristol to last so long on the show. Last week, she stunned the show’s audience and professionals alike when she beat out the singer Brandy, an infinitely better dancer and darling of the judges, for a place in the finals. The following days have buzzed with conspiracy theories about electronic voter fraud, including one conservative blogger who boasted about gaming the system.

First, I need to agree with some of those who dismiss the brouhaha: It’s just a T.V. show. The only thing immediately at stake here is a tacky mirror-ball trophy — and perhaps the show’s credibility as a somewhat serious dance competition. There are more important things to be concerned about (Republican obstructionism in the Senate, for example). So, if you don’t like the direction the show is taking, just don’t watch it.

Second, I learned a while back that DWTS isn’t a strict meritocracy. I realized that during season nine, when so-so dancer Kelly Osborne (the reality star) beat out exquisite dancer Joanna Krupa (the supermodel) for a place in the finals. Viewer interest in the contestants is as important as what the professional judges have to say, and that doesn’t always lead to an outcome that reflects the caliber of the dancing.

That said, Bristol Palin is the daughter of a polarizing political figure, and that gives the scion’s staying power political resonance. This is doubled when some of those voting for her profess political motives detached from her dancing, and voting for her in an underhanded way. Indeed, one conservative blogger is reported to have said that he stuffs the ballot in Bristol’s favor as payback for those elections that Democrats allegedly stole. Exactly how voting for a T.V. show offsets the outcome of an election isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that some viewers, some describing themselves as Tea Partiers, have read political implications into the Palin daughter’s appearance on DWTS from the outset. And it seems a bit shortsighted for some above-it-all observers to chide Palin detractors — those who feel that Bristol’s unearned longevity on the show is a politically charged train wreck — as reading too much partisan significance into a trivial non-partisan event.

Now, none of this can be blamed on Bristol Palin herself. She is, by all appearances, an affable young woman who does the best she can as a dancer and has even made some marked improvement in her hoofing abilities since starting the show as a complete neophyte. And I’m sure that some of those who vote for her (a minority, I suspect) are responding to the appeal of her pleasant personality, and not to their own sectarian inclinations. Furthermore, no evidence is apparent that Bristol herself is encouraging her mother’s political base to vote for her for partisan reasons, much less to do so in an unethical way. However, she seems a bit willfully oblivious to the furor she’s causing, insisting that she deserves a place in the finals because she’s come the farthest as a dancer, and this suggests more than a little self-absorption.

But to me, Bristol Palin’s Dancing with the Stars saga (or is it the other way around?) condenses and allegorizes an issue I see on the political right: the triumph of ideology over competence. Bristol has endured as a contender on the show for so long because so many Sarah Palin supporters want to make an implicit political statement, want to cast a vote for a right-wing ideology that has little, if anything, to do with the issue at hand: in this case, dancing. It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly executed or completed the exigency is. What matters is that its undertaking reflect an ideological purity not necessarily connected to concrete realities.

When Democratic President Bill Clinton left office, he had produced a $127 billion budget surplus by his last year. (In an effort to trash the Clinton legacy, conservatives are now disputing this by confusing the national budget with the national debt.) Granted, Clinton’s presidency wasn’t perfect, and deficit reduction was accomplished in concert with a fiscally conservative Republican Congress and with the help of an anomalous economic boom in the dot-com industry. But the bottom line is that Clinton proved that government can be somewhat progressive and pay for itself at the same time. Clinton’s governing and economic policies produced real-world results that added to the nation’s prosperity.

When George W. Bush came into office, he undid Clinton’s surplus with massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, two wars, and an unfunded Medicare mandate. Bush’s trickle-down economic policies were supposed to enhance this nation’s prosperity, but instead, they led to eight years of the lowest job growth in decades and (thanks in part to legislation enacted on Clinton’s watch) the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. You would think that most Americans would look at the achievements of Clinton and those of Bush and conclude that Clinton’s policies and approach were better because they produced the better real-world results. But to a large extent, this isn’t happening.

Many Americans just take it on faith that trickle-down economics work better than other economic policies, despite real-world disproof. Their sentiment seems to be that trickle-down ought to work better because it seems to promise so much, and they are going to keep at it until trickle-down economics produce the anticipated results, whenever that may be. They look at the economic havoc wrought by Bush and just see a hiccup in his policies. (And don’t even get me started on the weapons of mass destruction that ought to have been in Iraq.)

Similarly, most of Bristol Palin’s Dancing with the Stars audience, it seems to me, take it on faith that the young Alaskan ought to be the better dancer because of her mother’s political convictions. They view her inferior footwork differently than they view her rivals’ superior moves. The belief that Republican policies are better than others, despite evidence to the contrary, and the belief that Bristol Palin is the best dancer on this season of Dancing with the Stars, despite evidence to the contrary — both of them embody, to me, the disconnect between what actually is and what conservatives think should be.

Dancing with the Stars: Brandy and Maks Eliminated

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