The difference between a documentary and a reality show is staging. A documentary tells a story about real life. The subjects are normally not paid, aren't actors and the story is non-fiction. It's a quiet, illuminating and thoughtful genre (read: boring).
Reality shows are like life, in that people on these programs do things people do in real life, (i.e. travel, date, lose weight), but the circumstances are contrived. The contestants are put in artificial situations with heightened rewards, and it's put on camera. The stakes are fake. The participants pre-screened. The episodes are scripted. It's "reality" television.
It's like reality ... only augmented for drama and ratings.
Enter the United States Government. Civics and public servants are usually a snooze fest. Rules and procedures and suit-fillers giving long speeches are not all that interesting. Sure, there was the occasional duel involving a member of Congress in the last 235 years. Bill Clinton's enemies brought us a primetime sex scandal. But for the most part, politics was watching history in the making, which is like watching anything else being made ... slow and tedious.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment politics crossed over into full reality show mayhem. These things usually happen in a "perfect storm" situation. Meaning: it wasn't just one thing. It was a couple of unforeseen events happening all at once — all horrifying to Republicans. One was the meltdown of the financial system in 2008. It was the moment Bush had to "abandon free market principles to save the free market system" with TARP. The other was McCain's concession. Go ahead and watch the speech again. The homogeneous crowd looks like they're at a wake for a Ralph Lauren and L.L. Bean murder/suicide as their candidate says Barack Hussein Obama will be his president.
If deregulation and tax cuts had done what they had claimed they would do and not wreck the world's economy — then, maybe having a guy whose middle name was the same as a Middle Eastern dictator we've spent trillions to take out, as the new president — wouldn't have seemed so drastic.
But this is the moment when politics went from CSPAN to Jerry Springer. What happens when a guest on Springer gets accused of something and he's clearly at fault? He gets louder and starts throwing out desperate accusations: "How do I know you didn't give it to me?!"
So instead of contrition — they opted for defensive blustering with something vaguely foreign-sounding to blame.
This is the tea party: Freaked out Republicans. Lovers of unpaid-for tax cuts, unpaid-for wars and saturnalia on Wall Street were faced with the evidence that their ideas, when implemented, are terrible. So they took a cue from reality shows — they went full bombast. Then it was Obama (whose name also sounds like Osama) who passed TARP and doubled the debt (when that actually happened under the "compassionate conservative" Bush with a GOP Congress).
And just like when reality show producers figured out backstabbing and borderline psychopathic contestants meant ratings — during the health-care reform debate the Republicans learned anything chanted old people on television (no matter how nonsensical) dominates the debate. "Keep the government out of my Medicare!"
For the last two-and-a-half years politics has been trash television. We've had right-wing stars staying relevant through mudslinging and shamelessness. The tea party wouldn't be satisfied with just one Snooki. We've had fake stings phony pimps and ideology-driven hoaxes. Astroturf is being sold as organic outrage.
In short: it's staged. It's over-produced indignation interest groups that don't do as well in the dullness of documentary style politics and need the chaos of the ridiculous to keep progress at bay.
Cutting government spending (think government jobs) during record unemployment? More tax cuts for the top 1 percent during record low tax rates and unprecedented tax exemptions? Do these ideas sound like something people come up with when they're not just cynically throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks?
How many times do the cable news networks need to have a countdown clock up for congressional dustups that could shut down the government?
We're being held captive stunts. Choreographed stunts. This is not what deliberative government looks like.
This is what deliberate turmoil looks like.
Tina Dupuy is an award-winning writer and fill-in host at The Young.