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The New Democracy: "American Idol" Viewer Polls and Product Choice

04.10.2006 | MEDIA

It was really cool of the Iraqis to bravely risk their life and limbs to vote. They made for great television, and their amazingly huge turnout even made Bush look good, at least temporarily.

But democracy also demands achieving the proper outcome. Thanks to an occupying army, Mr. Bush possesses the same ability to reverse electoral mistakes as he does here on his home turf, which is why he proactively informed the Shiite powers that be that he "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari as the next prime minister.

A couple of days later, the Shiites are preparing al-Jaafari his walking papers. Maybe a-Jaafari is a deluded, incompetent, religious fanatic who can't get his government to take action, but in all fairness we have someone like that in charge here in America, and he's still in power.

This ability to influence Iraqi is a great victory for Mr. Bush. After all, it's a lot easier to control people who work down the hall from you, or who curry your favor, or a God who agrees with you, than it is controlling a foreign nation, and a surly one at that. The Iraqis should be grateful that President Bush still cares enough to interfere in their elections after he's already told most of the rest of the world to take a flying leap.

The problem in Iraqi is that they have yet to achieve the highly advanced state of detached democracy currently enjoyed by Americans, that stage of development where we refuse to take action, including mild censure, against an outrageous war, corruption, poverty, losing a major American city, lack of health care, future-destroying debt, the loss of jobs and industry, or even our Constitutional rights.

The illegal immigrants peacefully demonstrating may not be blowing things up like the insurgents in Iraq as they exercise their rights, but they won't be ready for citizenship until they truly understand that nobody likes a complainer. If you really have a beef, the proper, most effective procedure is to grease the highest elected official you can afford.

But there are other valid methods of participatory democracy. It was announced that even the Miss American contest is going "reality show." The public gets to voyeur in on the girls and pick the final fifteen before the judges even weigh in. Take that, Iraq.

The Internet is also a bastion of democracy; I'm constantly being asked to weigh in with my opinion on vital issues. In the last week alone, AOL wanted to know if I think Sharon Stone's vagina is as exciting today as it was twelve years ago in the original "Basic Instinct" (didn't care then, still don't). They've also solicited my opinion about a Congresswoman punching a cop, (I didn't approve), and what should happen to steroid taking baseball players (aren't shriveled balls punishment enough?). In addition, AOL and Fox are constantly soliciting my opinion about "American Idol's" contestants past, present, and future. It may be Un-American, but I don't watch the show. Therefore I ethically recused myself. I also participate regularly in the Harris Poll and the other polls that contact me, unless they're trying to sell me something.

It's not just the Internet. Television constantly urges me to text-message, to call a 900 number, to run to my computer, or to press a button on my remote to respond to a question. I'm frequently interrupted in the middle of dinner with all sorts of surveys. That's because democracy is responsive, every opinion counts, and we all have the right to express ours whenever we feel like it. Once-a-year elections pale in comparison.

The only exception to this rule is the numerous polls I took on the Iraqi war and President Bush's performance. He doesn't care about the polls because he has a mandate, so I guess they don't count. I'm not offended. He doesn't listen to Congress either, and they get paid to give their opinions. All I ever get is HotPoints from the Harris Poll, which I trade for DVDs. It takes me about a year to earn one.

But in terms of participatory democracy, nothing is higher than the power of purchasing. Every time I go to the supermarket and choose between seventy-two soaps (solid and liquid) or sixty-three toilet papers, I'm voting through my choice of products. My decision is so important that the market keeps a computerized record of every one of my purchases, which it sells and shares with others. Multiply that by 300,000,000 Americans buying hundreds of millions of items every day, and the amount of democracy we have is staggering.

Maybe when every Iraqi has their water and electricity restored, a job, and the ability to safely navigate the streets without being blown up or shot for breaking curfew, they too will exercise their democratic rights properly, and George Bush won't have to take time out from chopping wood to tell them who can win. Hopefully by then the Iraqis will be too busy taking AOL polls on important matters such as who they think are the hottest -- or, like April third's poll, the deadest -- celebrities, to give a damn about politics.

About the Author
Beth Birnbaum, who writes for Free Inquiry magazine, among others, has just finished a novel, SoundBite Religion.
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