Something about the Palin family inspires conspiracy theories. The latest one is that Bristol Palin has only survived as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars" because "Tea Partiers," whatever that means (fiscal conservatives? Old people? Oolong fans?), have engineered a way to vote for her in some unnatural or unfair way, whether that be without watching the show or through automated voting mechanisms or, I dunno, planting suggestions in our dreams or something. It's no mere Internet rumor, either—I heard it about it on my morning shows, and it's become a major news story to the degree that both the show's producers and Bristol herself have felt motivated to respond. But here's the weird thing: "Operation Bristol," as it's been called, almost certainly does not exist.
You're all skilled Googlers—try and find me evidence that this is an organized efforts. Sure, a few bulletin boards have threads where posters urge other posters to vote for Bristol, but none seem to have necessarily produced any sort of widespread, organized results, and none have provided links to automated methods that might allow a smaller number of people to artificially jimmy the vote. (Nor has anyone explained why Palin fans' ability to do this wouldn't be offset by, say, that of Brandy fans.) Though media commentators in what we'll call an "older cohort" might not be aware of this, it is extremely hard to do things secretly on the Internet. The only way you can pull off something like this, as 4chan has discovered, is to make reading your site so incredibly unpleasant an experience that outsiders have no interest in monitoring your activities. I'm happy to be proven wrong, but it just doesn't seem to me that such an effort really exists on any sort of level substantive enough to have a real effect on the voting for the most popular reality show currently airing.
Even weirder, most media stories haven't questioned this. They actually seem eager to admit that there's no real reason to suspect that voting fraud is actually occuring. Instead, they've used the "some people are saying" gimmick to lead with a question they already know the answer to which is "no." They're not doing so, as conservatives might suspect, because they hate the Palins (though not to say they don't). It's because we liberals just loooooove to read about them, and mostly skip over the part where the author admits it's not true. We love conspiracy theories about the Palins! This is because we're not actually any different from conservatives, duh. But it also reflects a somewhat substantial problem in the way the left views public life.
Don't get me wrong here: as is the case with almost all Palin conspiracy rumors, the "operation Bristol" story isn't entirely outside the realm of possibility. (I won't admit to you which one I totally believed for half a second, but I totally did.) Most notoriously, the Vote for the Worst project seemed to keep awful Sanjaya Malakar in the running for an inordinate amount of time during season six of American Idol. The Worsters said they did this out of a desire to "sabotage" the show and show it up for the phony piece of crap it is, etc. etc., so same kind of voting-as-cultural-criticism kind of deal. And reality shows have triggered political controversies in the past, too. There is a great book by Marwan Kraidy where you can find a few examples of this; my favorite is when a regional singing competition called "Superstar" sparked street protests in Lebanon after that country's contestant was, the protesters felt, unfairly eliminated.
So stranger things have happened, sure! But this probably didn't. The Worsters did their work entirely out in the open, and though we might like to think otherwise, America is not exactly the same hotbed of political action that the Persian Gulf (uh or wherever) tends to be. Just because it's possible doesn't mean it's plausible.
Why then do liberals believe that it might still, somehow, be true? Why do we like hearing about this? Well, my friend Melissa Crosby (who is both very smart and unemployed, New York City media research companies!) did a study of the Worsters and came up with an answer: "negative fandom." The theory here is that following someone or something you don't like can give you the same sort of pleasures, and work in almost exactly the same sort of ways, as regular fandom. I'm sure you can all think of examples of this: Maureen Dowd, Glenn Beck, "America's Funniest Home Videos," etc. (For me it was Barney, which let's not get into.)
If we see our political beliefs as a kind of fandom—and we should, unless we're clinging to some awful notion of politics as noble, in which case, gag me with a whistlestop tour—well then of course we want to hear about Sarah Palin's family being involved in unsavory things in some nebulous and unlikely way. It doesn't matter if the facts aren't true, because what matters is the story. And the story is not a mere fiction! It is constrained by reality, and any false story that rings true nevertheless says something meaningful about the subject of the story or the worldview of the storytellers. It would be nice if the political press was more a conduit for facts of importance, but since it's not, we might as well get some enjoyment out of it, right?
Admitting this would require us to also admit that the left really is as liable to these sorts of irrational behaviors as the right—we're just inherently untrusting of different things. And that, in turn, might lead us to admit that maybe politics isn't supposed to be rational. But that seems much too hopeful! So instead, let me suggest something else, something in which regard the left does seem different from the right.
The primary evidence people have offered for why "operation Bristol" has to exist is that Bristol is just so awful at dancing. This is not untrue, but it's not necessarily relevant. It grants the dubious premise that the results of "Dancing With the Stars" are supposed to reflect some sort of objective assessment of dancing talent, unlike, I guess, every other reality show ever. It seems more likely (as some have argued) that DWTS's primary audience—people like my Aunt Marg in Boston, who is a huge DWTS fan (hi Aunt Marg!)—really like Bristol's story and would rather continue to hear that story than Brandy's. Bristol is a young, reasonably likable girl who is struggling but mostly improving and seems, you know, interesting. The better dancers don't have as much of an arc. It is, after all, a television show, not the Nobels; I have expressed similar feelings when it comes to "Top Model" contestants, for instance.
But Bristol's awful dancing seems like damning evidence to liberals. This may not necessarily be a bad thing for us in this case—as a conversational partner has suggested, the idea that Tea Partiers (WTM, etc.) are so fanatical they would resort to rigging a pretend election is a damning one, and maybe really we're arguing about electoral validity here, but I don't think so. Instead, I think the left is insisting once again, in the face of all available evidence, that the meritocracy is real. Jimmy Carter's campaign autobiography asked the musical question "Why Not the Best?" and as much as I love Jimmy, I think his presidency answered that question fairly effectively. While the left fixates on the visible aspects of best-ness like intelligence or achievement, effectiveness in politics is at least as likely to be determined by more nebulous qualities like personality, symbolic resonance and being a high-functioning megalomaniac.
Which is to say that politics not only is but has to be cultural rather than rational. We care about Bristol Palin's success not because we think Sarah Palin's daughter being on a reality show has anything to do with Palin's ability to make multinational trade policy, but because we think these sort of cultural truths are politically meaningful. And we're right! We're just unwilling to admit that, and it's become something of a weakness. The right accepted George W. Bush's inability to actually accomplish any of their goals (for six years, anyway) because he kept signaling to his supporters that they were culturally correct, and the personal benefits they derived from that are maybe all we can reasonably hope to get from politics on a regular basis, or certainly from being fans of politics.
The left, meanwhile, is unhappy with Obama's comparatively massive political effectiveness because we think he, being The Best, should be able to do whatever he wants, which we assumed (because he was so good at signaling it) that this would be whatever we wanted. Instead, Obama decided to be The Best by actually passing legislation and acting in principled ways rather than making his supporters feel good about themselves by engaging in symbolically powerful acts and shooting down the other side. He delivered partial victories rather than noble defeats. And we feel justified in hating him for it. Which is fine—it's politics as culture, after all. But we want it both ways. We want The Best to also be the most psychologically satisfying leader. And that may not happen. If we really value results over our own feelings, then we should probably get over that and accept that our political leaders may not also be our intellectual leaders, or even our intellectual betters. They are just the masters of a very particular skill set.
I'm not unsympathetic to a cultural orientation to politics. I mean, it's not like I'm making policy, so certainly it's the only option I have. I just wish we were maybe a little more honest with ourselves about it. It took me years to admit that my political beliefs aren't really more valid than the average asshole's, and I still struggle with it. Political fandom wouldn't really be fun if we didn't, in some way, believe in the side we were rooting for. But that doesn't mean our rooting always has to be rational. We can enjoy a crazy story about Sarah Palin's daughter! We can say awful things about the other side! We can wave crazy signs that make no sense! And as long as it doesn't hurt what we're trying to accomplish, then great! America's political discourse has always been a mire of invective, rumor and broadside. And that's what makes politics fun. Let's enjoy ourselves, for heaven's sake. If Bristol got kicked off, after all, that would cut the story short. And nobody wants that.
Mike Barthel is a grad student with a Tumblr, so he gets some of his news from Regis and Kelly.