It’s always instructive to me when a firestorm erupts over one of my AOL posts. In this case, plenty of people, both pro- and anti-Palin, are up in arms over the controversy of Bristol Palin’s continuing presence on Dancing With the Stars after the elimination of many undeniably better dancers, including this week’s apparently shocking ouster of Brandy.
In my TV Squad post, I noted the many conspiracy theorists (including some closely affiliated with the show) who believe that Tea Partiers are stuffing ballots to vote for Palin simply because they’re political supporters of her mother. I note the evidence for fraud marshaled by Jezebel, only to reject it as inconclusive. Nowhere in the post do I discuss Bristol’s character, attitude, looks, or unwed-teen-mom status, only her dancing skills. Nonetheless, just for bringing up the possibility of vote fraud, I am apparently a liberal hack who has besmirched Bristol’s sterling reputation with my unfounded smears.
In the thousands of comments that follow my post, there’s a lot of gratuitous insult-trading going on, a lot of mean-spirited comments about Bristol and Sarah Palin, and inevitably, about Barack Obama and Harry Reid and other Democratic politicians who have nothing to do with Dancing With the Stars except that no derogatory remark about the Palins is allowed to go unanswered by the Mama Grizzly bloc. As for whether or not there’s a conspiracy here, no one can say — and I don’t think it even matters — but the support for Bristol does tell me a lot about the way Tea Partiers think politically.
For one thing, no one seems to defend Bristol on merit, but rather, on character, on her origins, on her learning curve, on her effort. I’m old enough to remember when it was conservatives who favored a meritocratic ideal and decried affirmative action as a means of rewarding the less qualified at the expense of merit, but Bristol fans have gone to the other side of the fence, insisting that she should get credit for having started out at a disadvantage, not having entered the contest with any of the talent, grace, athleticism, or dance training that the contestants who were entertainers and sports figures had. In this scenario, Bristol is the underdog, not because she hasn’t mustered the dance skills that the other contestants have, but because she’s a waifish outsider, a small-town girl far from home who happened to land in Hollywood and find herself competing against the jaded cool kids, the prom royalty, with no assets of her own to see her through the competition except her smile, her work ethic, and her middle-American values.
Of course, this echoes the story her mother tells about herself. Both Sarah and Bristol (or at least their fan bases) have made themselves into underdogs. In the family mythology, Sarah is not the beauty queen and local TV personality who became a political star and a well-compensated pundit on the lecture circuit and in appearances on Fox News and now with her own reality show; she’s just a regular, hard-working mom. And Bristol is not the daughter of a wealthy and famous politician, thrust into the spotlight by her own mother, who has gone on to make a name for herself with do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did speeches to kids. (After all, if you do as she did, you might have to, um, wear glamorous gowns on a popular TV dance show while your well-to-do family takes care of your infant. And who wants that?), Rather, she’s a victim, picked on by all those mean liberals who hate her mom and who think the Dancing vote should be about who’s the best dancer instead of who appeals the most to middle America. (Not that uppity Brandy, that’s for sure. She may be a better dancer, but she has the unfair advantage of years of training, and she’s conceited, too.)
I don’t care whether viewers think Dancing should be a contest based on merit or on personal narrative (no matter how false and self-serving), but it does seem plausible to me that the same people who think the latter also think that way about elections that have real consequences. They’re the ones who voted for Ronald Reagan because he made them feel good, who voted for George W. Bush because they thought he’d be more fun to hang out and have a (near) beer with than Al Gore or John Kerry, and who voted for Sarah Palin and that old dude because they liked the notion of a tough-talkin’ Washington outsider who was also a soccer mom better than an egghead elitist with a Mooslim name and a murky heritage. And who also voted for the Tea Party candidates earlier this month, millionaire businessmen and women who positioned themselves as put-upon outsiders and made a virtue of their lack of qualifications.
I don’t know if the Bristol bloc can command great numbers (fraudulently or not) in a real election, but it would be wise for the Brandys and Jennifer Greys of the political world to fight narrative with a better narrative, one that emphasizes the value of experience and ideas over an entitled elitism that masquerades as aw-shucks folksiness.