Nick Jans’ recent editorial piece on Sarah Palin struck me as humorous. Jans criticized Palin’s “glaring, city-slicker klutziness” as she attempts to portray herself as a woman of the Alaskan land on her reality TV show. I haven’t watched Palin’s show, but what he describes doesn’t surprise me, given the genre and the participant.
What struck me most in Jans editorial are two comments. The first is his observation that “Sarah Palin’s Alaska seems to have ushered in a new and troubling era in our democracy: the point where a burgeoning cultural fascination with reality TV and celebrity worship intersected mainstream politics, and the three merged into one.” Second, he concludes that given the numerous ways in which politicians can manipulate their image, “Americans are essentially casting votes for fictional characters.”
The only thing new about Palin’s approach is the social media available in creating a modern public persona. Rewind to 1840, for example, and you find William Henry Harrison’s campaign creating a fictionalized presentation of the “hero” of the battles of Tippecanoe and the Thames. Harrison was depicted as a man from humble origins, someone with much in common with the average American. In reality, he was the scion of a wealthy Virginia family. His opponent, Martin Van Buren, whose background actually was modest, was portrayed as a wealthy aristocrat out of touch with the common man.
It pays to keep some perspective on politicians. When voting for a political candidate or looking for an ideological spokesperson, understand that they have a public persona and a private persona. What voters see is a scrubbed version that at its core represents some element of the individual, but almost certainly is not the complete picture. What one makes of a public official should include a realistic assessment of both aspects so that one doesn’t fall for the fiction.