Rupert Cornwell: American politics turns into one big 'reality' show

Out of America: Sarah Palin is the supreme example of today's blurred lines between populism on air, and power on Capitol Hill
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What's the difference between an American politician and an American talk-show host? Right now the answer is, to all intents and purposes, almost none. In the US especially, politics and the media have always been joined at the hip. The two trades need each other, and the skills required for them overlap. Never, however, have they been quite as indistinguishable. Politicians seem to be metastasising into radio and television personalities as fast as media stars are dipping their feet into the political waters.

The supreme example of the trend is Sarah Palin. Last year she was catapulted from the obscurity of a first-term governor of Alaska to instant celebrity as the Republicans' vice-presidential candidate. No matter that, after a dazzling start, she came a cropper in that role, and subsequently resigned as governor. Today, there is less escape from her than ever, as best-selling author and darling of the right, a balloon floating in the overheated air where US politics and media in the early 21st century converge. Does she want to be the next Oprah Winfrey or the next Ronald Reagan, a talk-show queen or candidate for the presidency candidate three years hence? Almost certainly she doesn't know – and increasingly one wonders, does it really matter?

Palin, however, is not the only leading Republican politician moonlighting in the media. Mike Huckabee gave John McCain his closest fight for the nomination in 2008, and arguably is Republican front-runner for 2012. Right now, his highest profile is as a host on the conservative Fox News Network. The votes he won have made him an attractive option for Fox; his new job in turn keeps his name in lights until the serious business starts again.

But he may have competition from media figures moving into politics. Take Lou Dobbs. Having quit his programme at CNN this month, the combative exponent of "advocacy journalism" (if railing against immigrants and doubting the veracity of Barack Obama's birth certificate may be so described) is contemplating a run for the Senate and perhaps the presidency and would do so with a name recognition most career politicians would kill for. Then there's Glenn Beck, the newest star in the Fox firmament of "advocacy journalism" who plans to sponsor conservative conventions across the country next year. He now calls himself a "political organiser", though whether on behalf of himself or others is not clear. Where will it all end?

Back in 1992, when the public was fed up with politics as usual, the Texas billionaire Ross Perot won almost 20 per cent of the national vote, as an independent vowing to put the country's finances in order and bring a clean broom to Washington. And this despite well-founded doubts over Perot's erratic and autocratic behaviour, at a time when by today's standards, the economy was thriving. America's winner-take-all electoral system of course meant that Perot didn't carry a single state, and won no electoral college votes. But he had mounted the most impressive White House bid in 80 years by a third-party candidate.

It was no accident that the years immediately after Perot's near-miss saw populist conservative talk radio, led by Rush Limbaugh, emerge as a force in the land. And where radio led, conservative cable TV talk shows quickly followed.

Today, their leading lights are more famous, more feared, and more politically influential than ever. And not surprisingly. The political climate is even more favourable for populism than in Perot's heyday. Obama's huge deficit, eight times larger than that run by then President George HW Bush in 1992, may have helped stave off a repeat of the Great Depression. But the economy is bad and likely to remain so, as America faces years of high unemployment, and wrenching adjustment to new global realities. In such times populists, with their siren songs, simple remedies and search for scapegoats, always thrive.

And no one does scapegoats and simple remedies better than talk radio and television. The name of the game is ratings. By definition, moderation and nuance are boring, the one unpardonable sin of the talk industry. Politics is entertainment, entertainment best achieved by controversy and argument. Take-no-prisoners talk has contributed to the polarisation of national politics, making it harder than ever for the two main parties to compromise and solve problems. In turn, politics becomes ever more like the shows that feed off it; as Palin complained to an interviewer the other day: "Our life has become a kind of reality show."

Republicans, it should be said, aren't the only ones to mix showbiz and politics. Even before he became a liberal talk radio host, the comedian Al Franken wrote a spoof novel about a 2000 presidential campaign, entitled Why Not Me? Why not indeed. Franken is now a Democratic senator for Minnesota, and by all accounts taking the job extremely seriously. Reagan himself is meanwhile proof that the process is anything but new.

But no one has blurred the lines between showbiz and politics like today's Republicans. One reason is the party's lack of leaders. The dismal economy has brought Obama's approval ratings back down to earth. But people aren't flocking to the Republicans as an alternative. Rather, every poll suggests, they are looking for a saviour. That helps explain why Palin may yet upend the old Republican order. But so too could a new populist from the ranks of the media. Rightly, Bill O'Reilly, the most popular host on Fox News, told her: "You are the biggest threat because you are a star. There aren't any other Republicans who are media stars but you." Palin, however, could just as well have answered, that the Republicans didn't have many political stars to match O'Reilly.

So why not jump on the bandwagon? On Capitol Hill, the Republicans may be outnumbered, but on television Fox News is winning the cable ratings war hands down. O'Reilly, it should be said, has never hinted at political ambitions, but Sarah Palin as talk-show diva? Don't rule it out.