The political lessons of “American Idol”

The political lessons of “American Idol” January 26, 2010

Kevin Huffman draws out what politicians can learn from American Idol:

As Scott Brown stormed to victory in the Massachusetts Senate race Tuesday night, I huddled with my daughters watching Fox. No, not the gloating election coverage on Fox News — I wouldn’t do that to impressionable young minds. We watched the flagship’s “American Idol” auditions.

This seemed fitting since, four years ago, Ayla Brown, the senator-elect’s daughter, captivated my kids during a short-lived “American Idol” run (my eldest daughter cried as hard as Ayla did when she got booted from the show). Ayla was an attractive though somewhat bland singer who belted out tunes by Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera. She had a chipper attitude and a limited vocal range. In short, good for TV.

If only she had been competing against Martha Coakley. Ayla’s dad followed the same attractive, bland but hardworking formula and rocked it all the way to the Capitol.

One thing I can tell you about American elections (both political and reality-TV): Bland, attractive and hardworking is a decent strategy. If you can avoid offending, condescending and generally being annoying, if you can come off as nice and normal and sing a tune people recognize, you’ve got a shot — regardless of your musical or party affiliation.

Amazingly, my fellow Democrats manage to mess up this basic formula again and again, particularly in the Bay State. Michael Dukakis in the tank, John Kerry windsurfing, Martha Coakley on Curt Schilling — they all conveyed a fundamental disconnect from the lives of average citizens. Not that Coakley gave herself a lot of opportunities to connect: The Boston Globe reported that she clocked 19 public events during the stretch from the primaries into last weekend, while Brown had 59.

In elections, images are symbolic, and symbolism matters when it reflects a deeper truth. In Massachusetts the truth was that the Democratic candidate spent too much time with the power brokers and not enough time with the people. . . .

Just a year removed from a presidential election made historic in part by its mobilization of grass-roots efforts, Democrats have managed to slip back into the bad habit of talking up to the party bosses and down to the average folks. Voters sensed what “Idol” viewers would know: They are trying too hard impress the judges and not hard enough to connect with the audience.

Democratic strategists ought to familiarize themselves with “American Idol” history: The year Ayla Brown made her brief appearance, Chris Daughtry, the chain-wearing rock star, was the judges' favorite. But Taylor Hicks, the Elvis-covering everyman, won the people's votes and the title. Last season it came down to Adam Lambert, the critically acclaimed glam rocker, and Kris Allen, the folksy boy next door with a pleasant voice and a nice smile. Kris Allen won. See a pattern?

via Kevin Huffman – Scott Brown’s ‘American Idol’ road to victory – washingtonpost.com.

Play to the people, not the judges! As in American Idol, so in American politics.


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  • Jonathan

    I don’t think Obama qualifies as an everyman. His appeal was the “Rock Star” or, as my wife likes to refer to him, the Homecoming King–the popular guy who’s cool because he’s not like everybody else but everyone wants to be like. So, he was swept in exactly because of his image that he’s not your average Joe Six Pack. Sometimes we do go for the Wunderkind Cult of Personality. That’s why it has been interesting to see him try to work on his everyman image now with beer summits, burger runs and pick-up basketball games.

  • Jonathan

    I don’t think Obama qualifies as an everyman. His appeal was the “Rock Star” or, as my wife likes to refer to him, the Homecoming King–the popular guy who’s cool because he’s not like everybody else but everyone wants to be like. So, he was swept in exactly because of his image that he’s not your average Joe Six Pack. Sometimes we do go for the Wunderkind Cult of Personality. That’s why it has been interesting to see him try to work on his everyman image now with beer summits, burger runs and pick-up basketball games.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I like it Jonathan! Sarah Palin, the homecoming queen? I think so. Match made in heaven? definitely not – but boy would that be a fun dance to watch.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I like it Jonathan! Sarah Palin, the homecoming queen? I think so. Match made in heaven? definitely not – but boy would that be a fun dance to watch.

  • Jonathan

    Ah, maybe next time. But, Palin was rejected for Homecoming Queen this time, probably because she was too much like the folks at a time when the country wanted a change from that direction and instead went for an elitist who was “better than them” who could solve all their problems like Superman(R). Palin may fit the A.I. model better next time.

  • Jonathan

    Ah, maybe next time. But, Palin was rejected for Homecoming Queen this time, probably because she was too much like the folks at a time when the country wanted a change from that direction and instead went for an elitist who was “better than them” who could solve all their problems like Superman(R). Palin may fit the A.I. model better next time.

  • Booklover

    Scott Brown has experience trying to appeal to the masses with his centerfold pose for Cosmo years ago. Let’s hope there’s been some growth since then. I mean growth in maturity. Oh dear.

  • Booklover

    Scott Brown has experience trying to appeal to the masses with his centerfold pose for Cosmo years ago. Let’s hope there’s been some growth since then. I mean growth in maturity. Oh dear.

  • DonS

    “Ayla’s dad followed the same attractive, bland but hardworking formula and rocked it all the way to the Capitol.
    One thing I can tell you about American elections (both political and reality-TV): Bland, attractive and hardworking is a decent strategy”

    What, exactly, was bland about Scott Brown? “With all due respect, Mr. Gergen, it’s not Kennedy’s seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the People’s seat!”. “Just think, the leader of the free world is talking about my truck!”

    Nothing bland about that — those are rock star lines. If you want bland, try Obama during the campaign last year.

    I love how liberals just label candidates they don’t like, without support or rationale, and then just assume those labels are right, because they said them. He wrote a whole column about his label, as if it were fact!

  • DonS

    “Ayla’s dad followed the same attractive, bland but hardworking formula and rocked it all the way to the Capitol.
    One thing I can tell you about American elections (both political and reality-TV): Bland, attractive and hardworking is a decent strategy”

    What, exactly, was bland about Scott Brown? “With all due respect, Mr. Gergen, it’s not Kennedy’s seat, it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the People’s seat!”. “Just think, the leader of the free world is talking about my truck!”

    Nothing bland about that — those are rock star lines. If you want bland, try Obama during the campaign last year.

    I love how liberals just label candidates they don’t like, without support or rationale, and then just assume those labels are right, because they said them. He wrote a whole column about his label, as if it were fact!

  • Adam

    I still get giddy thinking about Scott “rock star” Brown’s commitment to abortion rights. Yes! And the way he, uh, put forth his ‘available’ daughters on election night was cool and chic. Those are rock star lines!

  • Adam

    I still get giddy thinking about Scott “rock star” Brown’s commitment to abortion rights. Yes! And the way he, uh, put forth his ‘available’ daughters on election night was cool and chic. Those are rock star lines!

  • Don (@5) said, “I love how liberals just label candidates they don’t like, without support or rationale, and then just assume those labels are right, because they said them.”

    And just before that, he’d written, “If you want bland, try Obama during the campaign last year.”

    Pot, meet kettle.

  • Don (@5) said, “I love how liberals just label candidates they don’t like, without support or rationale, and then just assume those labels are right, because they said them.”

    And just before that, he’d written, “If you want bland, try Obama during the campaign last year.”

    Pot, meet kettle.

  • DonS

    Adam @ 6: Oh, there you are! We’re still waiting for your recommendations on how to handle situations like that the Massachusetts voters faced last week. Two “pro-choice” candidates, but one thinks it’s OK to murder babies just before they emerge from the birth canal, doesn’t think those nasty pro-lifers should even work in emergency rooms, and wants the federal government to pay for the murder of babies. Yet, the only criticism you can level is aimed at Scott Brown, and those who would vote for Scott Brown to prevent that other candidate from attaining office. Curious.

  • DonS

    Adam @ 6: Oh, there you are! We’re still waiting for your recommendations on how to handle situations like that the Massachusetts voters faced last week. Two “pro-choice” candidates, but one thinks it’s OK to murder babies just before they emerge from the birth canal, doesn’t think those nasty pro-lifers should even work in emergency rooms, and wants the federal government to pay for the murder of babies. Yet, the only criticism you can level is aimed at Scott Brown, and those who would vote for Scott Brown to prevent that other candidate from attaining office. Curious.

  • DonS

    tODD: I didn’t write a whole column about it, did I?

  • DonS

    tODD: I didn’t write a whole column about it, did I?

  • Wyldeirishman

    The closest and best political allusion that one can make while watching this year’s ‘Idol’ auditions, whether we are talking about some morbidly salacious personal scandal, or the mere exposure of the control-freaks that want to run every molecular aspect of the lives of the citizenry (apparently because we are just too stoopid to figger stuff out on our own) that are now scattering faster than roaches when the lights flick on…

    …I give you Gen. Larry Platt.

    Pants on the ground!!! 😀

  • Wyldeirishman

    The closest and best political allusion that one can make while watching this year’s ‘Idol’ auditions, whether we are talking about some morbidly salacious personal scandal, or the mere exposure of the control-freaks that want to run every molecular aspect of the lives of the citizenry (apparently because we are just too stoopid to figger stuff out on our own) that are now scattering faster than roaches when the lights flick on…

    …I give you Gen. Larry Platt.

    Pants on the ground!!! 😀

  • Don (@9), what, do you want a bonus point for efficient hypocrisy?

  • Don (@9), what, do you want a bonus point for efficient hypocrisy?

  • DonS

    Sure, tODD. I’d be honored to get any kind of bonus point from you 🙂

  • DonS

    Sure, tODD. I’d be honored to get any kind of bonus point from you 🙂