The newest addition to the American Idol pantheon is Kris Allen, and not the multi-talented Adam Lambert. Millions of fans were heartbroken, but Adam seemed to take it well. Either way, it was bound to be a close race and another record-setting vote by American Idol fans. After all, every new season of the show has brought new record vote tallies, as more viewers register their preferences by text message, and more of them vote multiple times.
Last night’s tally, we were told, came in just under 100 million, an average of between 2 and 3 votes for every one of the almost 40 million viewers. That’s just shy of the 130 million votes cast in the 2008 general election, and even on a one-vote-per-customer basis, it rivals totals for the hotly contested Democratic presidential primary. Most importantly, as fans of both Adam and Kris would agree, the selection process was fair, transparent, and got people’s attention.
American Idol may not be a perfect direct democracy in action, but in some respects I think Simon, Randy, Paula, and Kara could teach us a lot about how to make our democracy better and more interesting. Here are just a few of American Idol’s lessons for American democracy:
1. Open primaries: While the Season gets most exciting later on, when the contestants are winnowed down to the top handful, and a new one is booted off each week, the show’s “audition” weeks are always a big ratings draw. The idea that the next American Idol is one of thousands waiting in line in Pittsburgh, Tucson, San Juan or Atlanta for a five minute shot at fame holds an obvious appeal. The lesson for our democracy is simple: America is a land of opportunity. When the political party system ensures that only those who are already wealthy, famous, or connected get a shot at the limelight, we lose great talent, and even worse, Americans lose interest. More importantly, starting with a wider field of candidates and allowing each to make his or her case to the voters ensures that the selection process rewards more universally appreciated qualities, not adherence to an artificial partisan credo.
2. Public financing: Except for the small fee viewers pay to SMS their votes, American Idol is free entertainment, straight up. The costs are covered by advertising revenue, which makes a lot of sense. We tune in because it’s a great show and we care about the contestants, and advertisers pay for a small share of our attention. I’m not suggesting that American elections should be commercially sponsored, but I do think we need a model for public campaign finance that spares candidates the exhausting and demeaning process of dialing for dollars, and protects the people from feeling utterly disenfranchised when special interests channel millions to candidates on both sides, as they inevitably do. If candidates had access to even a fraction of the air time Fox and other networks devote to the Idol franchise without having to mortgage their values to pay for it, we the voters might just get to know the people we elect to run our lives as well as those we pick to entertain us.
3. Every vote counts: As I mentioned already, Idol votes are per-message not per-person, which wouldn’t fly in a democracy. But what is a lot more democratic about voting on Idol finalists than in national elections is that there is no distinction between “safe states” and “swing states.” One vote counts just the same, whether it comes from New York City or from Kris Allen’s home town of Conway, Arkansas. We need that kind of democracy in American politics, too. As it stands right now, unless you live in a handful of “swing states” like Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa or Indiana, nobody cares very much how you cast your Presidential ballot, because votes are tallied and converted into electoral points by state, and whoever wins the majority wins the whole state. One solution is to allocate electoral votes proportionally within states. Another is to scrap the electoral college altogether and let the nationwide popular majority pick the President. Either way, it’s time we do something about a system that has left millions feeling disenfranchised in too many recent elections.