Today, many Americans will anticipate, watch and ultimately recap the ups and downs and winners and losers of the Oscars, the world’s most-popular awards show. We have been training for this. Over the last few weeks many of us have discussed, watched and rehashed two other big events – the Super Bowl and the Grammys.
When I asked people if they knew the Super Bowl or the Oscars were on, I was met with blank stares. People could not comprehend that I would ask such a ridiculous question because everyone knows when the Super Bowl or the Oscars air.
When I asked people if they knew who was playing in the Super Bowl, who they were rooting for and why, each person was able to fully and completely answer each question. The same thing happened when I asked people which artists were up for Grammy or Academy awards, and who they hoped would win or lose. Everyone was able to quickly give an answer about a favorite artist, album or movie.
Let us compare those contests to other contests that actually affect our lives – elections. First, how many of us can honestly answer when the next election is? Or when the last election was? I guarantee you it is fewer than those who methodically planned what to serve at their Super Bowl parties or which performers they hoped would win an Oscar.
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Second, how many of us can answer who is running for city council, county supervisor, state Assembly and Senate, secretary of state, lieutenant governor or even governor? Again, far fewer than those who wondered what Julianne Moore will be wearing to the Oscars or whose speech Kanye West would interrupt at the Grammys.
Third, if we are hard pressed to answer the first two questions, it can be no wonder that few of us can provide an informed explanation for why we are supporting one candidate over another.
For the vast majority of us, it is the outcome of elections, not sporting events or awards shows, that will affect our lives. But we seem to care the least about them. Why?
Many argue, myself included, that the amount of money spent in elections turns people off to the political process. In politics, money determines which candidates will be able to run and be competitive, and which issues are addressed in campaigns. But the same is true of sporting events and awards ceremonies.
Money dictates which athletes play for which teams, and which artists are signed with which labels and studios. Owners of teams, record labels and movie studios openly and transparently exert substantial influence in a way that political party leaders and funders of outside organizations do, only from the shadows.
Politics, professional sports and the entertainment industry are all dominated by moneyed interests. All are generally inaccessible to the average citizen. So money alone cannot explain why we care so little about elections and so much about the major sporting events or awards ceremonies.
One could argue that we should ask and expect more of our politicians than we do of athletes and performers. But the truth is we really don’t, because we barely know who our politicians are.
Perhaps this all comes down to a simple truth – even though they affect our lives, elections simply aren’t interesting to most people. So what could possibly excite the electorate?
What if we made elections more like awards ceremonies? Before a debate the candidates could walk down a red carpet in their finest outfits while reporters scream, “Who are you wearing, and do you support immigration reform?” But that sounds like a joint press conference, which excites exactly no one.
Or the results of elections could be announced like winners at awards ceremonies. After some lame banter, the two presenters would say, “and now the award for the next state treasurer goes to ...” But unless those presenters are George Clooney and Julia Roberts, this wouldn’t change the political culture much, if at all.
Perhaps we should ask our candidates to get more physical and try to make elections more like sporting events. Each candidate could wear a jersey with stickers indicating their biggest donors. Some claim that politicians already engage in a type of verbal dodgeball on a daily basis; maybe we should see how adept they are at the actual game. But physical prowess has little to do with being a good legislator or chief executive, so we should shelve this idea, too.
I am left wondering whether the biggest threat to our representative democracy is that we simply cannot get ourselves to care as much about choosing who will serve as our elected officials as we do about who wins a major sporting event or awards ceremony. Voter apathy runs deep and cuts even deeper.
Until we develop the panacea for voter apathy, we should focus on finding more interesting ways to educate and inform voters. Maybe that will come through a combination of traditional and social media. And candidates should honestly explain to us why our daily lives would be different if we elect them or defeat their opponents. Until that happens, it will be difficult for us to root for or against any of them.
Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and is vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu and tweets at @LevinsonJessica.