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Bristol Palin and the Future of Democracy

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“Don’t retreat. Just reload.” —Sarah Palin, to daughter Bristol, while shooting clay pigeons on Sarah Palin’s Alaska

Tonight, the last and perhaps most closely followed vote of the 2010 midterm season gets under way: the season finale of Dancing with the Stars. This year’s voting has been especially controversial because, week after week, political daughter Bristol Palin has survived the public voting despite generally lower rankings from the judges. There have been charges of fraud, favoritism and ballot stuffing; one angry viewer shot his TV after last week’s results.

Let me say up front that I am not a regular fan of DWTS—my column from the first season pretty much sums up my feelings on the show—so I am not judging how good a dancer Palin is. Let me add up front that I therefore have a hard time getting worked up about any of this. But the controversy raises some interesting questions. Does it say anything about Sarah Palin and her political aspirations? Does it say anything about DWTS and its credibility? And what does it mean to “deserve” to win a celebrity dance contest anyway?

Those last questions first. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Bristol’s detractors are right: that she is not the best dancer in the contest or even close to it, that she’s been kept around by fans stuffing the ballot box (some of them using fake-email addresses to circumvent the rules) and that those voters are really making a statement in support of her politician mom. Assuming that were the case, what’s the scandal here? That DWTS has lost its credibility as an arbiter of celebrity dancing?

The show is called Dancing With the Stars. Not, say, Dancing With the Dancers. That is, people are chosen to compete on the show because of their existing fame, for reasons extraneous to their dancing talent. It’s not exactly a shock, then, that people would vote partly—or totally—on reasons other than dancing: charisma, personal stories, or simply the fact that they liked a particular star before the season ever began. (Conversely, I’m going to guess that there may be one or two people who would refuse to vote for Bristol because of her mom.)

If there’s out-and-out cheating, that’s one thing—if, because I’m not privy to the mechanics of ABC’s voting process. But if the assumption of the show is that intangibles are going to factor into a public vote, it seems like hair-splitting to say that that’s only OK up to some arbitrary point but not beyond it.

That said, I’m not a DWTS fan to begin with. Its fans are invested in the show and—as we’ve seen with American Idol—everyone has their personal opinion as to what constitutes the “right” reason to vote for someone. The DWTS audience is fairly traditional in its viewing habits (proportionally, DWTS is one of the least-DVRed shows on TV, despite being one the most-watched), and if it doesn’t take the show overly seriously, it probably takes the results at least earnestly, not as an ironic joke. If DWTS produces a winner that much of this audience sees as undeserving, it may not bother cynics like me—who are not watching DWTS in the first place—but it could turn off a good chunk of its loyal audience.

So that’s ABC’s issue. What about Sarah Palin? Between this and TLC’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska, are we witnessing some kind of early, reality-TV straw poll taking place? Is Bristol’s win really some kind of show of 2012 muscle? In the words of at least some of her voters, that’s part of it. The Washington Post reports that one blogger spearheading the fake e-mail-voting campaign intends the vote as a statement against what he calls past vote fraud by Democrats.

That may be a stretch in many ways, but, the argument goes, the pop-culture draw of the Palin family could be a kind of political proxy war, a sort of show of force that, intangibly, contributes to the aura of a populist juggernaut around Sarah Palin before the next election.

Maybe. Or it could be just the opposite. I’m not an elections expert, but I have to wonder—if there is any political effect of DWTS—whether a candidate really wants to be associated (even through a family member) with winning a suspect election. As I wrote earlier, Sarah Palin’s Alaska is a pretty spectacularly produced image ad for someone mulling her political future. But the audience of DWTS—older, (pop culturally) conservative and mildly Republican-leaning, at least one of them a gun-rights fan—is both an important one to a future Palin candidacy and one that might be put off at the thought of someone winning their favorite show through (as they see it) unfair means. Even if it’s just a reality show, does any candidate really want her surname and “ballot stuffing” used in the same sentence?

In the end, of course, it is just a reality show, and I tend to doubt anyone will be thinking about the aftereffects of DWTS in the primary season a year from now. But to the extent that it matters at all, the Palins may want to hope that Bristol has a really, legitimately good night dancing. Or failing that, root for Jennifer Grey.

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