American Idol — Why Democracy Doesn’t Workby Brad Warbiany
American Presidential politics has long been derided as little more than a popularity contest. It’s said that it fails because the person Americans would “most like to have a beer with” is not necessarily the person who should be sitting in the most powerful political office in the world. But President Bush’s approval numbers [and those of several predecessors] make me wonder one thing: are Americans even good at choosing a president based on popularity?
So I decided to look at another popularity contest: American Idol. Sure, like the presidency, this is held under the veneer of being a “talent” competition, but the reality is that it’s run by a record company who desires to find an artist with built-in popular appeal. It legitimately should be the ideal method for finding a pop star, because the audience of voters self-selects as the logical group of people most likely to buy the album. In the last season, the finale saw over 97 million votes cast (to be fair, with multiple voting that doesn’t mean 97 million people voted).
If the most democratic method of American pop music talent searching ever created is successful, one would certainly expect that winning American Idol should be an immediate path to superstardom. You have a built in audience, built in name recognition, and don’t have anywhere near the hurdles most new artists have in getting to market. Instead of hurdles, they’re immediately offered a record deal with a major label. If American Idol is worth its salt, there simply shouldn’t be failure.
How have the results turned out? Well, not so stellar. Of all the American Idol alumni who are releasing records, the top two sellers are Idol winners, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. The next two highest on the list, Clay Aiken and Chris Daughtry, are non-winners. Being from different seasons than the above two, one can’t claim that they were “overshadowed” by the winner’s success. Following these two, in 5th and 6th place, are season 2 and 3 winners, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia. Given the length of time between their seasons and now, one can be sure that their album sales won’t climb much in the future– unlike Daughtry above them, who is still on an upward path in his career. In the case of Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, Aiken– who finished runner-up to Studdard– has sold over 2 million more albums and his follow-up albums have peaked far higher on the charts than Studdard’s non-debut albums.
Looking specifically at Season 5, won by Taylor Hicks*, the “undercards” of that season have far outshone Taylor Hicks and the runner-up, Kat McPhee. The 4th place finisher, Chris Daughtry, has become a legitimate star. 6th place (Kellie Pickler) and 3rd place (Elliott Yamin) have sold roughly similar numbers of albums as Taylor Hicks, and Yamin receives regular airplay. The second-place finisher, Katherine McPhee, sits well below the above, in the same rank as the 8th-place finisher from that year. Season 2’s 4th place finisher, Josh Gracin, even tops Taylor Hicks and is likely (with a new album coming out soon) to increase his lead in the future.
How can this be? If you’re trying to run a competition that is a glorified popularity contest, how can you account for the fact that those who win often end up far less popular than those who were eliminated? If democracy SHOULD produce the correct results, why doesn’t it? Or, more importantly than why, if you realize that democracy doesn’t produce the expected results, should democracy then be viewed with suspicion when it comes to making more important decisions than the award of a record contract?
A democratic system (to be fair, a flawed system multiple voting allowed) is at least reasonably successful at choosing who will be the most popular person in American Idol. In many ways, a democratic system (to be fair, a non-democratic system due to the electoral college) can also choose from a limited field who will be the most popular person to become President. It does little to select the best person for the job. In fact, the self-selection of politicos (media, lobbyists, donors) who tend to influence the process ensure that those who are best for the job are unelectable.
American Idol shows us that democracy is moderately successful– but still with significant misses– in choosing the winner of the popularity contest of pop music. The history of the United States has shown us that democracy is largely unsuccessful– with an occasional hit– at producing a President who does anything more than pander and reward his own pet interests.
A very smart man once said that Democracy is the worst form of government– except for all the others. He was incorrect. The best form of government is a severely limited government, with the method to choose ones “leaders” largely immaterial. Expecting to elect “the best” candidate to rule over you is less likely to result in positive outcomes than expecting the most salable pop star to be produced in American Idol voting. The best option, then, is to ensure that the office of President [and the rest of the government], by severely restricting the scope of their power, is about as important to the daily administration of your life as the decision of who wins American Idol.
* PS – Much like my political leanings towards libertarianism, I was pulling for the quirky underdog, Taylor Hicks. Somewhere in between AI and his album, though, the train derailed and he missed the mark.