My Dad, like several others I know, is a big West Wing fan, and so I ended up catching some of the tail end of "the event" tonight. For those that, like me, don't pay much attention to network television drama, the event tonight was that there was a live "Presidential Debate" between the two major West Wing candidates, portrayed by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits. The one hour program was broadcast uninterrupted "commercial-free", from the sponsorship by American Express. There was a live audience, the NBC News Live logo in the bottom corner of the screen, and if I had been randomly flipping channels I might have felt, for some brief period, that I was watching some real debate. There is a Campaign website for the two candidates of the TV show, and several satirical "attack ads" scattered across satirical news organizations, particularly thanks to the cross-network "President Battle" going on between ABC's fledgling "Commander-In-Chief" (with Geena Davis as a female president) and NBC's West Wing, which is now into the beginnings of its third Presidential term (the show equates 4 seasons to a term, similar to the 4 year President term).
I couldn't help but be somewhat impressed at the synthetic political debate that NBC put together. (Synthetic world design being a hobby of mine, after all.) They didn't go whole hog, by any means, but they at least put enough work into it that they really did a lot to twist the suspension of disbelief. At the conclusion of the show my dad said to me, "I think Vinick [Alan Alda's character] is going to win," and he looked somewhat upset with that. Of course its a TV show, so he quickly followed with, "They just gave him more lines," as the gears shifted and he found easy comfort in being able to blame his chosen candidate's potential future loss on the TV show's writers.
Again it was really well done from a fictional story telling standpoint, particular to see my dad respond well to it. However, I was struck by a deep, disturbing feeling. I'm still reading Don't Think of an Elephant, and some of its analyses of Political dialogue are quite fresh in my mind. I really wouldn't be surprised if the script writers have read some of Lakoff's works. The interesting thing is that Politics is, already, inherently virtual/synthetic. So much of politics exists in our minds and only borders on reality in those places where beauracracy meets budgets and services. Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, talks about how much the linguistic context (frames) effects how we percieve what is said, and in his books has particularly discussed how this is important in politics (and how the Republicans have spent millions of dollars on think-tank work around this). So, the scary thing about synthetic political drama, like West Wing, is that it really is only a stones throw from being "real" political drama.
Most people aren't going to admit that they would let a TV show effect how they will vote come election time, but just like any other debate you might or might not watch, the TV show is affecting the way they think about politics, even if subtly and even if not directly noticeable. I wonder if the show's writers lost any sleep over what power they wield. My dad asked, somewhat rhetorically, as Smit's character made some good observations: "Why can't the Democrats say something like that?". They have, and they try, and maybe we'll someday see a candidate who can. But, the key is here is they have. In this particular instance I could point to a past debate where it was said, but I didn't have to: Smits, in representing a Democrat, was indistinguishable from a Democrat in saying it, even if it was a "fictional debate". Jimmy Smits tonight, without a doubt, shaped the "real" debates to come, for all those that watched West Wing tonight, and the next "real" Democrat candidate can just as easily mention or quote Smits' dialogue as he can any other politician.
...and this isn't reserved for just Presidential Dramas. Some people laugh when I tell them that The Daily Show is my primary news source, but The Daily Show really is as much of the news universe as any other show, and what the show says affects what people think about current events and politics as much as a "real" news show, and in my opinion is somewhat better simply because it knows this.
Right now, I'm calling it the Political Uncertainty Principle: Politics as Entertainment cannot be unentangled from "real" Politics. Maybe someone should reformulate that into something like a brother of WorldMaker's Law. (For reference: WorldMaker's Law, a relative of Clarke's Law, states "Any sufficiently complex system is indistinguishable from intelligent.")