Allegations last week that U.S. Senate candidate and reality TV star Thomas Ravenel harassed and threatened South Carolina political blogger Will Folks via text message probably didn’t surprise too many people. Folks recently blasted Ravenel’s candidacy on FITSnews.com, saying the Southern Charm candidate had squandered a good chance at unseating U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and echoed the claim that T-Rav’s current campaign manager Scott Wheeler had been hired by Bravo to run Ravenel’s Senate campaign, a claim that Folks, oddly, had downplayed in a blog post only a few weeks before.
From the start, Ravenel’s run for a U.S. Senate seat has seemed just a bit off. Following so closely on the heels of his “No, I’m not” to “Yes, I am” proclamations as to whether or not he would appear in a completely inexplicable second season of the slightly less than well-performing Southern Charm, Ravenel made good on his promise to run as an independent in the hopes of unseating Graham, a two-term, and heavily favored, incumbent.
Running somewhere to the right of Graham economically and somewhere to the left of Graham socially and in matters of foreign policy, Ravenel had his work cut out for him in a state largely defined by conservatives of all stripes except the “libertarian” ones.
Adding to that, many political pundits — if not a portion of the general public — tend to view Ravenel’s campaign as nothing more than a subplot for the second season of Southern Charm. They deride the disgraced former state treasurer’s bid for Lindsey Graham’s Senate seat as little more than a dog-and-pony show aimed at pumping up ratings for a program that, honestly, could have done a better job of capturing the spirit of “Charleston” if it had just located beloved street character Byron and asked for an honest back-cracking or interviewed the line of dejected people waiting to get into Jestine’s when it closed for renovations or maybe joining in the chorus of drunken “Wooooos!” on Bourbon, I mean, King Street on the weekends.
Unfortunately, I am not one who is shocked and horrified by the perpetual drama surrounding the reality TV candidate and his serious/not serious campaign. I’m more amused by the reaction it is getting from the pundits, left and right. It’s a classic case of Captain Renault syndrome, whereby these good, honest political pundits and their respective cheering sections are “shocked, shocked” that a political campaign is little more than dressed up theater, designed for a political class in this country that has largely never known anything more than a theatrical presentation masquerading as politics.
After all, we’re well past a half-century away from the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, the first televised presidential debates in United States history. According to History.com, the Kennedy-Nixon debates “ushered in a new era in which crafting a public image and taking advantage of media exposure became essential ingredients of a successful political campaign.” Political scientists — or political pundits who don’t have jobs as either television talking heads or operatives for individual candidates — debated for years whether Kennedy won because he was a better debater, had better ideas, or was simply better looking than Richard Nixon, who, admittedly, wasn’t in any danger of winning any beauty contests (he certainly wasn’t going to win Mr. Congeniality, either).
Since then, America’s politics, first on the national scene but now inching ever more closer to home, has become little more than an ongoing research project into the public relations nightmare of managing public opinion. Everything must be “just right” for the television audience. The crowd behind the candidate must be carefully selected, the interns must craft perfect signs for the crowd to hold aloft, the applause must come at the right points in the speech, and the news crews must find the most mundane slip-ups to report on (instead of the actual content of the speeches).
All of this culminates, naturally, in those paired frenzies of orgiastic partisan politics: the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Each and every election cycle, these stage-managed affairs become increasingly as glitzy, glamorous, and glossy as the Grammys, and ultimately just as meaningless. In between speeches from the diva parade of has-beens and never-weres, the conventions are filled with soulful, pop-country patriotic drivel or uplifting working-class anthems, presented by bands that have never been working class, and it’s all watched by an audience who have dedicated their lives to episodes of This American Life in a hands-off attempt at understanding the working class.
As such, this attempt at being aghast at Thomas Ravenel’s “circus” of political showmanship — up to and including his recent texting fight with Folks — is nothing new or even revealing. If anything, we owe Ravenel our thanks for exposing the political scene for what it is: a mass-media masturbatory-mashup of pop-culture politics and public relations.