The media attention recently surrounding London’s Demolition protest and the US mid-term elections could suggest that political action is back in fashion with the public. Yet the farcical sequence of two other recent incidents of political activism – Glenn Beck’s ‘Restoring Honour Rally’ back in August, parodied in October by political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s in their ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ – paint a slightly different picture.
According to Beck, the core purpose of the August rally was to initiate the “great reawakening of America”, in which American citizens would rise up to restore traditional American values by turning “back to God” for inspiration. In reality, the rally was intended to portray the Republicans as patriotic underdogs fighting against the “Maoist Regime” of the Democrat Obama Administration.
Though much debate surrounds the true size of Beck’s crowd, CBS news suggested an estimate of between 78,000 and 96,000. Beck himself asserted the presence of at least 500,000 marchers, possibly even 1.2 million. Estimates made by organisers of Stewart and Colbert’s rally, in contrast, settled at around 250,000 satirical supporters (perhaps 10 million in Beck’s terms). This is all both hilarious and frightening; the very fact that two comedians can generate over 2.5 times as many supporters as a genuine(ish) political commentator leaves me wondering if political demonstration has become a joke.
So, what does this mean for the legacy of the Demolition protest? Will it be followed, in two months’ time, by Rob Newman and Mark Thomas’ ‘Rally to shut up the whining babies’? Will the voices of the outraged students be drowned out by the laughter of the middle-aged audience who flock to the anti-rally? People now sneer at political causes, and the idea of questioning one’s own government has informed the repertoire of many a stand-up comedian. It would seem that modern British and International politics have become peripheral entities that people only care for when something goes wrong, and ignore when something goes right.
All of which suggests that there is a growing indifference towards politics, a trend that has been noted in the media for some time. Yet this year’s turnout for the general elections did enjoy a 4% increase, from 61% in 2005 to 65.1% in 2010. Prior to the election, the Guardian anticipated these figures, reporting a distinct surge in voter registration – particularly among young people. Yet when we place such seemingly impressive results next to the millions of votes received by reality TV shows such as the X Factor and the recently deceased Big Brother every week, it is easy to become somewhat disillusioned. The power of reality TV to draw in voters has been duly noted; debates have emerged over the possibility of stylising general elections to mirror voting on reality TV shows, whilst the Academy of Marketing Political Marketing Special Interest Group recently held a ‘Special Interest Symposium’ event to discuss the extent to which this year’s general election was “the X Factor generation election”, with the public engaging with party leaders as celebrity contestants in the live televised debates.
Considering the popularity of Big Brother and the X-factor over the General Elections, how far is the world from becoming one huge reality TV-show? In this post-apocalyptic, indifferent dystopia, will Dermot O’Leary emerge as Speaker of the Big Brother House of Commons, in which David Cameron will have to eat a Kangaroo testicle in order to earn a second term? Will Ant and Dec be nearby to show some of his ‘best bits’ if he can’t keep it down?
Yet the Demolition protest does seem to indicate hope for meaningful political activism and engagement – if only from the student population. The decision to schedule a second round of nationwide student activism on a national scale on 24 November certainly reinforces this optimistic outlook. Perhaps now that something close to every student’s heart – our bank balance – has been placed in jeopardy, we have the power to show that there’s life in the legacy of political activism yet. Let’s hope reality TV will always take second place to the realities of political change that shape our lives.