commentary (2006-29)

What Knox County’s electoral process could learn from reality TV

So, You Think You Can Govern?

by Matt Edens

Several years ago, during the last round of metro government madness, I remember one glib suggestion of how to unify city and county governments that got a lot of airplay among talk-radio callers and commentators. The city, it was suggested, should simply surrender its charter and make unification fait accompli. Didn’t happen. But, who knows, if the courthouse wags had opined that, instead of surrender its charter, the city could sorta, kinda misplace it, fail to file the proper paperwork in Nashville—surprisingly, such things apparently happen—and unification could have been accomplished via clerical error. 

Frankly, other than making fun, I don’t know what to make of this whole charter mess.  Then there’s the conundrum that faces voters come Election Day (itself something of a fuzzy concept in this era of early voting). Can anyone enter the voting booth with any confidence that his or her vote will count for anything? And that’s not just your typical Diebold tinfoil hat talk, either. With so many lawsuits flying, depending on what the judges say, the final vote tally could be meaningless (not without precedent in Knox County politics—the 1994 term limits referendum springs to mind). No wonder people would rather stay home and watch American Idol than participate in the local political process.

Such disparaging comments about watching American Idol are a popular refrain among people who lament low voter turnout, but I’m starting to wonder if Knox County’s political process suffers by the comparison. Idol ’s cattle-call initial selection process is no less ludicrous than Knox County’s last train wreck of a primary, and the final rounds are arguably more democratic. 

Imagine the outrage if the American Idol producers told viewers to pick their favorite and that an inner circle of record industry people would then meet privately to determine the real winner? That’s more or less how the current general election ballot would have come about, if a handful of theoretically ineligible incumbents hadn’t more or less sued their way back into the running (at least that’s how I understand it, but it’s hard to keep up with all the court chicanery). American Idol , in contrast, comes across surprisingly above board, what with all the cameras and constant Cingular Wireless updates. From week to week, you know where everyone stands.

So I say why not? There’s more than enough TV production talent in Knoxville to throw together a reality show and come up with 19 suitable county commissioners (the standards aren’t all that high, if past performance is any indicator). We’d need a host, I suppose, someone with Ryan Seacrest’s same brand of inoffensive, all-American   boyishness—Mayor Haslam, maybe? Finding a few political has-beens to serve as judges shouldn’t be hard. If we wait long enough, the upcoming Republican senate primary will surely produce a couple. To round out the panel, I suspect Victor Ashe could fill Simon Cowell’s sinister shoes with suitable nastiness. (Although, as with Paula Abdul, choreography is Victor’s true talent, as anyone who followed his heyday at the helm of City Council meetings surely knows.)

Judging political talent could prove tricky, though. Heck, I’m not even sure how to define it. An ability to actually govern would seem like a given. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, if you stop and consider how the county got into its current complications over the charter. Rather like Hollywood, family connections often help, if the current crop of Pinkstons and Leutholds are any indication. Costuming also seems to be critical, at least in Diane Jordan’s case. And a flair for the theatrical can often give an up-and-comer an unexpected leg up, particularly if he or she has a catchy nickname like Greg “Lumpy” Lambert.

Mostly, though, our electoral process seems to be a popularity contest where the competitors belt out canned cover renditions of the same old standards—good schools, economic growth and low taxes. In that regard, it’s not all that different from American Idol , really. Although, with Idol , the contestants are better looking, the ratings are higher and the results don’t really matter. Unfortunately, when it comes to their government, Knox Countians can’t say the same.