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The Idol Electorate

How Simon Cowell saved American democracy.

Washington pundits like to dismiss the “youth vote” as a figment of MTV’s imagination. Those crazy kids, they say, never rock the vote. They are too busy playing video games and listening to their loud music to take their democratic responsibilities seriously. And if you looked back at every election since the lowering of the voting ages in 1971, you would have to conclude that the pundits had a point. That same demographic so coveted by advertisers has never really been in the voting mood.

Until now. There’s actually every indication that young people will flock to the polls. But the pundits still have it all wrong. If high school seniors, college kids, and twenty-somethings flood the electorate this season, it will have a lot to do with Barack Obama for sure. Of course, he’s inspiring them. But there is another man who is as important in their development as citizens and has significantly less faith in the power of idealism and hope: I’m speaking of Simon Cowell.

Cowell is that acerbic Englishman who serves on the panel that judges “American Idol,” the hit singing competition on Fox. For nearly the entirety of the Bush administration, “Idol” has dominated the Nielsens and occupied far too large a space in the collective mind of the nation. The reasons for “Idol’s” appeal are readily apparent: It is about young people performing under enormous pressure and being subjected to Cowell’s acidic wit. But the show also owes its success to its interactivity. That is, the public gets to dial 1-800 numbers and text message the votes that determine which contestants succeed (or fail). The success of “Idol” has spawned a raft of other reality shows where the public votes to determine the outcome.

There are important differences between “American Idol” and our constitutional American system. “Idol” is a direct democracy, for one. (And, like in Chicago of yore, “Idol” watchers can vote as often as they desire.) But, at the end of the day, they are both about voting. And as much as some might scoff at the deleterious effects of “Idol” on our culture, it has created a culture of voting among our young people. Where past generations of youth might have felt cynically about their ability to affect change, the millions of “Idol” voters can see the palpable impact of their vote--live in prime time and with Ryan Seacrest as their Walter Cronkite. With “Idol,” voting becomes a habit, something done week after week, season after season. Votes are taken seriously, discussed at length at the water cooler, on Facebook, and on blogs. Civics may have faded from the curriculum. Thankfully, Simon, Paula, and Randy have risen as our tutors of small-r republican virtue.

OK, I won’t make such extravagant claims on behalf of the 35 percent of “Idol” viewers who once told pollsters that they considered their votes to be as or more significant than their votes for president. And I’ll admit that I was a momentarily disheartened when Taylor Hicks won more votes (63 million) than, say, Ronald Reagan (54.5 million in 1984). But, hey, we’re now prepared to reap the rewards of this democratic education, with the youth vote finally fulfilling its promise.

So what season of “Idol” will this election resemble? Will Barack Obama trounce his opponent John McCain like Fantasia? Or will it be an unlikely nail biter like the Ruben Studdard-Clay Aiken showdown? If it’s a close election, there is one insight that our electoral system should borrow from “Idol.” However thin the margin, the outcome should never, ever rest in the hand of judges.

Alan H. Fleischmann is the co-founder and managing director of the ImagineNations Group, the youth investment alliance. He lives in Washington, D.C.

By Alan H. Fleischmann