In my mind, it really started with Puck from MTV's "The Real World". A loud obnoxious schmuck put on TV and made famous for the very vulgarity and ignorance we cross the street to avoid in real life, and yet, were were drawn to the dysfunction. The same way we rubberneck at a car accident, we found ourselves holding a bathroom break till the commercial to avoid missing what might be the moment that no one should have missed, and here, our lust for produced reality was born.
Since then it's been stretched and satiated in every possible variation, cops taking down shirtless rednecks, "survivors" put on an island where they don't have to survive so much as screw each other over, or, eat a pig testicle and win some cash, get a bunch of alcoholic 20 somethings together and see who mates on night vision camera, and who the hell cared about the housewives of anywhere until it showed up on Bravo? However, all of this produced reality has permeated our culture to the point where it seems we don't think it's real unless a fight breaks out, or someones hair ends up in a clenched fist. We have created a false interpretation of what's real.
Since Nixon/Kennedy, the first televised debate, (and if i'm being honest i felt like i should have put a "vs" in between them instead of a slash) the American people have grown to see political discourse as a competition between orators as opposed to a competition between ideologies. It doesn't matter who has the better ideas just who can deliver their ideas with more appeal. If you can remember that debate, it didn't matter who's ideas you liked at the beginning, Kennedy was cool and composed, Nixon was sweaty and disheveled, and unless you were an ardent Nixon man, Kennedy charmed the pants off you. The fact he had good ideas closed the deal.
We have come to the dangerous conclusion of that debate. We will side with whoever charms us best, or first. If we were still swayed by simple straight forward ideas that would be a good thing, the problem is that now we are swayed/entertained by reality; the controversial, explicit, ridiculous, produced reality we have come to expect as "real life". 15 years ago an airing of the House of Representatives on CSPAN was a look into civil governmental procedure, today its a misfit island of late night quotes and talking points.
Politicians have caught wind of popular entertainment and guided their actions in step with what they think will get them the most sound bytes. The more audacious an elected officials remarks, the better chance they have of being repeated to a national audience, even if those remarks are presented with disdain, even if those remarks don't represent their true beliefs. Air time has become more important than faithfully representing their constituency. It's this kind of attention whoring, along with the introduction of millions of dollars of private money, that has led us to accept a legislative branch that is completely impotent, not just to pass meaningful legislation, but to even recognize an alternate point of view besides their own. A view dictated by the Lobbyists of corporations that are at an intersect to the people who elected them. And it all comes back to Puck.
TV has made us think that conflict and rhetoric is the natural state of reality. Politicians, being on a national media stage, have pandered to a majority demographic, thus bringing the level of political discourse down to the level of an episode of Dance Moms, with the same amount of civility and compromise that an hour of that program provides. Honestly, how could we blame them?
It's been said that a society can be judged by how it entertains itself. I hate to admit it, but our primetime speaks volumes.