The 90s youth network can't be blamed for sending Bill Clinton to the White House—but it might provide some helpful lessons for Howard Schultz.
“This is an era when the attention span of the viewers of a major cable channel is measured in milliseconds, when colleges now graduate semi-literates, when judgment of a Presidential candidate’s philosophy is determined by how up he is on the latest huckstered rock hit,” a New York Times reader wrote in a 1993 letter to the editor. “What is most frightening is the fact that the future candidates will pander to this group.” The subject of this self-appointed pundit’s ire was Tabitha Soren, the 20-something host of MTV’s Peabody-winning Choose or Lose campaign, who had committed the unspeakable crime of taking young voters seriously. Talking heads on traditional cable outlets also ridiculed Soren’s shock TV tactics—having fun, citing pop culture, speaking in plain English—before replicating them years later to boost their own sinking viewerships. See also: today’s congress elders cooking stir-fry on Instagram Stories, or Morning Joe quizzing Howard Schultz on the the price of a box of Cheerios. Nor is misguided outrage over the supposed dumbing down of society unique to the 90s. Soren’s haters were usually furious about things she never even said.
“It’s really hard to remember [the MTV era] but I was working so hard that I barely had time to spend any money,” Soren recently told Document when we spoke about her new photography exhibition, Surface Tension. “I was in hotels all the time, and it’s so fast, and so noisy. Trying to get kids to vote—taking a deep breath was really hard for about nine years.” She did find time to reprimand Larry King for hyping polls over candidate’s policies, telling him it did a disservice to voters, who needed information on issues like homelessness, gun control, school programs. “I just think some of our options out there in the political world are insulting,” Soren told Document. “And so misogynistic—the approach to Hillary, anyway. It should not even be a question that I want people to fix the fact that we’ve got 30% of African-Americans in the United States but yet they take up 60% of the space in jail. That is a no-brainer.”
Soren had acknowledged the argument, in a New York Times op-ed in August 2016, that MTV helped deliver the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992. “I don’t know if that is true,” she wrote. “But looking back on it, you can see the first glimpses of what was to become of American politics.” It wasn’t just the “boxers-or-briefs” question—though that was certainly prescient. “The audience member who asked the boxers-or-briefs question was on to something,” Soren wrote. “She stood for a new cultural need to debase political candidates that eventually would take us to the point where political candidates debase themselves, without the public’s assistance.” Nor was that the only political lesson we can glean from the 90s heyday of MTV’s Choose or Lose. (Hindsight, right?) Here are five that feel particularly potent, for better or worse, heading into 2020.
Politicians are listening, particularly if you have a #1 pop hit in New Zealand or host a groundbreaking podcast out of San Quentin State Prison.
Jerry Brown’s $20-per-head fundraiser for his 1992 presidential campaign was headlined by the B-52’s and Kim Basinger—though the Democratic candidate originally wanted Public Enemy. Choose or Lose covered the event by speaking to the horde woke young things who came out to show support, include Michael Musto and Susan Sarandon—who praised the Democratic candidate for talking about AIDS awareness and corruption in government respectively. In the ‘90s, Brown ran to the left of his colleagues on many big issues—even calling out Bernie Sanders, in 1997, for backing the tough-on-crime bill. These days Brown is a fan of hydraulic fracking, but on a less depressing note, he did commute the sentence of Earlonne Woods from Ear Hustle.
The two-party system makes no sense.
On an MTV Choose or Lose special ahead of the 1992 election, a young voter named Arnold Gatilao asked Bill Clinton a valid question about Americans’ total lack of electoral choices under what is generously called our two-party system. “I think that the two-party system, on balance, is better, because it gives you more stability and enables decisions to be made,” Clinton stammered in response. “The problem we’ve got now is that there’s paralysis in Washington, and not enough decisions are being made. In multi-party countries you normally have that party—that problem—multiplied many times over.” In retrospect, this was probably the ’90s’ political establishment’s most convincing argument in favor of socialism.
And here’s Soren explaining exactly why we can’t rely on Democrats and Republicans. “Those two parties first resisted many of the groundbreaking changes that have swept America—such things as civil rights, workers’ rights to organize and bargain for better pay, and even the abolition of slavery, all of which originated with a few citizens seeking change,” Soren said on Choose or Lose’s “Third Parties” episode in 1996. “Sometimes those citizens joined together and out of frustration formed alternative political parties—what we now call ‘independent’ or ‘third’ parties.” When Democrats and Republicans have little ideological difference between them, Soren explains, voters will often look elsewhere for new ideas. Sound familiar? People like to say Ross Perot cost Bush the 1996 election, just as Ralph Nader is typically cast as the spoiler of Gore’s 2000 election, and as Howard Schultz will apparently ruin everything for Kamala Harris in 2020. No matter that socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters are essentially Republicans, and vote along party lines. Or that the real democratic establishment ship-jumping moment will be party darling A.O.C. endorsing Bernie Sanders.
The [Southern Border] Reform Party
MTV spent a chilly January day ahead of the 1996 election in New Hampshire, hanging out with the young, (while, male) foot soldiers in Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign. The “Buchanan Brigade,” as Pat’s boys were called, spends the day “hitting the church with pro-life literature,” criticizing affirmative action, not commenting on that David Duke endorsement, and vouching for Buchanan’s conservative values—such as “making America first again” and, um, calling for a wall on the southern border. Buchanan would go on to win the state of New Hampshire in the ‘96 Republican Primary. In ‘99 he’d be slammed as a “Hitler lover” by his then-comparatively liberal opponent Donald Trump, who also ran as a Reform candidate in the 2000 race before cinching the Republican nomination in 2016. There’s clearly plenty of irony to be found here—though when it comes to spotting such paradoxes, Trump might have more in common with Alanis Morissette. Wait, what were we saying about alternative political third parties again?