Survivor Red vs. Blue: The 2016 United States Election


Jeb Bush got voted off the island last week.

For fans of the long-running CBS reality television series, Survivor, this latest development in the 2016 presidential campaign was not only predictable – it was inevitable.

Before you dismiss this post as a lame attempt at drawing a connection between a TV show and the important processes of our democracy, consider that Survivor has clearly transcended entertainment to touch some basic aspects of the human psyche. It remains one of U.S. television’s top programs after 16 years and has been adapted for broadcast in 50 countries. Much more than a broadcast juggernaut, Survivor serves as a social experiment, a laboratory study of sociology and psychology that casts people from a wide array of backgrounds and personalities in a contest that challenges them to “outwit, outplay, outlast” their opponents.

This is simply a dead-on description of the American process of choosing the nation’s president. The “tribes” of the program correlate to our political parties. There are questions of loyalty, honesty, moral judgments and basic survival skills; these lessons of Survivor may provide a road map to the eventual selection of our 45th president. Stay tuned for a prediction about the winner – but first, let’s recap the season so far.

Previously on… The 2016 Presidential Election:

Our cast of candidates has included a bombastic leader with an outsized personality (guess who!), as well as several level-headed peace makers who have attempted to get us to focus on the greater good of the tribe’s survival and success. Many of the Republican candidates have done their best to position themselves and their party well for the upcoming fight against the Democratic nominee. But along the way, there were immunity challenges they could not win. Much as the classic Survivor challenge that pits contestants against one another in swallowing repugnant insects, the more mainstream candidates clearly came close to gagging on issues pushed hard by the Tea Party extremists who dominate the primary phase of the campaign.

The bad luck of a rough and tumble campaign is akin to the bad bounce of a ball in a Survivor challenge. The draining slog from one campaign appearance to another, followed by media looking for a small slip-up, reminds one of the endurance challenges that often separate the winners from the losers on Survivor. Carly Fiorina never had the warm personality to win over her tribe mates, and she could never fully recover from her false claims about the existence of a Planned Parenthood video allegedly showing a live fetus being harvested for organ donation. Chris Christie’s angry side surfaced repeatedly when the pressure on the island built up. His righteous stands on the issues were often too blunt; he just couldn’t form the tribal alliances needed to support a strong campaign. Ben Carson positioned himself as the “nerdy” candidate, but has not proven to have the fire or skills to succeed in the brawling challenges of American politics. John Kasich demonstrated he can build a solid shelter and forage for food on the island (building the economy and balancing the budget in his home state of Ohio), but contributions to the tribe do not automatically translate to success in this game of leadership. Jeb Bush, the “superfan,” had spent years studying the intricacies of the American political game, but was repeatedly battered by the bully in the competition and couldn’t find his footing.

As we head into the next phase of the show, our two tribes have essentially narrowed their fields to five viable cast members: Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on the Republican side, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Applying the lessons of Survivor can help us understand what’s coming up in the weeks ahead:

Trump has managed to annoy and alienate all the other players, but while he’s still in the game, his opponents look more palatable to those on the jury. Trump is the classic Survivor castaway who gets ahead by double-crossing, lying and pitting one person against another. He schemes, makes his own rules and somehow always seems to find an immunity idol, allowing him to avoid being eliminated in the votes. Every day on the island makes him look more and more like a man who will be one of the last two standing. He’ll find a way to marginalize Cruz and Rubio, forcing them to self-destruct, wear out, make stupid moves or simply run out of the lifeblood of campaign money. Trump embodies one of the classic Survivor character archetypes; those who have lost to him will shake their heads in amazement and grudgingly admit that he made it through the process using tactics that more principled contestants could not abide.

The story of the Democratic tribe has been simpler. The colorful and dogmatic candidate, Bernie Sanders, never really had a realistic chance in a two-person contest against the experienced “favorite” player who was returning to the game after an appearance on an earlier season. With her tribe’s nomination in hand, Hillary Clinton will be seated at the Final Tribal Council with Trump, making her argument that she should be the sole survivor.

Sixteen years of Survivor, a good longitudinal measure of human behavior in contests such as building an artificial island society or American politics, tell us what the outcome will be. The villains make for good entertainment. They draw us in to watch and tantalize our prurient interests. They incite our emotions and raise our ire. But they never win the game. In the end, we vote for what’s right and good. We’ve had our fling… but this is serious business, running our nation. It’s human nature. Hillary wins.

Sources used:

Wikipedia article on “Survivor”

“Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: The Psychology of Survivor” by Hannah Schacter


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