U.S. Politics Should Be More Like Project Runway

In the wake of midterm elections so thrilling, so dynamic that U.S. citizens voted in overwhelming numbers of…less than 37% on average, I’ve been wondering how we can reboot the U.S. political system. Just like a tired media franchise that needs a serious rethinking to connect with a new generation and respond to social, cultural, and political changes, so the U.S. political system, from elections to Congress, could do with a serious refresh.

Yet to do seems daunting: it’s all too easy to consider our entire political system—dysfunctional, expensive, full of all kinds of influence not of the regular Joe and Jane public kind—so broken it feels like it should be tossed out entirely or, let’s be responsible, recycled. With this in mind, I’ve come to a conclusion (only one, I’m pretty tired): U.S. Politics should be more like Project Runway.

Confession, I love Project Runaway, the long-running TV reality series: between the unconventional materials challenge (now I know how to convert that rattan footstool into a cocktail dress if I ever need to do so); the divisive team challenges (why can’t everyone just get along—oh, right, more than one diva = divageddon); and the critical eye (and sometimes cutting tongue) of the divine, fearsome Nina Garcia I can’t stop watching the darned thing. Runway is a shining bolt of coolness and chaos swiftly stitched into a sleek sheath dress of a show complete with fabulous accessories from the choose-the-season sponsor accessories wall.

Despite poor time management, squabbling, serious self-doubt, lost materials, absent models, and ridiculous constraints of time, space, and budget, challenge after challenge, season after season the designers manage to not only survive but create often-stunning, highly creative, even poignant works of wearable art. The designers learn to focus their own work while collaborating with others, pushing themselves to innovate even as they pay homage to design’s past. The show responds to the practical as well as the poetic elements of fashion, pushing the directors (at least occasionally) to design not only for size 0 models but for real women, to recycle and repurpose materials, to pay attention to cost and practicality, and to realize that while it may be fine in theory to be an imperious impresario one still has to work with bevvies of diverse people from clients to stylists to editors, people who often have very different interests and demands.

Given how well the designers (on the whole) respond to the financial, social, and aesthetic demands of Runway, I wonder why our politicians (supposedly experienced, ambitious, and in politics to make a discernable difference) can’t do better. Take, for example, the issue of global warming. Yes, it’s a new challenge (though our president and Congress have tackled issues such as pollution and dwindling species before, and done so with some success), but so are the unconventional challenges with which the designers are presented on Runway. These challenges, as the name indicates, press the designers to work with strange, often very difficult, substances instead of their accustomed cotton, silk, and wool (examples included plants, tarps, straw hats, and seatbelts), quickly, turning out something beautiful and elevated with little to no indication of its original nature. The unconventional challenges sort wheat from chaff: when faced by an unconventional challenge weak and inflexible designers hum, haw, and whine about how it is impossible to make a stunning evening dress out of what’s at hand, say auto parts; smart and ambitious designers, on the other hand, just get down to work. And if their mentor, the redoubtable Tim Gunn, receives their initial plans with doubt or dismay, they reimagine and redesign. And they must do so quickly and economically: there is no kicking the can down the road and sorting problems out at some indefinite later period or going vastly off-budget with elaborate special project, certainly not.

And if the designers don’t succeed the consequences are not, as so often in politics, a small spanking in approval numbers or nothing at all. Instead, they are brought before the judges, made to discuss their poor design, and then dismissed with host Heidi Klum’s sometimes cheery, sometimes curt “Auf wiedersehen” unless they are spared through the grace of Gunn and his precious once-a-season Tim Gunn save. The losing designers are ejected with nothing to show for their time on the series but hard-won lessons: there will be no goodies of a spread in Marie Claire magazine, a tropical vacation, and money to create their own clothing line; instead, it’s back into a hard-scrabble social and economic world in which they are once more anonymous, struggling to be seen and heard.

So if U.S. politicians should be more like Runway’s designers, how should citizens be involved? Well, perhaps we should be more like the fans of Runway: an energized group who flock to the Internet to vote on which designer should win, light up chat boards arguing about the designers’ talents and the judges’ decisions, bid on winning designs, and make stars, if only temporarily, of each season’s designers. Imagine if citizens were to cast such a critical and engaged eye at our politicians and our politics. Let me play Klum/Gunn for a moment and propose a truly unconventional challenge: politicians will work to be flexible, accountable, and actually do something; members of the public will write and call their legislators, research issues, and get themselves to polling places. In essence, let’s all stop waiting for things to miraculously get better, reboot our broken, stale, stultifying system, and, as Gunn reminds the designers every episode, “Make it work.”

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