The Kentucky race involving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would have certainly been an interesting one had actress Ashley Judd decided to be his opponent after his nearly three decades in office. Despite her decision not to run, this idea of having celebrities holding political offices is a modern concept that seems to be unique in American politics. Take for instance the recent upheaval over whether or not Donald Trump was going to run for the presidency. And, even better, the examples of those who not only debated running but ran and won – actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as California governor, wrestling star Jesse Ventura as Minnesota governor, and even actor Ronald Reagan who served as an influential President.
Just like the spheres of the media, the entertainment industry and the political have began to intersect more noticeably than ever before, resulting in this phenomenon of “celebrity politics.” Despite the plethora of commentary on this notion of “celebrity politics” in tabloids, on fan sites, and in magazines, the academic literature on the subject is slim. (Street 2004) However, it is interesting to delineate why a celebrity would run for office, and even more interesting, what conditions need to be present for them to get elected and what effect this has on the electorate and the system in general.
It’s important to note that there are two types of relationships between celebrities and politics. The first being celebrities engaged in political action (the Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney types) and the second being those that actually use their fame to become politicians (the Arnold Schwarzenegger types). Ultimately, the difference is between politically charged celebrities and celebrities who become politicians. (Marsh 2010) I want to focus on the latter.
This term “celebrity politicians” is defined as celebrities who go beyond one-issue politics and become office seekers. In order to get in office, these celebrity politicians capitalize on their already-found stardom in order to garner votes. Most of the time they tend to run on platforms that posture them as political outsiders, not mundane with the glittering generalities, opportunism, and rhetoric typically associated with professional politics. They create a very intriguing dynamic as a contender. They are well-known, (most likely) liked, and rich – all attributes a common political newcomer desires. On the other hand, they are new, exciting, and unpredictable – all attributes an incumbent politician has lost since being in office. (Marsh 2010) Therefore, just as a popularity contest in a high school Student Council election, these celebrity candidates have a fan-base and an allure that is unique to their position in society.
So, why would a celebrity, one who already has social notoriety and wealth, seek an office in politics? To prove a point. Why would an electorate vote in a celebrity? Because they feel there are no other viable candidates. Perhaps it is put best when said that “the world of celebrity politics is one in which politicians, acutely aware of their loss of credibility and trust, resort to new forms of political communication, but in so doing further damage the very credibility and trust that they sought to salvage.” (Street 2004) This goes to say that if a celebrity is voted into office, it’s because of a general mistrust in the system of professional politics, yet the solution of electing a celebrity to fix this issue is merely like putting a band-aid on a Kevin Ware-sized wound.
With all being taken into account, however, the crux of the issue is what effect the celebrity politician being elected has on democracy. Therefore, I will outline some pros and cons of ways in which celebrities can constrain and/or enhance the way we campaign, elect, and lead.
- Historical context
One line of defense is that this is not a new or atypical phenomenon, as sometimes implied by critics, because there is a long and respected tradition of celebrating non-politicians who run for political office. The 18th century saw a proliferation of political figures in the form of busts and portraits. With the development of photography, appearance and style assumed an ever greater part of the politician’s assets. (Street 2004)
- Reinvigorate democratic politics
Having celebrities run for office offers the potential to reinvigorate the political process by introducing new blood and new ideas. Unlike a professional politician, celebrities do not have to go through serving lengthy careers in politics before they can run for major offices. Typically they are less likely to have vested interests because of their own wealth and ability to raise money. Celebrity endorsement and activism can frequently serve to harness democratic politics and policies. (Marsh 2004)
- Breaking through to the public
On the basis that popular culture can resonate with the general public, celebrity politicians can break through to the public in ways that traditional form of politics cannot. For example, the popularity of the TV show Big Brother owes much to the fact that the contestants were seen as “representative,” as people like us. They spoke and behaved in ways that appealed to sections of the public who traditionally feel intimidated by the language and discourse of politics. It may be that the Big Brother housemates are no more typical of the population than are politicians, but what is important is the perception of them as ordinary and relatable that resonates with the public. (Street 2004)
- Representation and dramatization
The basis of this con is that celebrity politics undermines any claim to representativeness. This is either because the elected politician impoverishes the relationship between representative and represented. It marginalizes issues of political substance in favor of irrelevant gestures and superficial appearances. Another aspect is that celebrity politics boasts irrelevant qualities and superficial knowledge that do not justify their claim to ‘represent’. (Street 2004)
Ultimately, the majority of celebrity politicians are not well-versed in political rhetoric and knowledge and have not been exposed to the political process. While it can be a positive that the celebrities are not completely woven into this political fabric, there is a negative side to this that they may not be capable of serving and were only elected because of their name and/or image.
- Overpowers voices of “average” electorate
The strong amplification that celebrity voices have in public discourse could potentially crowd out the perspectives provided by other less famous contenders. Having celebrities as a part of this political process hardly levels the playing field of competition in terms of voice and in terms of wealth. Perhaps even more importantly, the policies that celebrities endorse can devalue the social problems and unpopular, controversial or unglamorous causes to which celebrities do not pay much attention. (Marsh 2010)
Ultimately, in the politics of modernity, I think it’s safe to say that celebrity politics is most likely a concept that is here to stay. However, whether they are voted into office is up to us. Do the pros outweigh the cons or are the costs of having celebrities influencing our political process too great? You decide.
Marsh, D., ‘t Hart, P. and Tindall, K. (2010), Celebrity Politics: The Politics of the Late Modernity?. Political Studies Review, 8: 322–340.
Street, J. (2004), Celebrity Politicians: Popular Culture and Political Representation. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 6: 435–452. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-856X.2004.00149.x