Celebrity Culture   /   Spring 2005   /    Articles

American Politics in the Age of Celebrity

Darrell M. West

Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam conference in Nijmegen, Netherlands. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It is the Age of Celebrity in the United States. Movie stars run for elective office and win. Politicians play fictional characters on television shows. Rock stars raise money for political parties. Musicians, athletes, and artists speak out on issues of hunger, stem cell research, and foreign policy. While this is not the first time celebrities have sought elective office or spoken out on questions of public policy, there are a number of factors in the contemporary period that have accentuated celebrity politics and given it a far greater prominence. The culture has changed in ways that glorify fame and fortune.11xLeo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (New York: Vintage, 1986). The news industry has become highly competitive. Media reporters need good copy, and few sources provide better copy than actors, athletes, and entertainers. The fact that politics has become very expensive places a premium on those who can convince others to give money.22xDavid Canon, Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990).In this essay, I describe what factors have contributed to the blurring of the lines between politics and entertainment, how politicians mimic celebrities (and vice versa), what the age of celebrity reveals about our culture, and what risks a celebrity culture faces. In important respects, the contemporary period has undergone crucial changes, sometimes to the detriment of society as a whole. In particular, at a time when the press plays closer attention to celebrities speaking out on complex policy subjects than to experts with detailed knowledge, there is a danger that politics will be drained of substance, and serious deliberation and discourse will be diminished. If politics becomes an entertainment show based on performance skills, society loses its capacity for nuance, compromise, and deliberation.


Blurring the Lines Between Politics and Entertainment


Celebrity politics is not a new phenomenon. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was common in the United States for famous families and former military generals to use their prominence as an asset to gain elective office. Many of our leading presidents were famous for their exploits on the military field, including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Ulysses S. Grant, whose military fame led them to high office.33xDarrell M. West and John Orman, Celebrity Politics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 2003). Other historical leaders were legacy politicians who came from celebrated families such as the Roosevelts, Adams, and Harrisons. These three families produced six presidents (Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John and John Quincy Adams, and William Henry and Benjamin Harrison). When Blair Lee was elected governor of Maryland in the 1970s, he was the 21st member of his extended family to hold political office since 1647. According to Stephen Hess, 700 families account for “1,700 of the 10,000 men and women who have been elected to the federal legislature since 1774.”44xStephen Hess, “Political Dynasties: An American Tradition” (27 February 2000): www.tompaine.com.

Throughout American history, celebrated writers and non-politicos have spoken out on issues of the day. Mark Twain’s political satire and quips twitted many a prominent public figure. Ernest Hemingway was involved in a number of foreign and domestic controversies of his era. Charles Lindbergh gained fame as the first pilot to fly solo, nonstop across the Atlantic. He then used this prominence to lead America’s isolationist movement in the 1930s and 1940s.

Several trends over the past few decades, however, have contributed to a celebrity culture that is far more pronounced and politically important than in earlier epochs.55xRonald Brownstein, The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection (New York: Pantheon, 1990).

Fundamental shifts in media have blurred the lines between politics and entertainment. With the rise of new technologies such as cable television, talk radio, and the Internet, the news business has become very competitive and more likely to focus on gossip and prominent personalities. Tabloid shows such as Access Hollywood, which attract millions of viewers, glorify celebrities and provide a “behind-the-scenes” look at the entertainment industry, with reporters staking out “star” parties and nightclubs and reporting on who is in attendance. The old “establishment” press that kept rumors of President John F. Kennedy’s marital infidelities out of the newspapers has been replaced by a news media that specializes in reporting on the private lives of politicians and Hollywood stars. Individuals who have drinking problems or drug habits, or gamble too much, are likely to find themselves in today’s news.66xLarry Sabato, Mark Stempel, and Robert Lichter, Peep Show: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). Reporters are now more likely to focus on human features than detailed substance. According to William Winter, who was one of America’s first television news broadcasters in 1950, the modern era is a time when news broadcasts are “increasingly shallow and trivial.”77xQuoted in Ron Miller, “TV News: Increasingly Shallow, Trivial,” Bridgeport Post (17 May 1990): D8. Competition in American politics centers around who can reduce complex messages down to understandable, nine-second (or, more recently, five-second) sound bytes.88xKiku Adatto, Picture Perfect: The Art and Artifice of Public Image Making (New York: Basic, 1993).

The growing cost of American campaigns has also contributed to the emergence of celebrity politics. Needing money to finance television ads and get-out-the-vote drives, politicians have become fundraising machines. Senators in large states must raise $5,000 a day every day of their six-year term in order to have enough money for their re-election efforts. Without large amounts of money, candidates cannot run television ads or mobilize likely voters. This need for cash forces politicians into alliances with athletes, actors, and artists who can headline fundraising events. In order to guarantee a large turnout at a fundraising party, it has become common to feature comedians, singers, and other celebrities who can attract a large crowd. In the 2004 presidential election, Bruce Springsteen gave a series of concerts to raise money to defeat President George W. Bush, and other Hollywood celebrities such as actors Sean Penn, Mike Farrell, and Linda Ronstadt spoke out against the Iraq War. With their strong support in “red” states, Republicans relied on country singers, and individuals such as Garth Brooks lent their names to the cause of electing Republicans across the country.

The intertwining of politics and entertainment has blurred the lines between these two fields. The old days when entertainers and politicians led more or less separate existences has been replaced with a system that regularly brings members of each club into close contact with the other side.

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