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Merging Politics and Celebrity is Bad for Democracy

Public office shouldn’t be a mere platform for fame-seekers. And citizens shouldn’t be passive spectators.
October 6, 2022
Merging Politics and Celebrity is Bad for Democracy
(Composite / Photos: gettyImages / Shutterstock)

At Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing last March, after Senator Ted Cruz pursued a characteristically belligerent line of questioning, he leaned back in his chair and did something particularly unworthy of the seriousness of the occasion: He pulled out his phone and searched for his own name (in this case on Twitter). Cruz wanted to see how much attention his crude performance had attracted.

This moment of digital vanity—really only exceptional in that we were able to witness it—is evidence of one of the defining political facts of our era: Perhaps more than ever before, notoriety can offer shortcuts to political power. This is the phenomenon that Donald Trump rode to the White House. It’s what has Herschel Walker within a hair’s breadth of a seat in the U.S. Senate. To hell with thoughtfulness and principles and civic virtue—the thing that matters most is whether or not you’re trending.

Poets, philosophers, and historians have studied fame and leadership since time immemorial, and American political scientists have long noted the connection between name recognition and electoral success. Politicians hoping to win office or increase their influence leverage the national stage to improve their visibility. They use televised hearings, sensational rhetoric in stump speeches and rallies, speaking filibusters, and political stunts (cue governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott trafficking immigrants) to draw attention to themselves and fill the news cycle with their names. To the ambitious, these things might be considered necessary evils for ascending to, or keeping, elected office.

But it’s critically importantly to recognize that chasing fame for the sake of power is corrosive of our system of democracy. Rather than leveraging a celebrity turn to improve one’s ability to shape the governing process and its outcomes, for too many fame becomes an end in itself. And given our politics-as-entertainment media landscape, elected office—increasingly the nation’s brightest and choicest stage—is considered a means of furthering one’s fame.

When our democratic system is viewed as a means to celebrity, the character of the institutions and the nature of the aspirants change accordingly. Governance in the public interest is replaced with spectacle for spectacle’s sake—every political conflict an opportunity for grandstanding, personal branding, and limelight theft. And people are drawn to run for office as a way to become a celebrity or in hopes of reviving a fading fame. Those looking to protect the legitimacy of our institutions or lead a principled governing process are forced to either play ball or are pushed to the margins.

Fame is an insatiable beast. When it stalks the halls of democracy, narcissism and self-interest trail in its wake.

Writing in the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War, Scott Edwards, then a political scientist at California State College, noted the national mood concerning government and presidents was shifting toward apathy. He lamented the death of the politician-hero, using the word hero in its Greek sense to signal a civic exemplar whose principled strivings are a model for the average person. His argument was essentially that democracies “need to foster heroic ideals in order to educate the public to its proper role,” and that “to lose the aptitude for [hero-worship] is to lose a quality essentially American.”

The growing problem today is not that the hero has disappeared but that we make heroes out of celebrities. The heroic story is replaced by a road-to-fame one. The hero’s journey that required courage, intellect, resilience, and ingenuity is supplanted by a path where people can become famous without any notable accomplishments worthy of the public’s admiration; they become, as Daniel J. Boorstin put it, known for their well-knownness. The sociologist Paul Hollander wrote that American culture gives rise to celebrity worship because of the value it places on individualism and egalitarianism: The former involves the idea that one is entitled to attention, and the latter that no special skill or talent is necessary to become famous; it is available to anyone.

Psychologists Scott Allison and George Goethals have observed that hero narratives serve two primary purposes: They offer a source of inspiration and hope, and they are instructive about the wisdom and behaviors we should aspire to. So, when the politician-hero is pushed aside for the politician-celebrity, the public settles down into the familiar, comfortable role of an audience rather than actively engage as citizens, providing the consent from which government derives its just powers. The democracy that gives people agency is replaced by a system with a currency based on jeers and applause from onlookers. And this transition, Edwards argues, is hurried along by a belief that

politics is inevitably corrupt; that democracy is a sham; that every attempt to do justice only adds to the sum of injustice; that we are without power to rear the fabric of public happiness.

Sound familiar? It should—most Americans today think government is corrupt, believe our constitutional democracy is not working, and feel they lack the power to make change.

When a party bows to the cult of celebrity, the habits and attitudes necessary for liberal democracy are considered incompatible with its political interests. Candidates who are more interested in the theater of government than the process of governing have an outsized presence. They spout ridiculous, easily disproved lies and advance conspiracy theories to draw attention to themselves. They note who the stars are on their side and clamber to get next to them, hoping that being seen with another celebrity will accelerate their own rise. They have little respect for rules and norms and process, since anything that does not serve their own personal ambition can be questioned, deemed unfair, and rejected.

This is no way to run a democracy.

None of this is to say that celebrities cannot become effective political leaders. No matter what one may think of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Al Franken, there is little question they took governing seriously once in office. But they are a different breed than the politician-celebrity who seeks more fame above all.

Although he does not deserve blame for originating these trends, our first reality-TV star president did much to make them worse. Donald Trump was the first celebrity to win the nation’s highest office with no prior experience in politics or public service, and we know that he originally decided to run not expecting to win but just hoping for more fame. All of the terrible things he said, from the 2015 campaign through his departure from office—about immigrants, Gold Star families, POWs, members of the press, encouraging the January 6th insurrectionists, women, and so on—only further raised his profile. All the stunts—Lafayette Square, sending Mike Pence to storm out of a football game, staging a one-man tribute to himself while suffering from COVID-19, and so on—were crafted for spectacle and not on principle. He may be the only politician alive more upset to be kicked off Twitter than to be voted out of office, a telltale sign if ever there was one. And because he still remains at the center of the national stage, others seek an audience with him and even mimic his mannerisms to gain more attention for themselves.

We can expect this sort of thing to become more common. And because scandal, which detracts from the virtue that principled politicians rely on, only adds to one’s notoriety, the usual social checks do little to constrain the politician-celebrity. Bombast is rewarded. Duplicity is amusing. Immorality is excused. The only cardinal sin is to fail to entertain; as Allison and Goethals contend, “we repudiate heroes only after they have outlived their psychological usefulness.”

Democracy requires hard work. It is not supposed to be a prop for demagogues to lather themselves in public praise. It is not supposed to be a platform for celebrities whose aim is to raise their profile. And it is not supposed to be all spectacle for citizens who have become passive viewers. As our country hangs in the balance, we can either be an audience for its demise or agents in its revival.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.