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  • Of Note:Celebrity and Politics
  • Andrew Kamons

A politician's ability to take advantage of innovations in media has long been central to his or her electoral success. It's been nearly fifty years since JFK demonstrated that in the age of television, a close shave and an effective antiperspirant could be as important to a presidential election as bold leadership and a robust foreign policy strategy. Yet as innovations in the media continue to blur the line between celebrity and politician, politicians must not only keep abreast of the latest media technology, they must also be wary of those celebrities eager to supplant them in their leadership roles.

The link between celebrity and activism is well established. There is a natural transition from being a spokesperson for someone else's product—a practice almost as old as that of hawking goods themselves—to speaking up for one's own causes or interests. Traditional politicians have moved beyond the staid celebrity endorsement to more creative uses of their famous friends. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair is photographed listening attentively to Bono and Bob Geldof talk about debt relief, he's not just selling the idea that celebrities support his views, but rather that he himself is willing to entertain their opinions and to heed their counsel.1

Whether it is Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on the Tonight Show or President George W. Bush poised mid-deck in his flight suit, our leaders clearly recognize that behaving like celebrities can translate into public approval. But why settle for politicians who attempt to emulate celebrities when one can have the celebrities themselves? The growing cult of celebrity has enabled those with limited political experience to rise higher within the political sphere, not only as activists, but also as policymakers. The trends suggest that celebrity can serve as a proxy for political accomplishment.

Critics contend that while celebrities may succeed in engaging with the public, they rarely do so without diluting the message they are trying to convey. Celebrity endorsements succeed in large part because they apply a veneer of attractiveness to whatever policy or cause they support. Unfortunately, celebrities often prove reluctant to wrestle with ambiguities and quick to gloss over the very distinctions that give a position importance. It's hard to argue against those who seek to reduce the toll of AIDS in the developing world, but when it comes to decisions over sex education, access to medications, or resource allocation, the issue is far from clear-cut.2

Celebrity politicians often run as populist outsiders who can reach across the aisles and who can draw disaffected voters into the political process. [End Page 145] As such, they succeed best where party systems are poorly entrenched and barriers to outside entry are low. In Minnesota, former actor and political pundit Jesse Ventura won the gubernatorial race due in large part to lax restrictions on late voter registration that allowed him to capitalize on a last minute swing in momentum by attracting unregistered voters to the polls.3 Where the party system is weak and politics personalized, celebrity often carries more weight. The runner up in Liberia's election last year was George Weah, a political novice known principally for his success as a professional soccer player in Europe. Despite having a modest academic record and spending most of his adult life outside the country, he achieved a plurality of votes in the first ballot, and lost by a slim margin in the runoff election.4

One of the strongest critiques of celebrity politicians is that they in fact short-circuit the democratic process by winning on personal appeal instead of sound policies. Darrell West and John Orman argue, "Celebrity politics accentuates many of the elements in our society that drain substance out of the political process and substitutes trivial and nonsubstantive forms of entertainment. [This] endangers the ability of ordinary citizens to hold leaders accountable for their policymaking decisions."5 Unlike other populist outsiders, celebrities rarely offset this failing with their reformist credentials. That celebrities are not proponents of the policies favored by the people they represent is a criticism that could also be applied to any number...