There is a great Politico article out that discusses the intertwined nature of celebrity and public office. It is a rather complex article with some insightful analysis about how celebrities engage in the political realm and politicians who embrace celebrity endorsements. One main point from the piece is about how celebrities are now taking up issue advocacy instead of running for public office. This quote sums it up:
“To their credit, the lives they lead today is very different from their predecessors in the studio system [who had] managed lives, their images protected. … Very few people were aware of how tough it is and how incredibly hard and difficult it is to go through the day-to-day ardors of a campaign. … Maybe that’s why so many [politically active celebrities] come up to the water’s edge and decide not [to] jump in.”
Later, the piece quotes George Clooney about his decision not to run for office (which I thought was hilarious):
“I didn’t live my life in the right way for politics, you know,” he told Newsweek in 2011. “I f—-ked too many chicks and did too many drugs, and that’s the truth.”
While I agree with most of the points addressed in the article, I think it has a very narrow definition of “politics.” The political science definition is “who gets what and how.” Meaning, the entire process to move an issue forward is by definition a political action. So, anytime a celebrity advocates for an issue, they are engaging in politics. Issue advocacy by celebrities is not a new trend by any means. During World War II, celebrities put forth propaganda to support the war effort for the U.S. government. The U.N. has a vast library of celebrities endorsing numerous causes in the 1940-50s The article mentions Ronald Reagan making a career of going after communists, but he also advocated against socialized medicine too. Who can forget Jane Fonda going to North Vietnam or the many writers and celebrities who visited the USSR? Not to mention benefit concerts for HIV/AIDS, natural disaster relief, and cancer research. These issues rose to prominence because of celebrity endorsements and can actually advance issues much faster culturally than any congressmen.
I would also add the rise of celebrity politician who leave office and become political stars of their own. Sarah Palin is great example of this. She left her post as governor after half a term and receiving notoriety from being John McCain’s running-mate in 2008. Her personality and charisma have brought her numerous adoring fans and a very loyal following that has translated into a SuperPac that endorses candidates, two reality shows, and, until recently, a contract with Fox News. Not to mention millions of Twitter and Facebook followers. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former House Majority Leader Dick Army have received large followings for books and political action groups. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have moved onto issue advocacy with their respective foundations. I can go on. While in office, these politicians certainly accomplished quite a bit, but I would argue their political capital has gone up even more since they left and their power has increased because of their supporters.
Celebrity is a very strong political force because there is very little accountability to constituents and mainly requires photo-ops and monetary donations to causes. It’s a unilateral form of political action, except without all the bureaucracy. It makes a lot of sense that celebrities and former politicians would embrace fame to advance causes for the common good.