Stop celebritizing our politicians

February 15, 2021 10:25 AM

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Photo of bobbleheads depicting Jesus Christ, Barack Obama and Donald Trump on display in a novelty gift shop. Image courtesy of Stephen Mayes via Unsplash.

Photo of bobbleheads depicting Jesus Christ, Barack Obama and Donald Trump on display in a novelty gift shop. Image courtesy of Stephen Mayes via Unsplash.

Politicians. They have always been disliked, even before the polarization and heavy divide that exists in our politics today. But in the United States, a diverging trend has taken hold: The celebritization or idolization of our politicians. This can go two ways: (1) where celebrities are elected into political office, like Donald Trump, or (2) where those elected into political office begin to be treated by society as celebrities, like Barack Obama. And we need to stop all of it. 

This celebritization of politicians is a dangerous and slippery slope for the future of the country. It can be said without contention that politicians and politics shape the world we live in. Putting incompetent people into those positions and ignoring the surplus of definitions that might come with “competence” will degrade our lives. Celebritization encourages putting incompetent people into powerful posititons because of the very nature of how the values of Hollywood and D.C. collide. While movie stars need to be seen as likeable and personable, politicians should be assessed by their skills, experience and ability to execute the requirements of politics. There is a reason high qualifications are supposed to come with jobs like the president of the United States.  For example, James Hohmann for the Washington Post describes how Trump’s election “would never have been possible without systemic cultural shifts, enabled by reality TV and social media, that increased the premium average Americans place on celebrity for celebrity’s sake.” He explains how Trump’s 2016 election demonstrates how “expertise, personal integrity and public service” have lost their worth. Trump lacked government and military experience while also having, instead, an abundance of liabilities like his mostly problematic, wholly scandalous past from being a celebrity. Trump was a candidate of charisma who could rile up a crowd — It didn’t matter if he had no idea what he was talking about. And ultimately, this cultural shift that devalues traditional competence indicators, to some extent or another, played into his election as the 45th president of the United States. 

On the other side of the spectrum, but equally problematic, are politicians being celebritized. For example, Obama has been invited throughout and following his presidency to countless late night shows that have nothing to do with politics. They barely if ever even discuss Obama’s policies and choices. Instead, they showcase how “likeable” he is, cracking jokes and showing off his witty sense of humor. Not everyone is keeping up intensely with politics through the political lense now — And why would they? They can learn all they need to know about their president through his appearances on Jimmy Kimmel. Regardless of if you liked Obama as your president, this is obviously a problem. By giving politicians a stage as performers, rather than as the powerful influences of the world they actually are, it reduces accountability. It reduces how informed the general lay person can be by manipulating the media narrative around that politician. We no longer judge a politician entirely by their actions in politics because their personability has become a substantial factor in the equation. And would there really be a difference in engineering a likeable personality for a primadonna movie star or a corrupt congressperson? 

The public’s way of judging a politician has moved from core values and other indicators of integrity to the individual personality of the politician. For example, Rowan Emslie in their op-ed “The Celebrification of Politics,” references the increased focus on party leaders rather than a party itself. The values party leaders truly represent will be hidden in the shadow of how their charisma and likeability are assessed. At its core, politics should be about policy. Policy that makes the lives of the people better. But it seems now, with the celebritization of our politicians, it is no longer about what is right but who. Accountability fades into a peripheral priority as we blindly defend our favorite politicians like we would with our favorite singers and actors. Democracy is futile if this is how its constituents are going to cast their votes. 

Now, obviously, politicians must be famous to the degree of their position. Any president of the United States cannot be elected with no one knowing who they are. But fame and stardom do not need to be the same thing — and they shouldn’t be. It’s easy once you’re a fan of a singer to defend them. After all, you like who they are and that’s why you’re a fan. But a fan of a politician? Politicians are always dealing with fragile and sensitive things that can change how we live. If we defend them and blind ourselves to the possibility of their wrongs, responsibility and honest government is thrown out the window. I agree, the spotlight should be on politicians. But we shouldn’t be idolizing them; we should be making sure they are serving our interests.

Today, we are becoming increasingly polarized in our politics and the divide only seems to grow larger by the day. But we shouldn’t let our division by party lines and beliefs blind and tie us to one side. We should be questioning all our politicians, not taking their high score on the likeability meter to cover for the rest. None of them should ever make enough funny jokes on Jimmy Kimmel or Fallon or any other show to be free of your reservations and skepticism.

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