Why you should care
Because fame and competence don’t always go together.
This week: Should We Ban Celebrities From Running for Office? Let us know by email or in the comments below.
To be a world leader today is to be a celebrity. Some, like Barack Obama or Emmanuel Macron, are famous because they are politicians — though they still curry favor with the populace via awkward dance moves, a cute dog and talk show appearances. The leaders who were famous beforehand, like TV hosts, musicians and athletes, enjoy special advantages as their fans rejoice in their second-act careers — but also, like actors forced to play similar roles over and over, they can never shake the thing that made them famous in the first place.
Logistically, it’s difficult to imagine how to actually ban “celebrities” from running for office. Those gates have to be maintained by political parties, which can rig systems against celebrity candidates — or flat-out refuse to be represented by them. But Nahuel Ribke, author of A Genre Approach to Celebrity Politics, says the relationship between celebrities and the political machine that elects them is often symbiotic. In countries where the political system requires eye-wateringly expensive political campaigns, he says “celebrities are seen as a good shortcut around the cost to promote a candidate.” They get lots of coverage simply for being in the race, and you don’t have to spend much money to get them name recognition when they’ve already had successful careers on people’s screens.
You can start a branded jewelry line, headline in Vegas or run for office.
Meanwhile, for celebrities, politics can be an ego boost — and a way, perhaps, to use their power and fame to change the world in ways that matter to them. Film, TV and sports celebrities who run for office usually do it once they’re past the peak of their careers, trading in on their celebrity in new ways: You can start a branded jewelry line, headline in Vegas or run for office.
So what do the voters get out of it? Celebrities — particularly TV hosts like President Donald Trump and rumored potential 2020 candidate Oprah Winfrey — rose to fame partly on their ability to be spontaneous and likable, to give interviews and talk to regular people. While that may not prepare one for much of a politician’s actual job, it’s a good way to make voters feel seen and listened to, which often translates into votes.
While Ribke sees actor Ronald Reagan’s election to the U.S. presidency in 1980 as a benchmark for celebrity politics, this isn’t an American phenomenon. Boxer Manny Pacquiao is a sitting senator in the Philippines, cricket champion Imran Khan started his own political party in Pakistan, and Japanese comedian Yukio Aoshima served as governor of Tokyo for four years.
Of course, personal celebrity doesn’t always translate into electoral success — Wyclef Jean isn’t president of Haiti, and Clay Aiken lost his race for Congress. And on top of that there are the joke celebrity campaigns, as with Stephen Colbert’s run for president in 2008 or British comedian John Oliver’s current bid to become prime minister of Italy (which isn’t technically against the rules). But even if Oliver were to win, Ribke explains, it’s difficult for a celebrity politician to get too far out of line without the consent of the whole political system. “Celebrities entering politics are entering a system that already exists,” he says. “There are multiple constraints for being too bad or too good — just as there are for legitimate career politicians.”
So if a celebrity president causes a breakdown of the system, that’s a failure of the system. That’s where the change needs to begin.
But what do you think? Should politics be off-limits for singers and movie stars? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by answering in the comments below.