If We’re Going To Elect Celebrities Anyway…


2020?
Oprah Winfrey with Michelle Obama
(Image is in the public domain.)

Two days ago, media mogul Oprah Winfrey seemed to reconsider a presidential bid — despite saying just a few months ago that she would “never run for public office”. I don’t know what changed, but I can guess: her realization that her qualifications far exceed those of our current president.

Immediately, I began seeing comments on social media (and under the news stories themselves) in this vein: “No! Not another celebrity president! Isn’t one enough?”

It gave me pause because it never made sense to me to disqualify someone simply because they’re already famous.

Celebrities aren’t new to politics, of course, and they’re not even new to the presidency. Elections often depend on name-recognition, relatability, and public relations skills, so it’s no surprise that people who became famous outside of politics sometimes succeed in breaking through. Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse “the body” Ventura, Sonny Bono, Al Franken, and so on. (I don’t include Jerry Springer, who was in politics before becoming a celebrity.)

And now, of course, we have a celebrity for president again, and in Michigan a long-haired, Confederate-flag waving rapper is running for U.S. Senate.

Each time a new name pops up, reactions seem divided into two main camps: (1) those who think a celebrity should never run, and (2) those who would love a celebrity to “shake up the system”. Of course, it also depends on the celebrity and what his or her views are, but my impression is that the great majority of people make their decision based only on whether someone is famous outside politics. “He’s an actor, not a president.” “He’s a comedian, not a senator.” And so on.

In my mind, someone’s previous fame is basically irrelevant to whether I want them in elected office. Two things are incredibly more important to me than whether they were famous. First, do they hold informed and morally defensible views? And second, are they competent to serve in the position they’re running for? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves about any candidate.

Instead we’re immediately dismissing someone because she got wealthy from TV, without considering whether she would be a competent office-holder and without considering whether her views are informed and/or morally defensible.

Clearly, the famous people who’ve held office in our country are not equally competent. On one hand, we have those like Ronald Reagan and Jesse Ventura, both of whom served in the armed forces, and both of whom had been involved in politics before seeking higher office. On the other hand, we have those like Kid Rock and Donald Trump, crude and rowdy braggarts who seemingly entered politics without any idea of what to do about it. (Privately, I am eagerly awaiting Kid Rock’s victory in 2018 because having him in the U.S. Senate promises to be entertaining beyond what even Trump can muster. But I also hope that he accidentally does the right thing on occasion.)

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we elect more celebrities in the future. With presidential election cycles now lasting four years (Trump has been officially campaigning since January 2017 for the late 2020 election) and costing billions of dollars, it is reasonable that celebrities’ chances are increasing. They are already accustomed to being regularly in the public eye. They daily deal with media, fans, and haters. Their scandals are already known. At the same time, the U.S. electorate has spent the past 30 years shortening its attention span to the point where 140-character tweets seem like in-depth research. Emojis! (Just in case I lost you.) By and large, we aren’t reading policy papers anymore. More than a third of voters don’t know which party controls the houses of Congress.

IF we’re going to succumb to rule by celebrity, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will go the route of Idiocracy. We can elect celebrities who will also be competent public servants. We can elect celebrities who are informed, and who will make morally defensible decisions while in office.

Would Oprah Winfrey be such a person? Perhaps I’ll write more about that if/when she decides to run.

4 Comments
  1. I am all the way against celebrities in public office and here’s why: there are probably 100,000 qualified, intelligent, thoughtful, deep PhDs in this country who could run this country better than any president in history. Do I really want a Kardashian to succeed a Trump?

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      * “Do I really want a Kardashian to succeed a Trump?”

      Oh, I hope not. Nor a Kid Rock, nor Steve Harvey, nor the mother of Honey Boo Boo.

      If my premise was lost, I apologize. My premise is that IF we’re going to elect celebrities to high office, then let’s look to celebrities who are informed, capable, and hold morally defensible positions. And really, that’s all I look for in ANY person running for office. That automatically exempts Kardashians and the other examples I listed.

      Would I prefer a scientist? Sure. But which one will run? (None.) And if they run, which one stands a chance? (None.) A law professor? Absolutely — I voted for Obama twice.

      But our elections aren’t set up to give us the president we need. Trump is already eight months ahead of anyone else who wants to run; his 2020 campaign has been official since January. Anyone who runs against him will need star power and the ability to stay in the national spotlight for three or more years before the election.

  2. Dana says:

    Like Richard R. Barron, I take issue with your premise. I think when we (America at large; not the readers of your blog) open the field of politics to celebrities, the risk is that we elect the most popular – i.e., the best looking, the funniest, the most entertaining candidate over the most qualified. We don’t need a President (Kanye) West running this country, but if he were to run, he would surely prevail over the Oprahs of the world.

    As a country, we need to realize that running this Nation is a serious matter and is not meant to entertain the populace. We will be more prosperous and better off as a Nation if we can learn to keep entertainment and politics separate. Politics (when it’s working) isn’t fast paced entertainment. It moves slowly and is boring to those outside of the arena.

    I don’t think being a celebrity is a non-starter or that it should automatically disqualify someone, but it should be incidental to being a politician. With Oprah – she is pretty much all celebrity, all the time. If you peel away the celebrity – there’s not much left. Charisma is much more useful a quality in a politician than celebrity and doesn’t usually occur at the expense of substance. Obama had charisma; Hillary Clinton was sorely lacking in that department.

    (I heard (on NPR) a great analysis of this recent phenomenon that people’s lust for entertainment is crippling politics in this country but I’ve been unable to locate it online)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I don’t disagree with anything you said (or with anything Richard said).

      Of course we shouldn’t elect people based on entertainment value. Of course politics should be “boring” — to use your word — to most of us. It should be professional men and women at conference tables hammering out detailed policies, looking over the numbers crunched by other professionals, and determining how to solve very real and long-term issues. Passing laws that will stand the test of time. Undoing the partisan mess we’ve got ourselves into.

      However, I am simply reacting (with a sigh) to a reality that I can’t control. I can’t control that our elections now last for four years and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. I can’t control that so many people now get their “news” from social media and partisan sites like Brietfart or “Occupy Democrats”. I can’t control that many people would rather vote for a big name like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson or Ted Nugent than a proven and capable politician or even career bureaucrat.

      I don’t want it to happen any more than you do, believe me. I’m just getting the sinking feeling that it COULD happen with more frequency in the coming years. (Sad face.)

      (Note: Oprah wouldn’t be my first choice, even among celebrities. She’s said some fairly damning things about atheists and pushes superstition pretty hard, which is definitely something our nation needs less of.)

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