At a recent campaign rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump fired a surprise attack on the NFL, criticising players who ‘take a knee’ during the national anthem as a protest. A method pioneered by quarterback Colin Kaepernick who protested his indignation at the treatment of people of colour last year. Calling on managers to fire their players and branding them “son[s] of bitche[s]”, Trump’s comments have set off a wave of protest across the NFL with whole teams locking arms and taking a knee in defiance of the President. In the wake of the controversy, this article questions if it’s right that celebrities should step into the political ring.
Celebrities have influence, no one can deny that. Often it is used to promote products through advertising but, a growing trend is to use this influence to endorse politicians. A recent example being the 2016 US election campaign where Katy Perry and LeBron James among others endorsed Hillary Clinton through public appearances but also Twitter. Between them, they have over 140 million followers, the majority of whom are younger voters in the 18-24 year old bracket. With less and less youth turnout at elections, celebrity influence has become increasingly significant as young people have been known to vote with their idols. Worryingly creating a situation where celebrities can potentially sway key demographics by backing a candidate. By allowing this undemocratic presence to thrive it creates a questionable link between politician and celebrity, a link which is clearly susceptible to corruption.
The presence of celebrities also exacerbates the problem of image in politics. In a world of social media, our representatives aren’t being judged on their performance but on their appearance. During the British snap election, the leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May attempted to create an image of a strong leader by classing herself as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ and campaigning solely on the slogan of ‘strong, stable leadership’ and little else. With the entry of celebrities onto the political scene, this behaviour is encouraged and social media becomes a race to see who can post more star studded selfies than the next. This activity is not only condescending to voters but has wider implications for government. If we have a political class preoccupied with attracting public appeal, like celebrities do, then we’re deprived of good governance. Good governance requires politicians to expend their full energies towards tackling the issues that matter through debate and accountability, focusing on appearances accomplishes nothing of the sort.
What good governance also demands is a politically aware public, conscious of the effects a tax cut has on their salaries or what a few days more maternity leave can mean. Celebrities simply don’t fall under this demographic. With bank statements in the millions, government policy just doesn’t affect them as much as it would a typical family. Therefore, interference in politics can cause resentment among ordinary people who consider them out of touch. An example being the 2016 US election, where Hollywood actors spoke out against Donald Trump and denounced his supporters, in one such instance actress Meryl Streep mockingly impersonated him at the Public Theatre Gala in New York. Yet these displays show a profound ignorance of who his supporters are, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds and who view, rightly or wrongly, that Trump can help them. Streep’s actions thereby became an insult to the underprivileged members of society and a showcase for Hollywood’s unwitting arrogance.
Hypocrisy can also explain the disconnect between the public and Hollywood. Often appearing as the voice of liberal politics, it’s behaviour states otherwise. In recent times, it has been roundly criticised for its lack of diversity. At the 2015 Oscars, the hashtag ‘OscarsSoWhite’ trended due to the absence of actors of colour nominated for awards, while disabled actors have railed against the practise of casting able-bodied actors in 95% of disabled roles on television.
The hypocrisy is evident when stars denounce Trump’s discriminatory conduct during award ceremonies while engaging in the same behaviour behind the camera.
So what place, if any, do celebrities have in politics?
Celebrities may not be suited for party politics but there is a definite role for them to play in advancing humanitarian causes. One such example is the actor Ashton Kutcher. In 2006, Kutcher along with his then wife Demi Moore, founded the DNA Foundation (now known as Thorn) to combat the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children online. Spearheading efforts to promote safety online and working with companies to create technological barriers to deter sexual predators, the foundation has made huge strides in protecting children.
Another instance would be Angelina Jolie’s efforts to promote awareness of the plight of refugees. Since 2001, she has worked with the United Nations acting as Goodwill Ambassador and Special Envoy, serving on over 40 field missions over the past decade. Her work has included advocating refugee’s rights and raising attention to ‘forgotten emergencies’ such as Darfur.
In both cases, Kutcher and Jolie have used their fame to advance non-partisan causes which unite rather than divide people. They provide a template for the appropriate celebrity participation in politics. A template which should be followed.
Rowan Kelleher – Politics Writer