It looks like everyone with a Wikipedia entry or a star on the Walk of Fame is thinking of running for public office -- and that's not necessarily good, writes Julian Zelizer
Trump's presidency may touch off an era of celebrity-politicians without experience in government, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
It looks like these days everyone with a Wikipedia entry or a star on the Walk of Fame is thinking of running for public office.
With the former star of “The Apprentice” inhabiting the White House, the doors are wide open. Rock and roller Kid Rock, known for hits such as “All Summer Long” and “American Bad Ass” is thinking of challenging Democrat Debbie Stabenow for her Senate seat.
Another Rock – former professional wrestler turned action star-hero “The Rock,” Dwayne Johnson – might be the person challenging President Donald Trump for re-election in 2020, assuming the President makes it that far. A campaign committee formally filed the papers to draft him for president. The Rock has been talking about this for some time now. One day we might see POTUS using his signature move, the People’s Elbow, on a legislator who refuses to vote for his bills. Even Lyndon Johnson didn’t literally twist arms.
Are we now entering an era of celebrity politics? Has all of the distrust in government and frustration with perpetual gridlock generated a moment when Americans would rather have telegenic entertainment stars making decisions about war and peace, rather than those who have spent their lives in politics learning about public policy, negotiation, deal-making and diplomacy?
Maybe this will be one of the greatest legacies of the Trump presidency – Americans will prefer presidents who are intriguing to watch over those who can get the job done.
Of course, there are many examples in history of celebrities who turn to politics. Some of them proved to be quite effective. The most successful of all was Ronald Reagan, who had been a film actor for many years before entering the world of politics.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, a legendary action hero, and Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestling star, each served as relatively popular governors (California and Minnesota). Sonny Bono served in the House after being part of the famous duo with Cher.
Child actress Shirley Temple became ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, while California Sen. George Murphy came to Washington after acting in musicals. Fred Grandy, otherwise known as Gopher on”The Love Boat,” was a representative from Iowa in the US House for several terms.
Former “SNL” comedian Al Franken is now a prominent Senate Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. “Real World” star Sean Duffy represents voters from Wisconsin in the House of Representatives The list goes and on.
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There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrities making the transition to politics. It is natural that individuals who are comfortable in the spotlight and possess charisma could end up having strong careers in elected office. After all, the basic qualification for success is often the ability to win people over and communicate in the media. Who better to do this than entertainers?
But there are risks. It’s not only a question of whether celebrities are qualified to hold office. What are their fundamental goals? It’s one thing to focus on earning high ratings and drawing big box office returns. It’s another to aim for good governance.
Some have concluded that President Trump has revealed the ultimate problem with the celebrity-turned-politician: he doesn’t really know how to fulfill the job requirements beyond keeping the public interest.
As Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu wrote in The New York Times, “he can still win by losing. For what really matters are the contests themselves – the creation of an absorbing spectacle that dominates headlines, grabs audiences and creates a world by which every conversation revolves around Mr. Trump and his doings.”
It should not be surprising that President Trump watches so much television. This is how he envisions the presidency – it is the ultimate spectacle and the biggest show in the world. The goal of the President is to keep the audience tuned in. In his mind, Hillary Clinton’s worst flaw was most likely that some people found her boring.
If we do find ourselves with more celebrity-politicians, we will have a flood of leaders who really don’t care about the art of governing.
Ronald Reagan learned the skills of politics as governor of California. Presidents need to understand that the rules and norms of politics have been put into place for a reason – to prevent the abuse of power and to make certain that our institutions function well in a democratic process. They need to understand the weight that their words carry as people listen to their political leaders in a way that they don’t do with their favorite actors, wrestlers or musicians.
Many celebrities who go into high office gain some experience first. Reagan delivered speeches, participated in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, and was governor of a large state. Jesse Ventura was the mayor of Brooklyn Park. Political experience is not a requirement to be effective, as Sen. Franken’s success has shown. But it can surely help.
Kid Rock or The Rock could turn out to be good politicians, perhaps more in the tradition of President Reagan than of President Trump. Yet the risks are high for our democracy. Given the kind of ongoing chaos and tumult we are witnessing in Washington these days, voters should take a very serious look at these and other celebrities who want to jump into the political ring.
Do we want more leaders whose main concern is not what’s good for the nation but, “Are the people still watching?”