Whenever celebrities talk about politics, they provoke a range of reactions. But inevitably, it all comes down to a question of why. Few of them are experts in politics in any way, so why do we put so much stock in their opinions? Liam Glen writes on the nature of celebrity activism.
Another week, another round of celebrity political opinions. Dave Chappelle’s recent comedy special took some strong culture war stances, while Isaiah Washington talked on Fox show about his dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party.
In an interview where she also defended Woody Allen from accusations of sexual assault, Scarlett Johansson declared her support for Elizabeth Warren and said “I’ll be there however I’m needed” to defeat Donald Trump.
Whenever celebrities talk about politics, they provoke a range of reactions. But inevitably, it all comes down to a question of why. Few of them are experts in politics in any way, so why do we put so much stock in their opinions?
Conservatives rail against the “liberal elite” in Hollywood who talk about politics without having any authority to do so. But this is less out of any philosophical stance about who should speak about the issues, and more out of frustration that the opinions coming out of celebrity spheres leans so heavily to the left.
In March 2018, conservative pundit Candace Owens declared to Hollywood “we don’t care what you think.” Just a month later, she was tripping over herself in excitement when Kanye West’s thoughts happened to align with her own.
In 2018, a majority of Americans said that they oppose celebrities making political endorsements. But it seems that they are unlikely to stop any time soon. If this is destined to continue, then we should hope that they use their power responsibly.
Developing the Celebrity-Activist
Some will say that all art is political. This is especially true as concrete issues like tax rates and budget deficits become less important than abstract disputes over political correctness and identity politics. No decent artist can completely avoid it.
For political comedians like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, entertainment is inseparable from partisan issues. But for many others, like actors and athletes, there is nothing inherently political about their work. Yet, that will not stop them from using their fame as a soapbox.
This is not exclusive to the modern age. Back in 1868, superstar circus clown Dan Rice was considered a potential Democratic presidential nominee. But cases like these were exceptional. Most performers had no problem staying apolitical.
In the early days of mass media, entertainers were used as tools of their employers. When John R. Brinkley, a quack doctor and owner of the KFKB radio station, ran for governor of Kansas, his campaign was boosted by country music stars under his employ. Meanwhile, Hollywood executives used their actors’ star power to help sink socialist Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for Governor of California.
Around the time of the Sinclair campaign, however, liberalism began to take over Hollywood. There is no clear consensus of how or why it happened. Sociologist Neil Gross considers two different possibilities. From a simple historical perception, many actors were attracted FDR’s New Deal and anti-fascist foreign policy. Going into psychological research, it is also possible that the personalities of artists and actors are simply more predisposed to liberal ideology than the average person.
Whatever the case, celebrity culture has been reliably left-wing ever since. During the Second Red Scare, investigators saw Hollywood a wretched hive of communism.
Celebrity activism has been a staple of American culture throughout the ensuing half-century. Long before Colin Kaepernick, black Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged their own protest of American symbolism. Jane Fonda still faces controversy for her 1972 trip to Hanoi.
But far-right provocateurs have also never been far from the headlines. In an infamous 1971 Playboy interview, John Wayne made a series of bigoted statements, including “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”
Today, social media makes it easier than ever to know what is on a public figure’s mind. And the increasing polarization of American culture has removed the social pressure to stay out of politics.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
One typical argument is that celebrities are too uninformed to have a valuable opinion. There are certainly cases of this. When actress and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Jenny McCarthy proudly declares, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from,” it is difficult to take her seriously.
But this criticism also carries some elitist assumptions. How can we judge who is qualified to speak on politics and who is not? For all the Jenny McCarthys of the world, there are surely at least some celebrities who do their research.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but celebrities are in an unusual position. When a normal person talks about politics, not many people listen. Meanwhile, pundits and elected are expected to talk about politics, so we only listen to them if that is what we want to hear.
Celebrities in politics are problematic as they have a large platform, but one that is unconnected to politics. People do not tune in to Taylor Swift or Kid Rock expecting to hear about politics, but that is what they get.
This does not have to be a bad thing. Public figures should seek to use their platform for good. Few would decry the human rights activism of actors like George Clooney. Yet when he gets involved with more controversial issues like gun violence, opinion is divided.
A simple rule would be for actors to avoid controversial issues. But simple rules are not always better. Not long ago, support for LGBT rights was incredibly divisive. Today, we praise those who spoke out before it was mainstream to do so.
Celebrities trying to bring meaningful change is a dilemma, and it is not helped when others seek only to be amateurish provocateurs. Political polarization means that celebrities can always find an audience when they take a divisive stance.
Conservatives are outraged that Kathy Griffin is still allowed in polite society after a photoshoot depicting her with Donald Trump’s severed head. At the same time, conservative country musician Ted Nugent was invited to the Trump White House in 2017 despite ranting about his fantasies of murdering Barack Obama during the 2008 and 2012 election seasons.
If celebrities seek to be socially conscious, then they should ask themselves about the costs and benefits of their actions. It is possible that a political statement will make a difference, but too often it simply enrages one’ opponents while changing no one’s mind.
Since it is unlikely that any celebrities with significant public platforms are reading, however, it is incumbent on the rest of us not to get sucked in. It is wrong to assume that actors and performers never have anything valuable to say, but it is also wrong to take Isaiah Washington and Scarlett Johansson’s voting patterns too seriously.