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The Dark Side of Celebrity Politics
What happens when celebrities start weighing in on politics and policy?
In a perfect red, power suit, Kate Middleton rolled out a new initiative to raise awareness about the critical years of brain development in early childhood. Critics say that Kate is all suit, no details. What proposals is she actually calling for — More pre-schools? Better quality daycare? Higher quality child nutrition? Nobody knows. All we know is that baby brains* are important.
Ex-presidents, First Ladies, members of the British royal family, and beautiful people with more than two million followers on Instagram are in a unique position in world politics. They can, by virtue of their massive followings, get people to care for five minutes about issues that are normally classified as “a bummer.”
When celebrities take on these pet causes, it’s all fine and even laudable for the most part. The problems happen when these efforts distract from real efforts happening by more serious people, and when there’s a grift. But even in the best cases, the use of celebrity soft power exists outside the bounds of normal democratic politics. Really, our elected government officials should be making us care about those big issues and coming up with solutions, not celebrities looking for a hobby.
Most people are occupied with day-to-day struggles — the cost of eggs, car maintenance, and the bong under the teenager’s bed — with little time or interest in looking at the world’s problems. If they have a few free minutes, most people distract themselves with pretty pictures on social media and gossip rags, not CSPAN.
It has always been hard to get people to think about the big picture. Around 1900, Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a bully pulpit. “Bully” meaning great, and “Pulpit” meaning the elevated platform where a priest gave a sermon in a church. The president, Teddy believed, was the biggest celebrity back then and could use his name recognition and position to gather news headlines and focus a nation’s attention on key causes.
Now, presidents have competition. Joe Biden has to deal with the Kardashians. On Twitter, Biden has 37 million follows; Kim has 75 million. On Instagram, Biden has 18 million followers, Kim has 343 million. If followers equalled votes, Kim would win.
So, celebrities dip their toes into politics and policy from time to time. They might talk about baby brains, like Kate, or prison reform, like Kim. They get millions of people, who tune into their social media feeds for a glimpse of their botoxed worlds, to think about a serious issue for minute. When celebrities divert their soft power to a real issue for a moment — a second of seriousness in a vacuous train of pictures —perhaps that’s okay.
Keep in my mind that most Hollywood celebrities are pretty dumb. They spent their formative years in front of a camera, not taking notes in a lecture hall. The majority of their time is spent maintaining their beauty - botox, facials, fillers, personal trainers, nip/tuck. They also might be seriously hangry from the Ozempic diets. None of that makes a person with the time or interest to delve into the boring details of policy decisions. Celebrities may be diverting resources and attention from the folks doing the real work.
But most troubling about celebrity politics is when their good causes turn into a Big Grift. Not content to limit their policy thought to a one minute TikTok video, a handful of celebrities create foundations to pursue those policy interests. They host luncheons to gather money from their rich friends to support their flimsy foundations, rather to more legitimate operations.
Foundations are only loosely monitored. So, if Celebrity Coco wants to go shopping in New York and attend a party with Jay Z, she hires a private jet to fly her there and then arranges one meeting with some local politician who wants to get his name in the paper and give a 40 minute speech. Now, the foundation is paying for her photo op, flight, party, and after-hour shopping spree at Tiffany’s.
And best yet? All that money is protected from taxes by a an IRS non-profit designation. It’s all about the 505c3, baby!
Others use these foundations and charity work to create an “Awesome Person” (AP) brand. The AP brand is extremely profitable. We’re talking six figure speaking fees and dubious positions at private corporations. While making all this money, the celebrities wear perfect power suits for the conference rooms at Davos, which is captured by photographers. This then leads to more clicks and follows, which then increases their soft power and profits even further.
The biggest issues is that none of this is democratic. Politics and policy should be made by very boring, unbeautiful people who think about issues for decades. Decision-makers should be elected and not best known for their role on a cable television show or a sex video.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a fascinating hybrid model - part politician, part celebrity influencer. Her Instagram stories are awesome. She shares fascinating little stories about how she manages to maintain a professional attire on her budget. (She rents her clothes! Who knew?) I hope somebody is working on a dissertation on AOC’s social media efforts. But again, AOC’s social media outreach does put her outside politics as usual, so it makes me a little uncomfortable.
Kate and Will and the other senior royals are wading into policy waters not for more money or a free flight to New York City, but to gain legitimacy, which is sad in its own way. I miss the old model exemplified by Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne who cut ribbons and kept their mouths shut. But, hey! I loved the suit!
Social media upended politics as usual. It elevated celebrities into positions where they can shape important public decisions and win political office. Just look at how Donald Trump translated his Twitter account into four years in the White House. The media should examine celebrities more seriously, and we should be careful to not give their political aspirations and side ventures too much of our time and effort.
*Meghan Markle famously insulted Kate by saying that she had “baby brains,” after Louis was born. And now Kate is talking about baby brains. Yuk.
I’ve been working a ton this week, so not much time to create fun content. We did have a nice chat about meatballs on the blog. Lots of pictures there.
The number of Black children and teenagers living in the city fell more than 19 percent from 2010 to 2020… the decline is continuing… Schools have lost children in all demographic groups, but the loss of Black children has been much steeper… why? Rent
Watching: Last of Us
My meatball recipe:
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