Celebrity Culture in Politics

Celebrity culture in politics is a threat to democracy.

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By Erin Cho

Friendship bracelets, glittery outfits, and thunderous energy characterize every concert on The Eras Tour. Tens of thousands of fans cram into stadiums, chatting excitedly and singing together. The air is full of electric enthusiasm, and it culminates when the star of the show—the reason they’re all there—emerges from backstage. Taylor Swift is the beloved object of their attention—the leader of the entire society that has grown up around her. 

In other words, Swift is not just famous—she is a celebrity. The most well-known celebrities are downright powerful, and they can sway the minds of vast numbers of people. Celebrities’ power manifests in the influence they have over their followers.

For most of America’s history, politics and fame have been intertwined. In order to succeed, any politician needs to achieve some level of notoriety or name recognition. However, the realms of politics and fame were always somewhat separate. While politicians sought to achieve widespread support, they did so by emphasizing their proposed policies and platforms instead of exclusively focusing on personal characteristics. However,  since the 2016 presidential election, the distinction between the two has faded.

Politicians like Donald Trump, Kari Lake, and Vivek Ramaswamy do not fit a mold of the typical politician. Instead, they feed off of the crowd. They take their cues from what citizens cheer for and inspire fanatical loyalty. As a result, they don’t always focus on making the best possible decisions. Rather, they spotlight whatever will bring them the most attention. This is what made the Trump presidency so tumultuous. He constantly made provocative statements to shock and awe. It is also what makes Congress so dysfunctional today, as many senators and representatives childishly refuse to compromise simply because bipartisan success is not the entertainment that their voters desire. 

Similarly, it explains the disrespectful conduct present at the Republican presidential primary debates. The candidates who participated were so focused on sparking a reaction that they resorted to base insults and sensational accusations. During the third primary debate, candidate Vivek Ramaswamy asked viewers, “Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first? Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels, in which case we’ve got two of ’em onstage tonight.” His comment doubled as a misogynistic attack against Nikki Haley, the only female Republican candidate, and a dig at Ron DeSantis, who had previously been accused of wearing lifts in his boots. His ad hominem attacks, which had nothing to do with the policies proposed by either campaign, exemplify how politics has deviated from actual substance and instead become more and more personal.

This problem is more prominent within the Republican Party than the Democratic Party because it is largely a reaction to Democratic progress. Former President Obama’s election in 2008 marked the start of a new era for American politics, as he was the United States’s first Black president. Although he was a moderate Democrat, he became a symbol of change. For instance, he helped secure the passage of reform laws like the Affordable Care Act, and in 2011, he repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military policy that forced gay members of the military to remain closeted. Furthermore, in 2012, he announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that deferred deportation for young undocumented immigrants. However, no revolution comes without a counterrevolution, and Trump’s campaign took advantage of the frustration of white, middle-class American voters who felt as though their livelihoods were being taken from them. Their resentment boiled over and as a result, transformed the political landscape.

Indeed, former President Trump is the embodiment of the celebrity politician. His rallies are a microcosm of his overall attitude toward politics. A 2023 Trump rally in South Carolina drew tens of thousands of fans. He addressed this “roaring crowd,” many of them holding Trump 2024 posters. The images taken that day show a sea of “Make America Great Again” caps with Trump standing in the middle. Sound familiar? Trump rallies possess the same energy and setup as Taylor Swift concerts do. Not only that, the people in attendance are blindly influenced by everything he says. That became evident on January 6, 2020, when his supporters stormed the Capitol after he incited them to.

This is part of the reason why Trump feels so threatened by Swift. They’re both celebrities, but there’s no question about who the bigger one is: Taylor Swift. Trump responded to the possibility of Taylor Swift endorsing Joe Biden by posting a message on Truth Social, the social media platform his company made. He wrote, “There's no way [Taylor Swift] could endorse Crooked Joe Biden, the worst and most corrupt President in the History of our Country, and be disloyal to the man who made her so much money.” His announcement was both preceded and followed by attacks against Swift by a variety of conservative politicians and news networks. Swift’s potential endorsement is so terrifying to the Trump campaign because Trump understands the power of celebrity culture. Many fans blindly follow celebrities, so if Swift were to endorse Biden, it could deal a genuine blow to Trump. In the same way that Trump’s rejection of the COVID-19 vaccine led countless supporters to irrationally refuse lifesaving treatment, Swift could affect people’s decisions with a few words.

Near-religious devotion to specific politicians poses a severe threat to democracy. For democracy to function, politicians cannot be celebrities. They must be representatives of the people with no real power of their own. If voters vote for people instead of platforms, they enable dictator-like figures to rise and establish themselves in our politics. Not only are these politicians juvenile and polarizing, but they are also dangerous. Too much power in the wrong hands can destroy a government.

As the 2024 election approaches, both Democrats and Republicans need to step away from celebrity culture in politics. They need to redirect their attention away from DeSantis’s questionable footwear and back toward the actual issues at hand. As long as Trump is around, it will be hard to do, but everyone in the country can make a difference by educating themselves and ignoring the “high school drama” happening throughout all three branches of government.