Friday, December 30, 2011

"Stars" in Politics

Cleaning out to start the New Year, I found this essay that I wrote. I don't recall having posted it before, and when I read through it quickly, it still seems basically sound to me. Anyway, I post it for what it's worth.

The U.S. has grown into a polity marked by equality and universal sufferage. Freedom of expression, growing out of the First Amendment to the Constitution, also serves as a benchmark of U.S. politics. Any limitation on the participation of any group—whether of those with whom we agree with or those with whom we disagree—should not be our policy or goal.
The effect of entertainers on contemporary electoral politics is not new. While MTV’s “Rock the Vote” draws the attention of young people in recent elections, it’s basic tenant, that participation in the electoral process is not only socially acceptable, but a genuine good, is not unique. The use of “stars”, names from Hollywood and the entertainment world, has been ongoing at least since the Second World War, when well known actors participated in films supporting enlistment in the armed forces. Ronald Reagan, who served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and who later served as host of GE Theatre, moved into politics. Reagan joined George Murphy, an actor later elected senator from California, as an example of entertainers who made the transition from fame as entertainers into elected officials. This trend has continued not only in California—witness Arnold Swartzenegger—but also in other parts of the country and involving politicians of a completely different political persuasion. For example, consider comedian-turned-actor Al Franken, recently elected senator from Minnesota. Given that breadth of the political spectrum represented by these few samples, one cannot argue that any particular political party or political perspective gains more from the use of entertainers as candidates or surrogates for candidates. The development of candidates and points of view seems to have little bearing in the eyes of the voting public. A candidate may gave gained name recognition from a career in sports (e.g., Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp, Tom Osborne) or entertainment, but this only provides an initial gateway past the barrier of name recognition.
The issue of concern in this topic must go the role and responsibility of the media. The media, once exclusively the realm of print, but now led by television and internet sources, must play the key role in discerning whether the fame of a entertainer merits the thoughtful consideration of a voter. Some voters, no doubt, would follow the lead of a famous person just because of the person’s perception of the entertainer’s stage persona, but this kind of limited critical thinking is as old as democracy, and it won’t go away by attempting to ban or downplay the roles of the famous in our electoral system. Instead, we need opinion leaders in all forms of media to foster critical assessments of all those who stand for public office. Much of the media have always enjoyed a strange, symbiotic relationship with the famous, including politicians, at once glorifying them and vilifying them; using them and being used by them. To the extent that members of all facets of the media resist the trap of this strange duet, the more useful the media’s role in democratic societies.
As politics in a democratic society should involve a widespread and varied consideration of all manner of perspective in our complex society, to consider limiting or pre-judging any group is a mistake. Instead, society, led by leaders in the media willing to take up the cause of the public good, should weigh and consider perspectives from all manner of sources. The famous will always flourish in democratic societies, whether military leaders, reformers, entertainers, or sports figures. The question, the challenge, for all becomes our collective ability to discern the merely famous from those who hold the ability to provide leadership and judgment in political office.

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