Samantha Della Fera: Stop treating politicians like celebrities

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - 6:03pm

Isn’t that headline so ironic, given that our president gained so much immediate coverage and support because he is, in fact, a celebrity? I know that we have had celebrity-politicians before, including but not limited to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan. If Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan aren’t two great examples of why we shouldn’t put celebrities in office, we clearly have some disagreements to work through, but that’s not what this column is about.  What about how we celebritize politicians after they enter office?

With the rise of social media, and the exploitation of it by politicians desperate to capture young audiences, politicians are being viewed more as quasi-celebrities than public servants. In my own memory, this started during the Obama administration, and has only gotten worse. This treatment is dangerous — celebrity worship makes it more difficult to hold people accountable, or to view them in an objective light. Take Obama for example: He is viewed (at least by Democrats) as the model president, the perfect politician. His likeness has been used in countless memes and novelty t-shirts, and during his presidency he appeared on many late-night shows. And while I do believe he was a good president, no president or politician will ever be perfect; in fact, Obama had a lot to be held accountable for that was glossed over in Saturday Night Live skits and silly merchandise.

Going into the 2020 election, this trend continues. One doesn’t need to be reminded how celebritized Trump is with his overdone rallies, infamous hats and tweeting tendencies — and it’s not doing this country any good. With Trump’s amplified platform we’ve seen violent racist protests, a nationwide rise in hate crimes and horrific treatment of women and immigrants.

Trump is an extreme example of demagoguery given respect, but celebritizing politicians is a problem on the Democratic side, too, albeit on a less dangerous scale. We have presidential candidates on the cover of magazines and getting fashion advice from reporters. The people who will make decisions on war, healthcare, gun control and immigration are getting their crowd sizes compared like two pop stars on dueling world tours.  

Taking away the cultural lens of viewing politicians and political candidates is a double-edged sword. On one hand, conversations will be more policy-driven and maybe we can finally stop talking about who is more “likable” and start talking about who is least likely to ruin this country further. Yet on the other hand, popular media is a more accessible route to Americans, as not everyone wants to sit down and listen to Wolf Blitzer, but many people will tune into Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert.

So where does the burden fall? Is it on the media to stop treating politicians like celebrities, or is it on us? The responsibility truly lies with both. Stop inviting politicians on sketch comedy or talk shows and using that opportunity to play silly games or tousle their hair. And if you must have them, at least grill them a little bit. Don’t be their free advertisement — these politicians are there to serve you, not the other way around.

As for us, the people, let’s make an effort to hold our elected officials and political hopefuls accountable, to view them through an objective lens. It is easy to get swept up in the excitement of politics — as a Public Policy student, I know this too well. You want to idolize these people, people who are in a position you dream of being in, passing legislation you’ve fought for. But no political job should be guaranteed, and approval from constituents should be earned through good actions rather than likable, carefully planned interactions.

Washington already comes across as an exclusive place. The government that is supposed to be working for us is instead hiding behind free Smithsonian admission and chipper Congressional tours. It is natural to get excited when Elizabeth Warren calls you on the phone or Obama surprises the crowd on stage. But keep in mind that these are things that these politicians should be doing — we gave them their job, so they owe us their time. The exclusivity of politics only leads to closed doors and lackluster responses to real concerns and questions.  If Congress won’t implement term limits, the American people can. Celebrities are celebrities for a reason — there will never be another Bowie or Beyoncè. But the country is never going to run out of opportunistic politicians with a pocketful of empty promises.

Samantha Della Fera can be reached at samdf@umich.edu