Star candidates and the celebritification of politics

I’ll admit, my gut reaction to celebrities seeking public office is a negative one.

There’s something particularly jarring about actors (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson, Clint Eastwood), athletes (Kirstie Marshall, Justin Madden), cruise-ship crooners (Mario Berlusconi) and bloody wrestlers (Jesse “The Body” Ventura) seeking to position themselves as our best, our brightest, our betters and ultimately our leaders.

This is of course, completely judgmental of me. Besides, while it may be easy to point to skiing, appearances on Law and Order and an ability to tussle in spandex as attributes fairly irrelevant for high office, it’s a much harder task to identify what qualities we actually want.

In Australia former union officials, lawyers, teachers and increasingly political staffers are disproportionately represented in parliament. Are these careers better preparation for office than sports or the stage? If we’re not entirely sure what we want on a candidate’s CV, then does a history of success – regardless of the field – actually prove to be useful information?

Is the candidacy therefore, of a widely acclaimed singer-songwriter like Tex Perkins a sign of true democracy in action or is it demonstration yet again, about what a farce the whole show has become?

My prejudice against entertainers seeking office isn’t so much about the deficits of individual candidates of course, but more so reflective of a broader concern about the extent to which celebrity has become important in politics.

I mentioned “name recognition” earlier and of course, if you’re a celebrity all the hard yards of introducing yourselves to constituents is done: they know you already, you’ve saved a whole bunch of money on posters and the real work centres on getting votes.

And here’s the tricky part.

The influence of celebrity culture on politics is identifiable every time a candidate does a magazine interview, a morning news show, a late night chat show. Every single time they frock-up for red-carpet event.

Equally it’s identifiable through the charm offensive. And this is far more insidious than the kissing of a few babies.

I asked earlier what attributes we want in our leaders. A tricky question. So tricky in fact, that the media – whose skills in reporting faff and frivolity are well honed – rapidly answer it for us by spotlighting likability.

Could we imagine, say, having a beer with this person? Inviting them around for a Sunday roast? Does their rapport with their partner seem natural, seem loving? Could we trust them to walk our spaniel? Do they have a suitably wholesome sex life? Have they ever harboured a same-sex erotic fantasy? Do they enjoy an appropriate number of Australian sports? Will they wear a team jumper if the need arises? Separate their rubbish? Do they pray to the right God, know the price of an appropriate number of consumer goods and speak with words without too many syllables? What’s their resting heart rate? Do they regularly ring their mother? Would they bring us chicken soup if we took ill? How often do they swear?

On one hand picking a candidate on the grounds of likability is ridiculously misguided. Afterall, our siblings and BFFs are people we’re crazily fond of, but they’re not necessarily the person we’d pick as banker in a game of Monopoly, trust to water our plants when we’re away or be relied upon to rouse us from our doona when it all feels too much.

None of these things have anything whatsoever to do with the ability to govern effectively and yet we use this dodgy set of criteria to ascertain to vote people into office. Continually.

This isn’t however, particularly surprising. Charm is simply the material we have at our disposal. In a world of low attention spans and lazy journalism, focusing on the easy stuff and sidelining the complexity of policy is typical. Because even when voters are listening, they’re rarely believing.

So does any of it matter? If there’s no agreed upon way to gauge politician effectiveness and if there’s no data linking background with political prowess, is it relevant that our political talent pool is muddied by fame?

Yes. Because when surveys consistently show that we feel about politicians the way we do with other professional miscreants like real estate agents or used car peddlers, it matters a great deal.

Which begs the question, do we only have ourselves to blame? Is it time, then, for a reminder of that Alexis de Tocqueville quote about us getting the government we deserve?

November 12, 2014

© Lauren Rosewarne

Original Source: Election Watch, University of Melbourne