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OPINION: The Celebrity’s Place in Politics

(For the purpose of this article, I use the term celebrity to imply a celebrity artist or influencer, those who have acquired their fame mainly through the entertainment industry and not celebrities, such as politicians or CEOs of tech companies.) 

Celebrities. Eyes are always on them. No matter who you are, if you have access to any form of media, you are likely affected by their lives to some extent. Even if you avoid the tabloids and roll your eyes at product endorsements, they are producing your music, writing your books or starring on your Netflix. Directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, they influence the way we speak and act. Not even politics is an exception to their authority. 

OPINION: The Celebrity's Place in Politics

(Image source: Variety)

One study estimates that Oprah Winfrey’s public endorsement won Barack Obama a million votes in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. How should one even react to this information? There is no shortage of writers, philosophers and political leaders preaching the importance of the vote and how every ballot counts. Yet, if one in every 131 American voters in 2008 was affected by one celebrity, then the public masses have less control concerning their votes than they would like to think. Having so much power in the hands of a select few public figures seems to render the purpose of democracy useless.  

Why a Celeb’s Opinion Should Not Be the Basis of Yours

The reasons against mixing Hollywood and government can be obvious. When celebrities start making political statements, it becomes easy for the uninformed to take these opinions at face value without using their own judgement. Being uninformed is not synonymous with being uneducated: the uninformed might include voters who wish to have their say, but do not have the time to conduct their own research. Such a voter might consider the party they voted for in the previous election, factor in the latest on social media feeds, come to a quick decision and never question their shortcut. Or someone with no love for politics may decide that any vote is better than nothing and that a celeb’s hot take must be trending for a reason. 

The problem with our hypothetical voters is the assumption that celebrities are reasonably knowledgeable in the topics for which they take a stand. It would be unreasonable to make the sweeping statement that no celebrities are adequately educated to engage in politics, as Cardi B’s former AP Government teacher pointed out. Unfortunately, it can be immensely difficult for the aforementioned uninformed fans to determine what information is valid. The ones most likely to take a celebrity’s opinion into consideration are less likely to sit down and thoroughly fact-check that Twitter post. As a whole, celebrities are not the authorities in politics and considering the prominence of fake/misleading news online, we should not find it surprising when a celebrity offers more personal bias than useful information.   

Consider this tidbit from Mark Wahlberg: “A lot of Hollywood is living in a bubble. They’re pretty out of touch with the common person, the everyday guy out there providing for their family.” Most of us have seen evidence of how differently our favourite stars live, especially amidst a period of quarantine. We are derisive when they blunder in their efforts to empathize. This should illustrate that the right political stance for a celebrity may not be the same for everyone. Politics may be a public scene, but your vote is a personal matter. 

OPINION: The Celebrity's Place in Politics

If your vote is your participation in democracy, it should reflect your values.

Yet the problem with putting the famous on pedestals is that we lose sight of their humanity. We forget that they have the same rights and freedoms, and they aren’t indebted to us just because we appreciate the products of their careers. 

Should We Insist That Celebs Stay in Their Lane?

Is it fair to bar celebrities from politics altogether? What are a celebrity’s responsibilities to the public, and how do they differ from those of any other citizen? Well, one might say, celebrities are more important because they are role models to an exponentially wider audience. Celebrities set a standard, particularly amongst impressionable youth, that people often compare themselves to. Conversely, we set certain standards for them. With their every move being watched, celebrities continually receive hefty amounts of praise and criticism. Must celebrities live the way we dictate for them at all times? Must they exemplify every trait we wish to see in ourselves, but never give opinions on any topic deemed controversial?

As Pericles said, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.” Celebrities have the freedom of speech, and why should they not use it, when politics affects everyone? More often than not, celebrities are bringing up more humanitarian topics like identity politics, as opposed to discussion about specific candidates. Sometimes the topic directly concerns them: it would be ridiculous to dismiss an LGBTQ+ celebrity’s opinion on the legalization of same-sex marriage. 

OPINION: The Celebrity's Place in Politics

Should celebrities stay out of identity politics as well? 

Even if a celebrity is no verified expert on a given political topic, neither are a lot of the editorial writers in newspapers. Freedom of expression doesn’t get questioned when a newspaper article is highly controversial or could be researched in greater depth. Social media sites often fail to moderate posts that should never see an audience but are not held liable. Nobody would propose censorship as a viable solution in these cases, nor should we do so for celebrities’ political stances.

Fans often take it upon themselves to dig up evidence of a political leaning even when celebrities try to keep quiet. Take Taylor Swift, whose long-maintained, mostly neutral stance was read as support for white supremacy. More recently, Chris Pratt has come under fire for supposedly being a Republican who attends a homophobic church, despite not giving the slightest endorsement for a 2020 U.S. presidential candidate.  It seems that fame is incapable of co-existing with privacy. Fans gleefully take to forming their own conclusions, which can be harmful to a celebrity’s image. In a world where silence seems to be interpreted as anything but, it can be near impossible for a celebrity to remain apolitical. They should not shoulder the blame if they are grilled for the very opinions that we then attack them for sharing.

The question of who is qualified to talk politics is almost as divisive as politics itself, yet short of drastic change, celebrities will continue to have and exercise their right to share their political opinions. Perhaps instead of trying to dictate what our public figures can say, we should focus on our own duty to stay informed via reliable, unbiased sources. Perhaps we should remember that we are each accountable for ourselves, and nothing less. Perhaps the best quote to end on is Alice Cooper’s: “If you’re listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you’re a bigger moron than they are.”

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OPINION: The Celebrity's Place in Politics