Jesse Ventura helped lead the way, and he was followed in Minnesota by Al Franken and Jason Lewis. The 21st century has seen an increasing presence and influence of celebrities in Minnesota and national politics. Ventura’s election as governor in 1998 has proved to be a harbinger of a growing tendency that help to place Donald Trump in today’s White House.
Trump saw in Ventura a nascent trend. The billionaire considered running for the Reform Party nomination for president in 2000 and sought then-Gov. Ventura’s advice about seeking the nomination. Trump ultimately decided not to run, even though his name on the ballot earned him Reform Party primary victories in Michigan and California.
Ventura and Trump figure prominently in Mark Harvey’s fascinating new book, “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy,” which spotlights an important tendency now evident in U.S. politics. His empirical research, involving an examination of media coverage of issues from 1999 to 2012 and analysis of 2013 and 2016 public opinion surveys about celebrity endorsements, yields some stunning news.
Celebrities nowadays have considerable power to make issues visible, speak about them with credibility, and persuade others of the correctness of their positions.
Studying a variety of issues — income inequality, gun control, Darfur genocide, environmental protection, AIDS, same-sex marriage, genetic testing, marijuana legalization and the Syrian conflict — Harvey concludes: “[I]n most cases, celebrities and politicians are comparably credible, and in many of them celebrities are ranked as more credible than politicians. Celebrities are even more credible on some issues than one past and one current president of the United States” (George W. Bush and Barack Obama).
Celebrities also trigger media coverage more effectively than do major national politicians. Examining trends in media coverage on four previously obscure African problems, Harvey finds that Hollywood and music celebrities were best able to heighten broadcast and newspaper attention to the problems.
Harvey concludes “it is possible for celebrities to produce visible spikes in coverage in broadcast news and newspaper coverage. … Indeed, more celebrities may lead to more coverage.” (p. 81)
Also, Harvey’s experiment with 2013 and 2016 samples of well-educated citizens reveals that celebrity endorsements — from the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Tebow, Lady Gaga, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie — on same-sex marriage and military intervention in Syria moved respondents’ opinions in the direction of the celebrity’s position.
So celebrities now often have credibility, persuasiveness and agenda power over issues — more so, Harvey finds, than conventional politicians.
Donald Trump is a leading example of this. He introduced immigration and trade restrictions as issues during the 2016 GOP primaries and enjoyed widespread credibility among Republicans as he did so. Since becoming president, Republicans have moved toward his positions on these issues, evidence of Trump’s persuasiveness.
Celebrities come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Political scientists Darrell M. West and John Orman identify four categories: political newsworthies, legacies, famed nonpoliticos and event celebrities.
Political newsworthies are pundits with television and radio skills, like Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow and David Gergen. Legacies are from established and powerful political families such as the Kennedys, Bushes and now the Trumps.
Famed nonpoliticos include two groups of individuals. The first are those who gained fame before running for office such as Reagan, Trump, Ventura and John Glenn. A second type includes those who lobby based on their fame — Charlton Heston, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson and Jane Fonda.
A final category are “event celebrities” who appear as a result of a widely publicized event, such as Sarah Brady, wife of shooting victim James Brady, who became a prominent gun control spokesperson.
The path to public office is most often trod by famed nonpoliticos — Ventura, Franken, Trump and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few. They have been able to leverage prior fame into an image that promotes their credibility, persuasiveness and ability to spotlight issues.
Celebrities have grown in power as trust in conventional politicians has cratered. Popular discontent with politics as usual and the powerholders who populate our national and state political institutions have caused many in the public to look elsewhere to find credible and persuasive leaders.
Does that mean that the “best and brightest” in public life are to be found on television and in Hollywood, professional sports and tabloid newspaper and internet coverage? Hardly.
James Madison in Federalist #53 noted how essential governmental experience is to sound governance. A competent legislator, he noted, must have “a certain degree of knowledge on the subjects on which he is to legislate … a part [of which] can only be attained, or at least thoroughly attained, by actual experience in the station which requires the use of it.”
When we empower celebrities, we give clout to individuals with little or no practical experience in government. Celebrities may know a lot about their chosen issue or two, but seldom possess in depth knowledge many issues before state and national government or an ability to work effectively with other government officials to make and oversee laws.
Many in the public are so jaded that they equate governing experience with corruption. Celebrities seem more “authentic” to many citizens than established governing officials.
In coming years, we may increasingly be governed by celebrities who are amateurs at the practical process of governance. That describes Donald Trump well, and probably defines America’s political future pretty accurately as well. President Oprah, anyone?
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.