Do Celebrities Still Have Political Clout?
Yes. But the starstruck party isn’t the one you might think it is.
Fact: Hollywood is one of the bluest towns in the country. When we think celebrities and politics, we tend to think Democrat. Although famous Republicans always have been in the mix — from Shirley Temple Black, James Stewart, and Charlton Heston to Kanye West, Roseanne Barr, and Scott Baio — liberal, left-leaning Democrats dominate arts and entertainment.
But can A (B, C, and D)-listers swing U.S. states. How much are civilian Democrats swayed by starpower?
During the midterm elections, Oprah Winfrey, an Independent, and Taylor Swift campaigned, respectively, for Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Tennessee’s Democratic U.S. Senate contender Phil Bredesen. Meanwhile, Beyoncé offered an Election Day endorsement of Texas’s Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke. How could thumbs-ups from three of the world’s most famous women possibly fail (even if Beyoncé waited until a mere hours before polls in Texas closed to shout-out O’Rourke)?
Alas, last week on Election Day, all six lost. (*Abrams still hasn’t conceded to Republican Brian Kemp, but we all know how that story will end.) Although none of these was an upset of Donald Trump-defeats-Hillary Clinton proportions, it’s hard not to wonder how all three happened. Doesn’t conventional thinking conclude that if stars can convince fans to buy perfume and running shoes, they also can sway them when it’s time to decide how to vote for the future of their country, state, or town — or whether they vote at all?
In a sense, the conventional thinking is correct, only Winfrey, Swift, and Beyoncé may have been preaching to the wrong crowd. Although Hollywood is a blue-state town where the grand old party isn’t the GOP, Republicans are more starstruck. Democrats generally don’t blindly vote along the party line the way Republicans do (which might explain why Independents, like Winfrey, are more likely to lean Democrat), and they’re less inclined to follow the leader with a star.
In 1980, Republicans elected former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, whose most notable Hollywood co-star was a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo, as the 40th U.S. President. Five commanders-in-chief later, they put former reality TV star Donald Trump in the White House.
They’ve also helped get Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, and even former Love Boat TV star Fred Grandy elected to political offices. In the 2018 midterms, former soap actors Kimberlin Brown and Antonio Sabato Jr. both campaigned as the Republican candidates for California’s U.S. House of Representatives seats. They lost their bids, but Brown and Sabato captured a more-than-respectable (and expected) 44 percent and 41 percent of the vote, respectively.
Had they been Democrats, it’s hard to imagine that a woman best known for being a villain on The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful and a man who shot to fame as a Calvin Klein underwear model and as a hot body in a Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” video and later went on to star on General Hospital would have gotten that far. Tony- and Emmy-winning Sex and the City Democrat Cynthia Nixon didn’t even make it out of the primary season in her attempt to replace incumbent New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
In fact, they probably wouldn’t have run at all. Republicans are always accusing Democrats of inappropriately sticking their noses into the political conversation, as if one forfeits the right to voice a political opinion when one becomes famous. Yet Republican-affiliated stars are more likely than Democratic ones to do more than talk about running for public office. Republicans seem to object to celebrities in politics only until they run #TeamRepublican.
Trump lapped up Kanye West’s endorsement like a high school nerd dying to score cool cred by dating a cheerleader or becoming besties with the captain of the football team. As a result of West’s Trump-praising back in April, POTUS’s approval among black American men doubled, from 11 to 22 percent, according to a Reuter’s poll. The Celebrity Republican Effect struck again.
Had West offered Hillary Clinton his gushing endorsement during the 2016 Presidential election, it probably wouldn’t have led to a different outcome. Not even a galaxy of the brightest Hollywood and music stars — Streisand, Cher, De Niro, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Madonna — could get Clinton elected.
What happened there? It’s simple. Unlike the tribal Republicans (yes, tribal — see how The View’s insufferable Meghan McCain turns every conversation into a left vs. right high-school-football shout-off), Democrats tend to be more independent thinkers guided more by consciousness and conscientiousness than by rhetoric and sloganeering like “Make America Great Again.”
They won’t vote a certain way just because someone tells them to. Unfortunately, in 2016, too many Democrats, particularly minorities, stayed away from the polls entirely, becoming observers rather than participants in the political process. If voter suppression didn’t deter them on November 6, general apathy did.
Hopefully, getting Democrats to become more involved in the electoral process, not collecting celebrity followers, will be the number-one goal of whomever the party nominates for President in 2020. Star-tripping might work for Republicans, but the modern Democratic Party, the progressive one with its roots in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal ideology, doesn’t work like that.
Democrats are made of more complicated stuff. When the spirit moves them to get involved in the political process, a star is less likely to be shining a light, telling them which way to go.