What do lawyers, soldiers, peanut farmers and movie actors have in common? They are all former professions of U.S. presidents. While the first two seem like a better fit to the presidency title, the different professions of politicians influence the way they serve constituents in different ways. The benefit of public officials with a background in law is that they tend to comprehensively understand systems of government; soldiers have experience serving their country; farmers understand the food and agriculture industry that feeds the nation. However, celebrities’ benefit to their constituents seems more ambiguous.
The first example of a president who swayed from popular culture fame to political power was the United States’ 40th president, Ronald Reagan, who acted in over 60 films and TV series before entering politics. Meanwhile, the most recent and ostentatious example of a celebrity-turned-politician is none other than the United States’ 45th president, Donald Trump. Before winning the electoral college vote in November of 2016, Trump was a prominent New York real estate mogul and game show host. Celebrities run for office at every level of government, from city council — like actor Ben Savage — to governor, like former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner.
The rise of social media in the 21st century has added a new dimension to public recognition as the mass media has shifted from strictly print, television and film to Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and streaming services. When Reagan announced his candidacy for president in November 1979, he had already risen to fame through films like “The Killers” (1964). This popularity added to the allure of voting for a future president whose past as a Hollywood star set him apart from the lawyers and businessmen before him. Those who might not have seen his films or followed his career might have known him primarily from his stint as California governor from 1967–75. However, in the era where almost everyone carries a five-inch supercomputer in their front pocket, it has become increasingly difficult to block out the noise surrounding a celebrity’s candidacy.
This November, several celebrities will be on ballots across the country. Former NFL running back Herschel Walker is running against incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. While campaigning for Sen. Warnock in Georgia, former President Obama called Walker a “celebrity who wants to be a politician.” Rather than landing as the scathing insult Obama may have intended it to be, this description perfectly captures the intention of most celebrities who run for public office: capitalizing on anti-establishment sentiment and using politics as a noisy platform to bolster their own careers. A prime example of a public figure who was more interested in garnering popularity than enacting change is 2020 presidential candidate Ye, the musical artist formerly known as Kanye West, who embodies the idea of ‘any press is good press.’ His campaign gained notoriety for its erraticism when he announced his candidacy in a Tweet on July 4, 2020.
Many celebrities who run for public office tend to hold strongly conservative opinions, aligning with the Republican party. This may stem from a conservative tendency to be more receptive to rhetoric-focused candidates — such as Trump, Walker and reality TV show host Dr. Mehmet Oz — rather than their policy-focused liberal opponents. Another explanation is that celebrities who are worth $100 million and more in assets may be interested in protecting their bracket’s tax breaks through policy.
However, because their campaigns are rooted in self promotion rather than policy, these celebrities tend to switch positions on political issues haphazardly. Donald Trump referred to himself as “very pro-choice” on television in 1999 and then “strongly pro-life” in a tweet in 2019. While it is not unheard of for politicians’ positions to change with time, like President Biden’s stance on abortion, a celebrity who runs for the presidency, like Trump, seems to be, as presidential scholar and Supreme Court expert Barbara Perry put it, a “gross opportunist.”
Egotistical motivations behind running for office compromise a candidate’s ability to serve their constituents. Walker is estimated to be worth between $29 and $65 million while Oz holds assets worth at least $100 million. Some voters may see this as a favorable trait because of the aspirational association with voting for someone of a higher socioeconomic status, but the reality is that electing celebrities from the 1% would only exacerbate the problem of inadequate representation that voting for “non-establishment” politicians is supposed to fix.
If you are voting in Georgia, Pennsylvania or any other state where a celebrity will be on your ballot next Tuesday, I urge you to consider their platform, policies and position through a particularly critical lens. Your vote holds power, and name recognition should not make a football player or TV personality worthy of representing you.