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28 September 2015

Increasing political engagement through The 'Celebrity Effect'

Posted by: Sania Haq, Policy Professional

Categories: Celebrity, Engagement, Kanye, Kardashian, Obama, Regan, Schwarzenegger

Celebrities have the power to bring politics to the attention of society in an almost unparalleled way. Although the impact may be less pronounced on those who are already engaged in political matters, for many who are not, the ‘celebrity effect’ can play a key role in provoking their interest.


Could Kim and Kanye be the future President and First Lady of The United States of America?

Let’s take Kanye West’s recent revelation about wanting to run for US President in 2020. Many have written the announcement off as being just another one of Kanye’s extravagant outbursts, and do not believe that a) he’ll actually run and, even if he does, that b) he’ll get in to office.

However, although it is doubtful that Kim and Kanye’s attempts to enter politics will be successful, with just 16% of American millennials stating that they are ‘very interested’ in politics, could Kimye nonetheless play an important role in boosting political engagement? In March 2015 Time Magazine identified Kim Kardashian West as one of the 30 most influential people on the Internet, with 45 Million Twitter followers and 27 million on Instagram. Social media moguls such as Kim have the ability to command audiences in a way that others simply can’t, especially not traditional politicians. Kim can tweet about the sandwich she had for lunch and will undoubtedly get millions of views and possibly even retweets. So, if she begins talking about politics, there’s no doubt that her millions of fans will stand up and pay attention. The same goes for Kanye.

However, it’s not just those who are fans of Kim and Kanye that will become politically engaged. Some may fear the prospect of Kimye getting into office, leading them to become better informed about other candidates, if only to prevent a Kanye victory. Either way, a Kanye presidency attempt is likely to increase political engagement, even if only for the short-term.


How and when does the Celebrity Effectwork?

Kim and Kanye in the White House may not be the best outcome for society, but we should not discount the potential positive impact the ‘celebrity effect’ can have on politics. Understanding what drives this will help politicians increase their appeal and relevance, especially amongst young voters.

This article will now go on to assess the impact of the ‘celebrity effect’ by looking in detail at two political figures who made the transition from acting to mainstream politics: Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was involved in politics from a young age, with one of his early achievements being his appointment as student body president of his college. He then began his acting career in 1937, shortly after graduating university. He appeared in a number of films and gained much stardom in the pre World War 2 era. Reagan was also a leading figure in the acting fraternity, elected to the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

Reagan’s political career began in the early post war era, initially as a Democrat. He joined a number of political committees and frequently spoke at high profile events, including appearing on stage with presidential candidate Harry Truman during his 1948 campaign. However in the early 1950s Reagan’s political stance started to become more conservative, and he openly endorsed Republican candidates (Eisenhower and Nixon) in their presidential bids over the next few years. Republicans were impressed by Reagan’s political prowess and, in particular, his economic policies. In 1967 he became Governor of California and was reelected for a second term in 1970.

In 1976 Reagan was unsuccessful in his first attempt to become the presidential candidate for the Republican Party, losing to Gerald Ford. But by 1980 Reagan had achieved this and fought a presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s campaign, based on lower taxes, less intrusive government, more autonomy for states and a stronger national defense system, was successful and he went on to serve two terms in office, from 1981-1989.

Amongst Reagan’s greatest successes was revitalizing the US economy, with GDP growth averaging 4% per year in his second term. However, like any president, he was not without his controversies, such as accusations that his ‘War on Drugs’ heightened racial disparities. Also, his economic policies did have a tendency to favour the very rich, perhaps highlighting the potential disconnect of celebrities with the financial circumstances of the masses. Nonetheless, Reagan was a hugely influential and successful president. In 2001 and 2007 the Gallup Institute’s polls saw him being voted amongst the top two greatest US presidents in history.


Arnold Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger first started to gain prominence in politics in the mid 1980’s. He made public appearances in an anti-drug video for Reagan’s War on Drugs initiative and also attended presidential campaign rallies for George H W Bush. In the early 1990s he was appointed as chairman of the Republican Party’s Physical Fitness and Sports body.

Schwarzenegger always downplayed his desire to get more involved politics, until 2003 when he announced his intention to run in the upcoming election for Governor of California. In the run up to the election, Schwarzenegger was certainly the most known candidate, but his political stance was less clear. Furthermore, his refusal to appear in the majority of televised debates with other candidates made it even harder to identify his political strategy. Nonetheless, the publicity and excitement around the ‘Governator’ certainly did its job and he was elected with a 48.6% share of the vote.

Even though he won a second term in office in 2006, unfortunately for Schwarzenegger, his political legacy is a challenging one. This was partly due to his inexperience, coupled with a notoriously difficult political environment in the State of California. When coming in to office he started to lose his Republican identity somewhat, hiring a Democrat as his Chief of Staff, and relying heavily on public referendums to set policies. Low approval ratings (less than 30%), poor economic growth, Republicans who felt he was too left leaning, and Democrats who felt he was not left-leaning enough, also characterised his time in office.

The contrasting experiences of President Reagan and Governor Schwarzenegger provide a number of key learnings about the ‘celebrity effect’ in politics. It can be unparalleled in capturing people’s support and attention, potentially even getting a candidate elected. However, in order to sustain and capitalise upon the support, the ‘celebrity effect’ must be backed up by sustainable political strategies. Therefore, although the ‘celebrity effect’ may be great at sparking political engagement, especially amongst younger generations, it will soon diminish if candidates do not have the political skills to deliver!


A happy medium between celebrity and politican: President Obama

To accomplish greater public engagement with politics, particularly amongst younger citizens, we cannot just rely on celebrities making a career change. Even if they do, the likelihood of them having the political skills to be effective is low. Instead, existing politicians can learn from and try to emulate the ‘celebrity effect.’ A great example of this is President Barack Obama. He built a solid political foundation through grass roots social activism and academia, and has gone on to increase his appeal by drawing upon the ‘celebrity effect’ in a number of ways. Firstly, his political campaign has had much celebrity backing, with music royalty openly supporting him and encouraging their fan bases to do the same. Who can forget Beyoncé’s performance of At Last at his inauguration evening? Secondly, he has gone on to develop his own celebrity-like persona. Perhaps most notably, he too is cited as one of the most influential people on social media and is the most ‘liked’ and ‘followed’ world leader. Importantly, he is using his social media presence to great effect in engaging young people with his policies. For example, posting a video reminding them to sign up for health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act, which received over 50 million views within days.

By creating a celebrity-like political persona and also having the policies to back this up, President Obama has achieved an almost perfect balance between the ‘celebrity effect’ and political prowess. Whilst he still faces the same ups and downs as any other President, where he has unquestionably excelled is in bridging the gap between politics and the popular culture.