Should we eschew celebrity candidacies for high office? Kimberly Ross made the case that it’s a bad idea in an interesting piece at the Washington Examiner. She was writing in response to Kanye West’s campaign for president:
Mrs. Ross writes:
When celebrities say they want to run for President that decision alone should not be applauded. Rewarding popularity with the highest office in the land is not wise. That someone has the money and fame to instantly create buzz doesn’t mean their endeavor should be encouraged. Admiring an individual for their success, or even personality, in one field does not mean they should be considered for or will be successful in another. More often than not, celebrities are drunk on their own power, and if they do pursue elected office will do so in order to capitalize on what they have. Nothing more.
There’s a lot here with which I agree. Yes, we shouldn’t be gaga for celebrities or assume that because we liked them in a film or appreciate their music, or like a celebrity, that automatically they would make a great president. I also think we have to be cautious of what people’s motives are when deciding to run for office.
That said, the idea we should treat “all who wish to trade their non-political fame for elected power” the same, as she says later in the piece, is off-base.
The first problem is that she fails to acknowledge the reality of modern Presidential politics. If we had a system where political parties always nominated highly qualified people who are well-suited to the office, it wouldn’t make sense to look to celebrities.
That’s not the reality of the primary system. While we shouldn’t applaud “money and fame” as a basis for achieving political office, that is the main criteria for being the nominee of either party. Performance in office has little to do with it. We don’t choose Senators, who were terrific legislators or governors who achieved remarkable results.
President Obama exacerbated this problem when he ran for president after failing to complete a single term, and ambitious junior senators on both sides have taken note. Rather than fulfilling campaign promises or trying to be a good senator, they spend their time building their brands for presidential bids by grandstanding and using senate hearings to create viral videos where they “destroy” or “own” some object of partisan loathing. Their entire Senate “service” is based on getting Internet famous and attracting a donor base.
Those who want to do serious work get demagogued by opportunists who pick out any votes or perceived breaks with party orthodoxy as evidence they’re a closet member of the other side. Thus we’ve created a system where those who can achieve fame and raise unseemly amounts of money have the edge, and any true independent thought is penalized.
There are ways of choosing a nominee that doesn’t create this sort of situation. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the major parties to build a better system.
Secondly, we have to acknowledge how bad our current politicians are. At this point, of 535 members of Congress, I can only think of one that I respect, and he’s retiring. There’s maybe one governor or two I like, but neither has any chance of national political office. If we find our current leaders to be that rotten, where can we turn for better options?
America desperately needs a new political party. This requires more openness to a celebrity candidate. If new parties are lucky, they might get a former politician from an existing party. Otherwise, the nomination will go to an unknown political activist. That’s like choosing a celebrity who lacks charisma, fame, and money. Libertarian Party presidential nominee Jo Jorgensen has far more policy depth than Kanye West. However, she has just as much relevant life experience for handling the nuclear codes or appointing thousands of federal officers.
With a lack of trustworthy people in office to support, we must acknowledge that our current system gives celebrities opportunities that no one else is going to have. So rather than treating all celebrities the same, I think a more reasonable path is to set realistic expectations for them.
Celebrity candidates should have adequate knowledge of public affairs, show a present capacity for sound judgment and good character, and prove they’re humble enough to be teachable by bringing in quality expert advisors and listening to them. A celebrity candidate of that nature would be more fit for office than today’s career politicians.
By the above standard, Kanye West 2020 may only be fit for a protest vote, and Trump has always been entirely unfit for office. However, that shouldn’t lead us to discount all celebrities in the future. If, for example, Tim Tebow or Ben Watson decide to run for president in 2024, I’d be glad to hear what they have to say. It’d almost certainly beat what the professional politicians will be offering.