Celebrities, please do not be a political joke

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Graphic Illustration by Bennie Chang

Celebrity candidates’ yard signs in front of the backdrop of Hollywood’s famous white sign.

Bennie Chang

Donald Trump, businessman turned reality television star turned U.S. President. He has become one of the most prominent celebrities-turned-politicians in the world, but America has a storied past of celebrities running for office — especially in California. From Ronald Regan to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the golden state has elevated Hollywood stars to national prominence for decades, and one more now hopes to join their ranks: Caitlyn Jenner.

Jenner’s recent announcement that she would run for California governor to potentially succeed Gov. Gavin Newsom, should he be recalled, spurred curiosity over her motives and critiques of her political inexperience. The public only knows of her political beliefs, which are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and her inconsistent support for Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, during the 2016 presidential election. Celebrities like Jenner lack firm political beliefs and are ill-equipped to run for office, lacking an agenda to tackle issues afflicting the communities they hope to serve.

Many believe that Jenner has a slim chance of succeeding Newsom but cite the election of movie superstar Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election for California governor as a reason why  a popular Republican could potentially carry the governorship again.

“California is more conservative than you think,” junior Ian Chen said. “I think Jenner’s screwed, but if someone else with more name recognition runs as a Republican, they might be able to repeat what Schwarzenegger accomplished.”

Celebrities’ popularity often gives them an edge in elections compared to relatively unknown candidates to the common American people. Unfortunately, the American public often equates popularity with competency; the founding fathers and mothers of the U.S. fought for an American republic where citizens choose leaders for their dedication to ideals, something that cannot exist without politicians putting in the effort to create concrete, comprehensive platforms.

“I would argue if you are a TV personality or movie personality, you already have built-in PR recognition that you don’t have to garner if you’re just a common everyday businessman,” U.S. History teacher Kyle Howden said. “You can use that to your advantage and just propel yourself. Make it almost like a popularity contest.”

Although many celebrities run for the excitement and popularity, never imagining or believing they would win the election, some actually do. Trump is an obvious example, but there are many others who were not elected. Kanye West ran on the Birthday Party in 2020. For West, the “party” was not a celebration of age but, instead, an actual political party: Instead of running with concrete platforms and a legitimate party, he decided to run as a meme candidate.

Switching political positions to gain support is also a common characteristic among celebrity politicians. They advocate for certain principles during their time in Hollywood or New York, but reverse positions in order to attract constituents when running for office. However, what may have seemed like a harmless switch to gain votes has entrenched politicians throughout their career.

Reagan rose to national political prominence following his acting career when serving as the spokesman of General Electric, attracting a strong following among conservatives. Building on that support, he successfully won elections as California Governor and then U.S. President. Riding on a wave of Washington and big-government discontent, Reagan campaigned on rolling back government regulations and reducing federal spending. Reagan probably believed in his “New Right” policies, but how much of his belief was motivated by public support and pressure instead of personal conviction remains a subject of debate. Reagan experienced the harsh realities of economic struggles growing up in the Great Depression, but Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program significantly helped his family, to the point that he idolized Roosevelt for his economic policies, which emphasized a powerful federal government. However, during his administration, Reagan dismantled the New Deal as part of his “New Right” platform, a clear contradiction to his previous political beliefs. No matter the lengths politicians go to win votes, they should not abandon the values they cherish. 

“Reagan was originally a New Dealer,” Howden said. “Ironically, his wife Nancy’s father is the one that poked holes in his arguments about New Deal policies and convinced him to go another route.”

Similarly, Saturday Night Live famously highlighted Trump’s duplicity when he was running for office: he was a Republican before he became a Democrat; he was a Democrat before he became an Independent; he was an Independent before he became a Republican and ran for office. He supported LGBTQ+ rights as a celebrity but quickly kowtowed to conservative bigots leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election. Reports later exposed how Trump initially joined the race as a joke and planned on dropping out to endorse New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. However, these plans changed when it became apparent that he might actually win.

Celebrities have a responsibility to the American public, serving as role models to millions across the globe. However, individuals like Trump and West have used their fame to attract public attention when they do not truly desire serving the public. Although Jenner was able to positively use her popularity to bring the issue of her gender change to the forefront of the news, running for a position she has no qualifications for is taking the power of the spotlight too far.

This is not to say that celebrities do not have the right to or should not run for political office. Like all other Americans, they too should be able to do so if they have a true desire to change America for the better. But all prospective candidates must believe in something and fight for it. Experience is not imperative, but to stand up for a set of beliefs, advocating and having a plan for it is critical. 

“What I’ve seen with Jenner running for governor is that it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of substance or policy thus far regarding what she’s gonna do differently,” Howden said. “You got to bring something to the table.”

The American people must peel away the blinding scales of deception to acknowledge the potentially disastrous results of supporting celebrities who run just to fool around. While the chasm in political distrust is repulsive, turning to glowing celebrities is not the solution. Only through civic engagement can America bridge the gap between politics and daily life.

So, research candidates running for local and state elections and find someone who holds ideals that mirror what you cherish. As moderate Congressman John Curtis of Utah has said, that person may not be the flashiest celebrity nor the famous speaker on television; however, that person will be the individual who will constantly fight for you and what you believe in. Voters need to ask themselves, would that person be a celebrity like Jenner or Trump?