What do Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney all have in common? (Besides the fact that they’re multimillionaires in possession of the sort of deft cinematic touch that enthralls America.)
If you guessed that they’re all card-carrying members of the “Re-elect Barry” club, you’re right. They’ve also all made individual contributions to Obama’s campaign that exceed the average American’s annual salary.
A yellowed MAD Magazine paperback from the early “˜70s first introduced me to the concept of celebrities throwing their cultural cache behind political candidates. It noted that Democrats had Woody Guthrie and Barbra Streisand to stump for them, while Republicans were forced to rely on boring country music stars. The more things change, eh?
While I thought it might be fun to debate which of our two esteemed parties attracts the coolest backers (I’ll see your Republican Sarah Michelle Gellar and raise you a Democrat Meryl Streep!), my class angst is acting up right now, leaving me rather disillusioned with the whole concept of celebrity endorsements.
I suspect (and a 2010 study at North Carolina State University supports this theory) that celebrities think they’re more politically influential than they actually are. That Lindsay Lohan mistakenly thought Obama would want her to hit the campaign trail for him in 2008, and that this facile bit of news garnered a lot of media attention, encapsulates how Western culture elevates ignorant celebrity activism at the expense of more informed, but less opulently sourced, opinions.
Criticizing the above video is like shooting proverbial fish in a barrel. The first time I watched it, when Demi Moore pledges “to smile more,”* I got really giddy in the same way I do when I’m about to tune into a reality show involving hot tubs. (I can’t help it, I just LOVE feeling smug sometimes). There are quite a few other questionable pledges, but the one that really gets me is when Ashton Kutcher pledges “to always represent my country with pride, dignity and honesty.” Now, I don’t care that his pledge doesn’t jibe with his prankster, stoner-dude persona. What bothers me is the presumption of Kutcher and other celebrities, who are not elected officials, who often display an alarming lack of basic understanding of politics and who are generally very disconnected from the day-to-day lives of the rest of America, that they “represent” us in some meaningful or inherently noble way.
I’m not saying political candidates should exclusively tout their (usually very tenuous) connections to Joe the Plumber-esque iterations of blue-collar America. That stuff is patronizing and sycophantic to the nth degree.
Nor do I want to discount candidates’ need to fundraise–certainly no one does that better than the rich and beautiful, Exhibit A being the unparalleled ability of Scarlett Johansson and Anna Wintour to gather up a bunch of models and intimidate them into voting.
But during a presidential election revolving heavily around themes of class and privilege on BOTH sides of the aisle, whether it’s Obama praising the Occupy movement or Republicans furiously Googling “Romney net worth” (seriously, it was the third suggestion when I started searching his name”¦), it’s imperative that candidates understand celebrity endorsements will appear suspect and even elitist to a wider swathe of Americans than usual.
More than ever, the onus is on candidates to demonstrate they are genuinely more focused on the needs of hardscrabble “normals” than the desires of the wealthy and immaculately coiffed. No one will buy that Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama have felt the sting of the recession on a personal level, but this election may well hinge on one of them proving they can best empathize with the plight of the 99%.
Because as much as the A-list may be ideologically invested in a certain candidate, it’s the normals whose personal lives will be most deeply affected by policy changes.** And it’s the normals who’ll be in the trenches doing the dirty work, running phone banks, passing out literature and organizing at the grass-roots level.
Come to think of it, it’s always the teeming mass of normals that decides elections. Figuring out how to get the political establishment and media industry to recognize and respect that is another matter.
*In light of Demi Moore’s very recent personal struggles, I feel a little weird about criticizing her pledge, particularly because Persephone is very invested in positivity and I think that’s what Demi was aiming for. However, in light of this video being published at a time when many Americans were losing their homes, to me it comes across as a little “let them eat cake.”
**There are some issues, like gay marriage and abortion rights, which cut across class barriers, but virtually anything fiscal is bound to wind up negatively affecting the lower classes more than the upper class. Conversely, I can’t think of any issue that could disproportionately harm the wealthy.