Why do we care what Lena Dunham thinks about Donald Trump? Well, for starters, you should try not to. Asking a celebrity for their political opinion can be both lazy and dangerous. Would you ask a taxi driver for life-saving medical advice? Hopefully, the answer is no. Obviously, any reasonable person would only ask a doctor for such medical advice. And why would any rational person do this? It is because the doctor is accredited and educated in the field of medicine. Most likely the taxi driver is not. Think about this logic and how it determines how we form our views and make decisions. Naturally, we seek out the advice and expertise of academics and professionals on important decisions, as opposed to the person walking down the street. Then, why do we actively seek out the political opinions of celebrities?
Celebrities Are Not Credible Sources
Celebrities can be characterized as individuals who have received significant fame as the result of their successful careers in entertainment, politics, and sports. They are not economists, foreign policy gurus, or legal scholars. Yet, despite this widely agreed upon notion, some individuals still attempt to follow the political advice of celebrities. Having a platform and the privilege to speak your voice doesn’t certify credibility. Even though Duck Dynasty attracts millions of viewers each week, the Robertsons are not credible sources to discuss matters regarding public policy. Thus, celebrities can be classified as false authorities. Listening to a celebrity’s opinion does not make you any more educated, it only opens you up to criticism because of potential laziness. This is not meant to be offensive or demeaning to you or your intelligence. It is meant to point out that with the widespread pervasiveness of the Internet and mass media, you have a seemingly infinite source of experts and scholars on any topic at your disposal.
Celebrities appeal to the masses because of four dimensions of their personalities that seem to be universal among celebrities: competence, excitement, sincerity, and sophistication. These characteristics lead us to view them as infallible and as role models. Unsurprisingly, they are often also conceived as heroes in our lives, as they have accomplished amazing feats, thus not only do we idolize them, but we try to emulate them. By attempting to emulate them, we often try to alter our political views to align with theirs.
If we all comprehend and follow the aforementioned logic that celebrities are not experts or scholars, then why do we seek out their political opinions?
There are several reasons why a significant percentage of society value the advice of celebrities and display a tendency to adhere to their advice. First, celebrities and athletes are idealized in our society, viewed as hierarchically above everyone else. Naturally, because they are viewed as “above” the common person, we idolize them. Unlike the common person, who we see in all their dimensions, including their flaws, athletes and celebrities are mostly depicted as flawless in their element. That is why it is shocking when a celebrity scandal occurs, as the perceived bubble of infallibility surrounding them bursts. Think for a moment about Tiger Woods and how sensationalized his affair became. His fan base who had revered him for years quickly abandoned him. He lost what makes celebrities appealing to us. He was no longer viewed as “above” the masses as his affair served as a testament to his fallibility.
Celebrities Influence Identity Development
For some individuals, predominately young adults, celebrities perform a role and present an influence on an individual’s identity development process. Why do we choose to dress like them even though we know that realistically, expensive clothing will not guarantee we will become famous? We know that it is irrational to believe that by getting an identical haircut as a celebrity will allow you to be afforded their talent, wealth, and appeal. Yet, we still choose to get the same haircut and wear similar clothing as them because we perceive these signs of our fandom to be synonymous with a unique and personal relationship with these celebrities. This conclusion made about the nature of our relationship with our favorite celebrity is referred to as a "parasocial relationship." Indicators of this type of relationship can include believing that the celebrity who you have a “relationship” with knows you and personally using first-person plural pronouns to refer to yourself and the celebrity. Essentially, we create a non-reciprocated relationship with someone who we have never even met before. This parasocial relationship allows for celebrities to have an influence on the identity development process of their followers. Thus, celebrities can potentially have significant influence on how their followers develop their political beliefs, as individuals attempt to model their attitudes and behaviors based on celebrities that they develop an attachment to. Individuals are more likely to emulate the characteristics of the celebrities they idealize if these individuals determine that they share some type of “special” relationship or bond with these celebrities. This false sense of a relationship with a celebrity, most likely an individual that you have never met, causes further displays of a willingness for a person to seek out the political opinions of these celebrities.
I am sure that you are thinking that individuals who believe that they have a special relationship or bond with their favorite celebrity are foolish. Think again! As irrational as this might sound, think about a role model you have or your favorite celebrity. Now, ask yourself, have you ever spent money on a poster or picture of them? Have you ever spent an excessive amount of money on a ticket to one of their shows, games, or performances? Do you feel like you know them? Have you spent time thinking or researching information about them? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are also guilty of developing a level of attachment to your favorite celebrity.
Admit it. Despite what you are inclined to claim, your favorite celebrity does, in fact, affect aspects of your life. Do not worry though, you are not alone. The majority of people deny that their favorite celebrities influence areas of their life and thinking. Yet, through highly reputable reports, it has been proven that approximately sixty percent of young adults who have a favorite celebrity alter their values to be more identical to that of those of their celebrity. Additionally, it has been concluded that celebrities are most likely to have an influence young adults’ attitudes regarding their work ethic and morality. Reflect upon why people are attracted to favor a specific celebrity. In its simplest terms, it is because we want to be similar to them in every aspect. We want to dress and act like them. Thus, it is not surprising that as Americans we seek the political opinions of celebrities, and accordingly think that we are susceptible to adopt some of their political views and promote the causes that they highlight.
Pundits Should Be Less Concerned About Celebrity Involvement in Politics Because Their Involvement Is Not Completely Bad
Recently, political commentators and pundits have been alarmed by celebrities having influence over the political opinions of the general public, despite the fact they hold no expertise in the public policies that they are advocating for. These pundits are fearful because of the role public opinion influences foreign policy decision making in either allowing the country to expand or shrink their efforts and objectives abroad. Commentators have increasingly discussed the rise in anti-intellectualism in the United States, as research has demonstrated that citizens are almost as likely to take cues about what political issues are important from celebrities as political experts. The concerns of these pundits are legitimate. Studies show that young voters increasingly have been seeking political viewpoints from celebrities and other individuals who are not experts nor academics. The results of this research highlight upon the fact that individuals who are attached to any degree to a celebrity identify the majority of the political rhetoric deriving from that celebrity as valid.
Yet, pundits should not be too skeptical of the effects of celebrity involvement in politics, because although it has increased from the 1950s, celebrities have always played a role in politics. Celebrities have historically provided a means through which citizens generally uninterested and removed from politics can engage in political discourse. They have been utilized by voters for decades in order to avoid learning about the issues directly from academic and reputable sources. The research on the effect of celebrities’ opinions on influencing public opinion on political issues has also produced varied results. Craig Frizzell, a distinguished Political Science professor at the University of Wisconsin, concluded from his research that citizens are more likely to adopt the viewpoint of experts as opposed to celebrities, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Frizzell’s research is monumental as it discredits the popularly held notion that celebrities have a significant influence on the political ideologies of citizens. Yet, a significant amount of scholars disagree with his findings. John Street, who is a professor at the School of Political, Social, and International Studies at the University of East Anglia, reaffirms the findings of Veer et al., which determined that celebrity endorsements are effective when registered voters are not enthusiastically political. Thus, even though it is likely that celebrities have a significant influence on the political views of the population, it is hard to say so with absolute certainty.
One area that undoubtedly celebrities have had a substantial influence in is in regards to promoting development projects in foreign countries. Private actors, the majority of whom are celebrities, have been proven to be more effective and efficient at advocating and promoting development projects than politicians. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio who assist refugee children and environmental preservation efforts, respectively, have utilized the platforms and influence that they are afforded to emphasize issues that they are passionate about. Both Jolie and DiCaprio have asserted themselves as prominent advocates for their causes by performing special roles in the United Nations, including serving as envoys and campaigners. Additionally, they encourage others to get involved. Thus, there are areas that celebrities intervene in issues that are deemed “political” that receive widespread popular support.
Celebrity Involvement in The 2016 Election
Undoubtedly, the 2016 presidential election has been the epitome for celebrity involvement in politics. How has the election demonstrated that celebrities’ ideas are valued in the American society? First, the most recent presidential election pitted arguably two of the most famous and powerful celebrity figures against one another. Hillary Clinton, on one hand, encompassed the ideals of a politician and celebrity throughout her campaign, as she was able to energize voters by befriending and highlighting her celebrity endorsements at her rallies, including Katy Perry and Jay-Z. Also, she was effective in convincing young voters to rally around her campaign by blending business, culture, and politics. On the other hand, Donald Trump proved to be possibly the most successful celebrity politician ever in American history. As the top executive of corporation worth billions of dollars and a host of a highly rated reality TV show, his wealth, influence, and business expertise were the foundational backbone of his campaign. The presence of two celebrity politicians in the 2016 Presidential Election has encouraged other celebrities to get involved in various facets of the election season.
The 2016 Presidential Election has even caused sports to be politicized, which really has seldom happened before. It has been the year of Colin Kapernick making headlines for kneeling during the National Anthem. Tom Brady has been attacked for his friendship with Donald Trump. And most recently, Stephen Curry has demonstrated a powerful response when asked about his opinions of President Trump. All of these political actions taken by celebrities have caused more attention to be devoted to the way in which celebrities affect the political development of citizens.
Let me leave you with the following thought. Just as you should not follow, nor seek out, the life-saving medical advice from a taxi driver instead of a doctor, you should try not to adopt the political beliefs of celebrities. Instead, find the doctor. Seek out the viewpoints of the political gurus, scholars, and academics.
Photo credit SLGCKGC, Creative Commons