Our interest in celebrity politics is high because celebrity politics helped build America.
Celebrity politics date back to the beginning of the American Republic. Notably, America’s first president was its most famous citizen; George Washington.
In fact, George Washington’s celebrity is responsible for the existence of both the Constitution and the federal government. To explain, the Constitutional Convention only succeeded because Washington attended it. Similarly, the states only ratified the Constitution because Washington endorsed the document.
Celebrities as Symbols of Transformation
Finally, Americans only accepted and supported the federal government because Washington served as its first president. Thus, perhaps George Washington’s celebrity created America.
Consequently, it is easy to see why modern Americans so who much interest in celebrity politicians such as Donald J. Trump (R-Florida). In America, celebrities are often seen as transformative figures and the living embodiment of trends in the larger society.
For example, in the 1950s, movie star James Dean was a symbol of youthful rebellion and during the 1960s the Beatles symbolized a new cultural age. Today, many people view Trump as the living embodiment of white rage and working-class revolt against the wider society. Strangely, in an earlier age Trump was a living symbol of aggressive capitalism and over-the-top materialism.
Finally, today Olympian turned reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner is a symbol of changing morality and attitudes about sexuality. Interestingly, Jenner is trying to leverage her status as a symbol of transgender liberation into a political career. Jenner recently launched a campaign for governor of California as a Republican.
Celebrities shape American History
Historically, the United States has had five systems of national politics or party systems in its 232-year history as a republic.
Three of those party systems began with a popular celebrity politician who disrupted and sometimes overturned the existing political order. For example, the First Party System began when George Washington rejected the Continental Congress, the previous federal government, and embraced the Constitution.
The Second Party System began when the nation’s biggest celebrity, General Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee), abandoned the old Republican Party and joined the new populist Democratic Party. The Democrats used Jackson’s celebrity to capture the White House and smash the old political system built by the Founding Fathers.
The Fourth Party System began when two celebrity politicians launched disruptive revolts against their party’s leadership. To elaborate, William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska) almost wrecked the Democratic Party with a populist revolt against corporate Democrats. Then Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) almost destroyed the Republicans with a war on that party’s establishment.
Celebrity politics did not launch the Fifth Party System, but a celebrity president Ronald Reagan (R-California) brought that system to power.
How American Celebrity Politics Works
History shows how American celebrity politics works and how celebrity shapes our political system and our society.
Both ordinary Americans and political insiders embrace celebrity politicians because they see celebrities as disruptive figures. Interestingly, history supports the idea that celebrity can lead to political transformation.
First, both voters and politicians often see celebrities as independent actors who sit outside the established political system. One obvious assumption here is the belief people outside the system were not corrupted by it.
For example, in 1848 Americans elected General Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) President because he had not taken sides in the debate over slavery. Americans correctly viewed Taylor, ironically a large slave owner, as not part of the Southern Slave Power that controlled both the Democratic and Whig Parties.
Similarly, in the early 1900s many Americans viewed orators William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska) and Eugene C. Debbs (S-Indiana) as saviors because they rejected the political establishment. A few years later, the same voters turned to Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) because they viewed him as not being owned by Wall Street.
During the 1950s, Americans embraced Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) a professional soldier who had no obvious connections to either political party or Wall Street. During the 1990s, a cult grew up around entrepreneur turned presidential candidate H. Ross Perot (P-Texas) after he broke with both political parties.
In 2016, Donald J. Trump (R-New York) won election partially because Americans saw him as independent of the parties. However, in 2020, Trump lost the presidency after he became associated with the Republicans and their unpopular leadership.
Second, the public often believes celebrity politicians can often accomplish what ordinary political leaders cannot. For example, many Americans assumed the celebrity Trump could get the United States out of the unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The limits of Celebrity of Politics
In reality, however, celebrity politicians often clear the way for others to accomplish their agendas. For example, Andrew Jackson failed in his efforts to annex Texas, but his protegee President James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) accomplished that goal.
Theodore Roosevelt failed in his efforts to create an American welfare state. However, Theodore’s cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), a political insider, built part of that welfare state in his 1930s New Deal.
Similarly, celebrity President Ronald Reagan (R-California) failed in his efforts to demolish the federal welfare state. Yet, the consummate politician President William Jefferson Clinton (D-Arkansas) succeeded in partially dismantling welfare.
Today, another consummate politician, President Joe Biden (D-Delaware) could accomplish Trump’s goal of evacuating Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence celebrity politics can be effective, but there are severe limits.
When Celebrity Politics Fail
American history is full of examples of failed celebrity politics. For example, the Republican Party tried to supplant the collapsed Second Party System by running a larger-than-life celebrity General John C. Fremont for president in 1856.
Fremont; the swashbuckling explorer who blazed trails to the West Coast was seen as outside the corrupt and failed political system. A widespread personality cult developed around Fremont, but the general could not get enough votes to overcome the Democrats’ lock on national power.
However, four years later in 1860, a professional politician Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) took the Republicans to the White House and smashed the Slave Power during the Civil War. Thus, one can argue that Fremont laid the groundwork for Lincoln’s triumph in 1860 and Union victory in the Civil War.
Similarly, the three great celebrity politicians of the early 1900s, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene V. Debs, and Theodore Roosevelt all failed. Bryan’s effort to transform the Democratic Party into an anti-Corporate populist Christian entity failed.
Debs’ efforts to build an American Socialist Party capable of challenging the Democrats and Republicans went nowhere. Roosevelt’s attempt to build an American welfare state was premature.
The Power of Celebrity Politics
However, all three men laid the groundwork for future political changes. Notably, the Democratic Party adapted much of Debs’ socialist program, Bryan failed but dragged the Democrats to the Left, and Roosevelt’s New Nationalism set the stage for FDR’s New Deal.
Given this history, today’s celebrity politicians will fail, but their policies could succeed. Notably, there is much speculation that Biden will implement much of the Trump agenda, such as protectionist trade policies against China and a Middle East withdrawal.
History shows that Americans can expect many more celebrity politicians. We need to watch for those politicians because they could disrupt our entire political system.