On Friday, Senator Bernie Sanders will visit Duke’s campus for a public conversation with Reverend William J. Barber II, former president of the North Carolina NAACP. Unsurprisingly, tickets for the event sold out within hours, attracting attendees eager to hear thoughtful dialogue on policy issues as well as people flocking to snapchat a celebrity politician. While many know of Sanders for his decades-long advocacy on issues such as healthcare and labor rights, since the 2016 election season, Sanders has also become a pop culture icon, galvanizing a millennial fanbase attracted to his #feelthebern social democratic platform.
The phenomenon of the celebrity politician is nothing new. U.S politicians—Kennedy and Reagan in particular—have always represented iconic popular culture figures. More recently, however, an unlikely, direct path linking Hollywood and Washington has opened up. Following the Golden Globes last week, social media clamored for Oprah Winfrey to run for president with a flurry of “#Oprah2020” hashtags. Since the election of former reality TV mogul Donald Trump to presidential office, the growing list of celebrities who have hinted at running for office include Kanye West, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Mark Cuban.
Part of this phenomenon is due to the changing information environment—social media and the 24-hour news cycle have transformed politics into a branding exercise, rewarding personas who can captivate audiences. After the 2016 election season drama and a year of constant scandals and scenes, politics has regrettably transformed itself into a spectacle. From gripping commentary of White House intrigue on CNN to the sold-out Trump tell-all Fire and Fury, the line dividing politics and entertainment has become blurred. Furthermore, growing cynicism about the political process has sparked demand for charismatic moral leaders. Against a political establishment seen as corrupt, bureaucratic and out-of-touch, as well as a President whom many view as morally bankrupt, Americans yearn for leaders who can inspire and understand them. Who better to do that than our beloved pop culture heroes?
Yet expecting politics to be both inspiring and exciting can be problematic when it causes people to think less critically about the life-altering issues at stake. In our search for charismatic heroes, we tend to overlook other qualities of effective leadership. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s branding as a “career politician” with decades of experience provoked cynicism and backlash, while President Trump’s status as a political outsider was praised. However, the complex policies that affect our lives require not dashing heroes but experts with political experience, however drab and uninspiring they may seem. As politics becomes dramatized and sensationalized, leaders and our fellow citizens also become one-dimensional characters in a Victorian morality play: heroes and villains; “Crooked Hillary” and “Lyin’ Ted”; “coastal elites” and “basket of deplorables.” The drama, in turn, reduces American voters into spectators; as Americans raptly follow national politics through headlines, late-night comedy pundits and social media movements, less exciting forms of civic engagement like local elections continue to receive disappointingly low turnouts.
Thoughtful engagement with politics requires civic skills and education—so-called “political resources.” For many Americans who lack those resources, particularly those of low socioeconomic status, active, genuine participation in politics is undoubtedly difficult. Those who are empowered with these resources, however, have a responsibility to exercise their political privilege. At Duke, students have ample opportunities to critically engage with local and national politics. Just last month, the University hosted lectures with Reince Priebus and John Podesta. Taking our interest in politics beyond Page Auditorium and social media pages, and to the ballot boxes in local elections that have real consequences for the city we live in, is what we as Duke students should strive for. Rather than being spectators within the Duke bubble, we should seek to be active participants in the democratic process—no matter how “bland” waiting in line to vote may seem.
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