The celebritization of politics is deeply corrosive

The reduction of politics to entertainment, bite-sized trivia and personality clashes is antithetical to constructive conversation and meaningful change

Joe Biden’s election as the 46th President of the United States has led many to hope that this marks the end of what has been labelled “Trumpism”. Aside from referencing Trump’s policies and views, this is broadly used to refer to a style of politics characterised by crude soundbites, outlandish personal attacks on opponents, and an appeal to populism. While the focus of criticism should be Trump’s policies, rather than his decorum,  all of these things are undoubtedly more expected of reality TV and gossip magazines than political leaders. The manner in which televised debates were conducted, with many taking to Twitter to laugh at Biden’s one liners and Trump’s ludicrous comments, are further testament to the manner in which politics has been reduced to entertainment.

The celebritization of politics is of course not unique to America, although for obvious reasons it is the clearest example. The fact that a man who is famous for his appearance on The Apprentice is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a testament to the increasingly commodified nature of global politics. It seeks to normalise the fact that politicians are celebrities or entertainers, no matter how damaging their policies are, when their job is in fact to represent the people who elected them.

“Political debates are game shows, with conversation reduced to a series of pre-prepared one liners.”

The proliferation of social media and its increasingly fleeting, bite-sized forms is often at a detriment to substantial debate. Theodor Adorno coined the theory of the “culture industry”, claiming that as popular culture becomes increasingly trivial and sensationalist, we begin to  encounter a pseudo-reality rather than reality itself, as we are constantly bombarded with increasingly homogenous subject matter which infiltrates every sphere of daily life; political debates are game shows, with conversation reduced to a series of pre-prepared one liners. Adorno was deeply critical of anti-Vietnam war songs, popular among artists like Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, whose lyrics lamented how unbearable the war was. Adorno argued that the utter fixation with transforming all subject matter into “content” meant that “they take the horrendous and make it somehow consumable.” At the intersection of internet humour and politics, the ease with which people may mock the spectacle of Trump’s outlandish statements, can arguably erase the genuine human suffering that stems from slogans like “build a wall.”

This celebritization of politics is two-fold; politicians act like celebrities, and celebrities are expected to act as political polemicists. While it’s extremely positive that movements like Black Lives Matter or Me Too have entered popular consciousness, the age of social media often sees uproar at various singers or actors online for failing to tweet or post on Instagram vocally supporting these movements. The argument that celebrities should “use their platform,” or else they are a certified bigot is disingenuous, and such denunciations are often carried out with quasi-religious zeal aimed more at virtue signalling than anything constructive. The idea that celebrities’ support is the sole measure of validity for a movement is disempowering to people campaigning on the ground. For example, large swathes of women and young people poured huge amounts of energy into campaigning for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. The amendment was repealed due to tireless organising, not celebrity endorsement.

“The overlap of celebrity culture and politics also results in campaigns being dominated by personalities, rather than operating in a community-led way.”

Blindboy Boatclub often receives attention for coming out with truistic opinions such as “you shouldn’t be sexist or racist” or “homelessness is bad” on his popular podcast. These are by no means groundbreaking statements, yet receive disproportionate praise due to the visibility and popularity of the proponent. Of course, it is positive when somebody uses their platform for good, and they may come from a genuine place. However, the problem arises when those in the public eye become self-appointed spokespeople about class-based marginalisation, or discrimination they have no authority to speak on, when those directly affected are frequently dismissed.

The idea that celebrities should be the vanguard of social movements to which they have contributed nothing is patronising to people who are affected by, and campaign on, these issues. Celebrity isn’t needed to validate the humanity of others. A hyperfocus on performative politics and celebrity social media conduct also seeks to oversimplify the issue at hand; racism doesn’t cease to exist because a famous person posted a black square on Instagram. The fixation with celebrities declaring their political beliefs is also indicative of politics concerned more with aesthetics than material change. Obsessively praising or criticising celebrities for posting on social media about political causes also gives way to “woke washing”,  broadly meaning that terms such as feminist are adopted, despite the proponent simultaneously upholding structures or practises which are antithetical to the aforementioned word. Outlets like Buzzfeed constantly produce clickbait articles with titles such as “Kim Kardashian Considers Herself a Feminist,” or “17 Celebrites Who Have the Right Idea About Feminism.” At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who calls themselves a feminist, if they make inordinate amounts of money advertising weight loss methods and cosmetic surgery to teenage girls.

“The fact that USI has an award for ‘Best Student Activist of the Year’ is testament to the fact that activism is reduced to a hobby or promotional exercise.”

The notion that marginalised groups of people need saving or celebrity heroes is not only patronising, but hypocritical, particularly when one looks at figures like Bono, who, while infamous for tax avoidance, preaches about the need for his fans to give to charity. The overlap of celebrity culture and politics also results in campaigns being dominated by personalities, rather than operating in a community-led way. While slightly different to the aforementioned examples, the same trend of hero worship can have detrimental effects on activism, in which self-appointed leaders set the agenda, and success is measured not by results, but by how it measures up to the ideals of activist cliques. The Trotskyist left in Ireland (Solidarity and People Before Profit alliance) are infamous for using campaigns to promote their public reps, and turning social movements into promotional exercises. Again, this ultimately turns organic campaigns into image-bolstering exercises to be abandoned when the next shiny topic comes along.

The commodification of political values has extended beyond “feminist”-embossed t-shirts made in sweatshops, and has now made activism itself a brand. It is not uncommon to see “socialist” or a similar political label in a Twitter bio as an assertion of one’s own personal aesthetic, rather than as an indication of striving for material change. The fact that USI has an award for “Best Student Activist of the Year” is testament to the fact that activism, particularly student activism, is reduced to a hobby or promotional exercise. This enforces the idea that there are some people who simply have the correct ideas and methods, rather than a model where people engage in a grassroots way. These kinds of awards only serve to reinforce students feeling alienated from SUs, and viewing them as an “in-crowd” or clique. It also contributes to the understandable scepticism many have towards SU candidates who run for election, using issues such as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) or housing to bolster their image, despite no previous allegiance or connection to these issues. This only exacerbates the often reasonable accusations of careerism directed at SU candidates.

Ultimately, politics shouldn’t be about personalities. Engaging in cult-like hero worship, and prioritising performativity over action only seeks to further disempower people, at a time when we should be building alliances and centering communities.