Shaking off stardust politics
Famously elusive about her political leanings, pop sensation Taylor Swift recently went beyond her usual neutral get-out-and-vote message to endorse a Democrat candidate in her home state of Tennessee. This is a big deal, because Swift’s post made a splash with her 112 million Instagram followers, contributing to a huge spike in electoral registrations—over 100,000 new sign-ups by under-30s within two days of her post.
While commonplace in the States, should we be worried about celebrities having a similarly big influence on our democracy, an “Americanisation of New Zealand politics” as commentator Bryce Edwards put it? Do we have a celebrity problem, and what can we do about it?
Writing in response to the Green Party’s 2008 election campaign featuring sports stars and actors on their billboards, at launch events, and in electorate battles, Edwards quoted scholars who said celebrity politics is “a despicable trend that epitomizes the banal and the mindless in public life, empowering image over substance and producing pseudo-charismatic leadership.” Style (or stardust as it’s known these days) over substance was a last resort, he said, when leaders have run out of ideas. I think he’s right.
Style (or stardust as it’s known these days) over substance was a last resort when leaders have run out of ideas.
Fortunately, while parties haven’t always had good ideas, they haven’t tended to resort to the temptation to wheel in celebrities instead. Alongside Western Europe and Australia, New Zealand has been “remarkably impervious to such celebrity inroads into electoral politics,” according to academics Paul t’Hart and Karen Tindall who have studied the phenomenon.
They helpfully break celebrity politics into categories, including: Celebrity Endorsers like Swift; Celebrity Politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger and a certain President of the United States who run for office; and Politician-Celebrities like Justin Trudeau of Canada or Emmanual Macron of France, politicians who show star-power in office.
There has been little evidence the past decade here of the first two kinds, a few All Blacks and a Warrior Princess notwithstanding on the endorsement front. Perhaps it’s our love of the fair go or maybe our suspicion of tall poppies. We are however, becoming addicted to the last kind, the Politician-Celebrity. We had years of John Key, and now, Jacinda Ardern is very much in the limelight.
It’s up to each of us to look under the stardust on the surface; our education must go further than just following the rich and famous.
There’s nothing wrong with our politicians having big personalities, as long as they have the substance to back it up. Ardern certainly has the personality, as she displayed in her recent trip to the States, but time will tell whether her Government and policies will have what it takes to make New Zealand the place she dreams it could be.
Swift ended her post with a plea: “Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values…for a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway.”
Celebrities sometimes get it right. For a healthy democracy we should be citizens not fans, voting for those whose values and policies we align with. It’s up to each of us to look under the stardust on the surface; our education must go further than just following the rich and famous. If we see more stardust settling on our politics we should be wary, and if it’s without substance, we better shake it off, fast.