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Celebrity Politicians Come Into Their Own

In a world where life sometimes imitates art, Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor with no previous political experience or apparent political interest, is now governor-elect of California.

This election was not merely a contest between a failed political insider and an energetic and creative outsider—though Arnold’s camp certainly tried to pitch the race in these terms. The real story is this: Arnold won because he’s a famous actor. His victory marks a milestone as celebrity politicians finally come into their own.

Celebrity politics has been in the works for quite a while. The first televised presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon demonstrated early on the power of visual images in politics. Kennedy “looked” vibrant and intelligent. Nixon did not.

The impact of the visual, unfortunately, is not the worst of it. The real loss with the rise of celebrity politics is the demise of substantive political debate. Rational discourse has been undermined by the sound bite. Political image makers look for catchy phrases that allow them to hook the electorate at some gut emotional level. Several recent examples include, “It’s the economy, stupid,” in the 1992 Clinton/Bush presidential race. With the Bush/Gore campaign in 2000 the catch phrase was “I will restore dignity to the Oval Office.”

Image makers don’t aim for voters’ heads where thinking may occur. Image makers aim for the emotions of voters—what they fear and what they dream.

Neil Postman, writing over 20 years ago in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, saw this trend coming and warned of the negative impact image politics would have on our political life.

Shaped by 30-second commercials and hour-long mini-dramas, Postman writes, Americans have come to believe that all problems can be solved easily and quickly. Politicians who use commercial-like sound bites that purport to advance political solutions are really only mirroring fantasies voters have about their problems. Image politicians don’t express themselves, Postman writes, “they express you.”

With the election of Arnold we see the logical extension of all this. Why take a politician and try to forge a carefully crafted persona to tap into voters’ fears and hopes, when you can just get a celebrity who has already done all that in countless movies? After all, if Arnold can beat up an army of bad guys in barely two hours, surely he can save California over the next four years. Voters, frustrated with seemingly inept leadership in the face of enormous economic and social problems cast their lot with a hero who promises them “I will not let you down.”

We could learn something here from Jesus if we wanted to. When two of his followers got into an argument once about which of them was the greatest, Jesus told them greatness lies in service to others. “The greatest among you will be servant to all,” he said.

That’s an interesting model for politicians—servants.

In the meantime we might worry if celebrity politics is likely to spread. I’ve always heard that “As California goes, so goes the country.” If so, what does that mean for the future of politics? Will auditions replace elections, and scriptwriters replace policy analysts. The big question, of course, is whether celebrity government will be a comedy or a tragedy.

James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.