How the Cult of Celebrity Destroys Our Political Culture

Charlie Arlinghaus

October 29, 2014

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Our political culture is being destroyed by a cult of celebrity. Slowly but surely any meaningful discussion of ideas is being crowded out by personalities and the occasional meaningless poll number. Campaigns will never really become a battle of philosophies and spreadsheet but our state’s obsession with famous figures ensures that politics and policy resembles Entertainment Tonight more than the Nightly Business Report.

New Hampshire has the misfortune to be home to the first Presidential Primary. It has unfortunately turned us into political creatures who worship political celebrity, preferring the allure and supposed glamour of nationally famous politicians (at least famous to cable news groupies) to any real attempt to get to know local politicians and understand what new ideas they would each inflict on us.

The activist base of both parties is fascinated by political celebrity. Hold a candidate forum and a handful of people or perhaps a dozen will show up to hear those who would represent us tell us what they stand for. On the other hand, Bill Clinton shows up and hordes turn out to hear him. Technically, he’s there to push the politicians seeking office but crowds in this presidential primary state are reliving the supposed good old days.

That same fascination and political star gazing extends to much of the political media. Clinton explaining a federal candidate’s positions would be meaningful but it’s disappointing to hear reporters gushing “The Comeback Kid is Back in New Hampshire!” Clinton’s fame in the primary chronicles was that he turned a second place finish here into a quasi-victory by saying “New Hampshire, tonight, has made Bill Clinton the Comeback Kid.”

Arguably, those reporters who pride themselves on writing the first, rough draft of history should be interested – to at least some degree – in explaining the substance of that history. Perhaps we can forgive the star struck giddiness when faced with a famously charismatic former president of these United States. But surely that giddiness ought not to extend to every politician from away who happens to visit like Elizabeth Warren, Chris Christie, or George Pataki.

Charlie Perkins, long time New Hampshire journalist and former editor of this paper, commented recently “Every time a key NH political reporter covers a surrogate’s rally, one issue-focused story doesn’t get written or broadcast. Just say no.”

Perkins is quite correct and has put his finger on a problem with both modern campaigning and reporting. Celebrity has a tendency to crowd out substance. We cover extra personalities at the expense of message. For candidates, the coverage of the supposedly larger personality may offer reflected stature but it tends to overshadow any ability to deliver a campaign theme or message.

But, in an era of fewer and fewer outlets for coverage, the celebrity is an easier way to make it into the newspapers or onto the airwaves. Nonetheless, it comes with a price.

Watch the coverage lately. To be sure, the major candidates in each party are touring this restaurant or that pharmacy with a known national figure. Occasionally, they even hold an old fashioned rally with the celebrity. The coverage focuses on the fact of the appearance – “McCain and Havenstein greet voters in local restaurant.”  Or “Warren holds rally with Shaheen.”

Is this persuasive? It certainly shouldn’t be: one famous officeholder endorses the candidate of his or her own party. Who’s surprised here? On another level, it is particularly unhelpful to the would-be future officeholder.  The appearance overshadows your ability to tell me what you believe and how it differs from my other choice in the election. If all you want me to know is that you are a party member in good standing then I suppose this works. But I learn nothing much about what you want to do.

The celebrity is useful for the reporter too. Rather than sift through a hodge-podge of inarticulate prose to find the newsworthy proposal, the famous person provides drama and a story. Readers and listeners are, after all, not particularly interested in substance so why not give them the political version of Entertainment Tonight?

Perhaps no one is to blame.  The political celebrity has an ego boost from campaigning in the first presidential primary state. The candidate is happy to be covered and doesn’t have to get into too much detail.  Readers and watchers get an easy story with pretty pictures.  In the end, perhaps, we get what we deserve.