Ashley Judd is Ushering in the Age Of the Pop Culture Politician

Ronald Reagan may not have been the first modern-day celebrity to become a politician, but he was the first to rise to the position of president. A film and television actor before he became governor of California, it’s no stretch to say that some of the initial excitement over Reagan’s presidency was due to his celebrity and charisma. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political career paralleled Reagan’s, to an extent — the Terminator was also the governor of California. And although he’s obviously no movie star, Obama, too, has built himself into a pop figure — has any president’s portrait been so iconic as Shepard Fairey’s 2008 poster?

It’s clear that with the advent of modern-day celebrity, the age of the pop politician has arrived, if it didn’t exist already. Exhibit A: Ashley Judd, who’s starred in various movies, most recently Olympus Has Fallen, is rumored to be running for Senate in Kentucky. If she wins the Democratic primary, she’ll be challenging Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

Jack Dorsey isn’t a celebrity in the conventional sense — he’s not the star of a reality TV show and he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. But he did co-found a little website called Twitter, which hit over 200 million daily users this past December. He hopes to run for mayor of New York City someday — following in the footsteps of the city’s current billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

A further example is Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert (who himself mock-ran in the Republication national primary in 2012). Colbert Busch recently announced her intention to run for Congress in South Carolina, and has since won the Democratic primary.

The idea of a “popular” politician could have its merits — perhaps people not normally interested in politics might take a closer look if someone they recognize is running for office. But take an example from history: the first televised presidential debate between Nixon and JFK in 1960. Nixon had recently injured himself and was sickly and pale as a consequence of his time in the hospital, while Kennedy appeared tan and healthy. Those who listened to the debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner, while those who watched on TV thought that Kennedy was the clear victor.

After the arrival of television, good looks and charm have essentially become a prerequisite for a candidate for public office in the U.S. But if voters let the “celebrity” of a candidate cloud their judgment on the candidate’s real qualifications, it’s to the government’s detriment.

Dorsey, Judd, and Colbert Busch don’t have any political experience in the conventional sense. That doesn't mean they’re not intelligent, of course, but politics and operating in the political world requires a degree of competency that their celebrity doesn’t automatically qualify them for. All the TV credits and charm can’t make up for real experience and intellect. One shouldn’t have to have a celebrity’s charisma and looks to get elected to public office.