The Political Celebrity

We spy on them while they take beach vacations. We follow them around as they roam the country on quasi-political bus tours. We fall head over heels for their attractive features, commenting on their looks more so than on their policies. We wear their T-shirts, put up their posters and read about them in TMZ or the National Enquirer just as often as in the New York Times.

They are not rock stars or movie stars. They are not models or comedians. They are our politicians, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish their politics from the spectacle of their personal lives.

From a theoretical perspective, there is not much wrong with our celebrity-like obsession with our politicians. All else being equal, an individual with celebrity appeal can be just as effective in representing his or her constituents as someone without such appeal. A study in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations found that the “celebrity politician is consistent with a coherent account of political representation.” It could be argued that a fascination with our politicians allows for more accountability in the political process, as we are more inclined to follow the politician’s every move.

Yet, in practice, the conflation of the personal with the political is becoming a conundrum for our democracy: It highlights a central question our generation must tackle in an age of technology and a general lack of true privacy coupled with a public fixation on the personal actions of our politicians. That question is, how should we separate our representatives’ personal lives from their political lives?  

The problem of political celebrity is most recently evident in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sex scandal — perhaps better known, in the world of Twitter hashtags, as “Weinergate.” This scandal wasn’t really a scandal until Weiner’s admission that his Twitter account had not been hacked, but rather, he had sent the inappropriate image and others to various women. The reaction of the media and the tabloids was immediate, incessant, and indignant. True to political form, calls for Weiner to resign echoed throughout the halls of Congress, most notably from members of his party, despite the fact that a majority of his constituents want him to stay.

This is the dark side of political celebrity. This is where we (the media, engaged citizens, and bystanders of political spectacle) confuse a lack of personal integrity with an inability to carry out the duties of one’s office. This is where we waste time on the superficial at the expense of the substantive.

Most agree that Weiner’s actions were indecent and more than a little creepy; yet, his actions have little or no relevance to his duties as a congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, he may have lied about the scandal initially, but he has no obligation to tell the truth about such a personal matter. Further, as a congressman, his oath is to the Constitution and to the duties of his office, not to the morals of a citizenry.

Lying beneath the rubble of this scandal is a coterie of others — from the John Edwards' sex scandal to that of Mark Sanford. When a scandal, particularly a sex scandal, breaks it more or less ends a political career. If we continue to end political careers based solely on personal (and legal) failings that have no bearing on an individual’s fitness for political office, we will end many of our generation’s political careers before they even begin. Our generation has grown up around the lure of Facebook and the trappings of sexting; and while the self-taken photographs of Weiner belie an eerie narcissism, similar photographs adorn the profiles of many a 20-something on MySpace and other social networking sites.

All politicians make mistakes and have eccentricities and if their oddities do not conflict with their duties and are not illegal, we need to stop caring. If we are to ensure that we give talented and committed individuals a fair chance at governing, we must find a way to separate what is purely personal from the purely political. It is often difficult to make this separation. There may be disagreements, and it is true that there are personal failings — such as racism, sexism and homophobia — that directly relate to one’s political duties; yet, our nation and our generation will be better off if we take the time to parse the distinction before we call for resignation.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Matthew Clair

Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard. He regularly contributes to The Diverse Arts Project.

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