Written by Libby Taylor
Nowadays it seems that more and more politicians blur the line with what it means to be a ‘celebrity’. Political ‘fandoms’ aren’t a completely new thing; in Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister, her very own fan-base was made up of those who called themselves Thatcherites. But in recent years, especially through the power of social media, politicians have been able to easily grow the number of their political fans.
Politicians use social media to their advantage. It allows them to market especially to the younger generations, using sites such as Twitter to connect to a public that may not necessarily tune into party political broadcasts or keep up with the news. If a politician is able to reach out to people in this way, showing they are aware of the latest trends, it has the power to cause a ‘ripple effect’, with others jumping on the bandwagon and supporting whoever their peers are currently ‘stanning’, with no clue as to why.
In the latest US election, Joe Biden appeared all over social media sites such as Twitter and TikTok. Biden’s PR team even made an island on the popular Nintendo game Animal Crossing. Named Biden HQ, this allowed Biden to communicate with a large section of the population and integrate politics into the digital gaming/entertainment world. These fan made edits and short videos of now President Joe Biden had parallels to those made for celebrities when they are performing or posing on the red carpet. This was the same for Vice President Kamala Harris who is celebrated amongst women as a ‘Girl Boss’ with plenty of edits reflecting this sense of female empowerment. Whilst it is good to support politicians and hope for their success, it is also important to remember that whoever you vote for, when in power it will be their policies not them as a person who will affect the lives of citizens.
The danger of celebritizing politics became clear when Donald Trump, who had already obtained ‘celebrity status’ in the US, was voted in. Although he gained and there still remains large numbers of pro-Trump loyalists, having a celebrity become the most powerful man in America, raises questions about the stability of American politics. Trump was able to use his established TV personality to drum up enthusiasm for fake news, false statistics and borderline dictatorial legislation, the seriousness of his effect on this section of the population accumulating in the Capitol Hill riots at the end of 2020. Another example of this dangerous combination of celebrity and politics is Kanye West who ran for president in the 2020 election. Similarly to Trump, he used Twitter to air his radical views and conjure up support to try and get him into the White House.
Here in Britain, politicians are less idolised, but this process of celebritization still occurs. Jeremy Corbyn has his own loyal fanbase. His fans chant his name during songs in clubs or at festivals, and it is hard to find an independent shop in most cities that do not stock Corbyn merchandise. Online, there are also plenty of Facebook groups dedicated to supporting him, acting as online communities for Labourites who support Corbyn to connect. The same was seen when Ed Miliband had his own huge fanbase who called themselves the ‘Milifandom’. Back in 2015, thousands of young girls took to Twitter to proclaim their affections of the previous Labour Leader. Although most posts were comical, a lot of the ‘Milifans’ were actively engaged in politics and even studied the subject at school.
A very popular politician right now is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the current US representative for New York. Better known as AOC, she has become particularly popular with millennials. This is evident in her nearly nine million strong followers on Instagram and twelve million on Twitter (accurate as of 30th January 2021)- beating Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who, at the time of writing stands at 6.7 million. Through using social media platforms, AOC is able to reflect her political views whilst also promoting exactly what she is doing to aid the country, taking responsibility of her public image to promote themes of inclusivity and women’s rights. This is something not many politicians have been able to achieve, especially older politicians who struggle to connect as well to the younger generations who were born into the age of social media.
So, is this process of celebritising politicians a good or a bad thing?
Whilst some people may think it is a good thing to support the individual politician, especially if they are advocating or actively doing what they feel agree with, this can lead to separating a politician from their politics. Stereotypical celebrities such as musicians, actors, and social media personalities are there to provide a form of entertainment. Their public personas are usually there to make them seem ‘admirable’, attracting more people to support their work and thus allow them to earn a hefty income. Due to the construction of an online profile, fans think that they know their idols on a personal level, defending their actions as ‘out of character’. This is especially true during the Covid-19 pandemic, many celebrities have been supported by fans when they have clearly broken lockdown rules. When this kind of loyal support is reflected onto politicians, it becomes more damaging, due to the responsibilities and influence that come with their job title. Their role isn’t necessarily to be liked because in Britain especially, when you vote for an individual you are voting for the entire party. By supporting a politician enough for them to reach celebrity status causes one to be blinded by their standpoints, seeing them as doing no wrong.
Whilst both politicians and celebrities are public figures, and both have an obligation to the public in terms of fulfilling a purpose, the former to entertain and the latter to serve their country- some political families hold some form of celebrity status. The biggest being the Obama family, who with their personalities and family values further increased support for the former president. It is now their status as ‘well-known celebrities’ among the American people that allow both Barack and Michelle Obama to continue work on issues such as climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than specific political involvement. This however shows how celebritization of politicians can be a good thing. Encouraging younger people to get involved in politics, especially if they are from underrepresented or BAME communities is dependent on those such as Michelle Obama or AOC being active role models for the next generation of politics.
Overall, to become a successful candidate for a position of authority in any international governmental body, there needs to be a balance of politics and charisma. With power comes great responsibility, and with any type of celebrity using social media, there needs to be a careful balance between generating good and generating hate. This is particularly true for politicians, as the so called ‘rule makers’ of society. Therefore, although these two worlds can interlink successfully, a clear distinction between an ‘entertainment celebrity’ and a ‘political celebrity’ must always be remembered.