Famously elusive about her political leanings, pop sensation Taylor Swift recently went beyond her usual neutral get-out-and-vote message to endorse a Democrat candidate in her home state of Tennessee.
This is a big deal, because Swift’s post made a splash with her 112 million Instagram followers, contributing to a huge spike in electoral registrations—over 100,000 new sign-ups by under-30s within two days of her post.
Americanisation of Politics
While commonplace in the States, should we be worried about celebrities having a huge influence on our democracy like this here, an “Americanisation of New Zealand politics” as commentator Bryce Edwards put it?
Do we have a celebrity problem, and what can we do about it?
Writing in response to the Green Party’s 2008 election strategy featuring sports stars and actors on their billboards, at launch events, and in electorate battles, Edwards quoted scholars who said celebrity politics is “a despicable trend that epitomises the banal and the mindless in public life, empowering image over substance and producing pseudo-charismatic leadership.”
Style (or ‘Stardust’ as it is known these days) over substance was a last resort, he said, when leaders have run out of ideas.
I think he’s right.
Fortunately, while parties haven’t always had good ideas, they haven’t resorted to the temptation to wheel in celebrities either.
Alongside Western Europe and Australia, New Zealand has been, according to academics Paul T’ Hart and Karen Tindall, “remarkably impervious to such celebrity inroads into electoral politics.
They helpfully break celebrity politics into categories, including Celebrity Endorsers like Swift; Celebrity Politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger and a certain President of the United States who run for office; and Politician-Celebrities like Justin Trudeau of Canada or Emmanuel Macron of France, politicians who show star-power in office.
There has been little evidence the past decade here of the first two kinds, a few All Blacks and a Warrior Princess notwithstanding.
We are however, becoming addicted to the last kind, the Politician-Celebrity.
First Winston Peters and John Key, and now, Jacinda Ardern.
I don’t think this is not necessarily a problem, provided that they have the policy substance to match their star-power.
Ardern certainly has the charisma, but time will tell whether her policies will have the substance to make New Zealand the place she dreams it could be.
Swift ended her post with a plea: “Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values…for a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway.”
Citizens, not fans
She’s right. For a healthy democracy we should be citizens not fans, voting for those whose values and policies we align with.
It is up to each of us to look under the stardust on the surface; our education must go further than just following the rich and famous.
If we see more stardust settling on our politics we should be wary, and if it’s without substance, we better shake it off, fast.
Kieran Madden is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.