In the current era of cancel culture merged with a divisive political climate, the role of celebrities in electoral politics and promoting social issues has undoubtedly changed. After President-Elect Joe Biden broke former President Barack Obama’s record for the most votes cast for a presidential candidate, there is a pressing need to examine this change and question whether this phenomenon should continue.
The expectation that celebrities will join in on political discourse has heightened since the 2016 election. There has been an onset of politically active influencers who have lobbied the public to become politically engaged and vote. Jason Alexander, Mayim Bialik, Yvette Nicole Brown, Jon Cryer, Tim Daly, Lea DeLaria, Richard Kind, Patina Miller and Dascha Polanco even put on chicken suits to encourage others to vote in a new PSA.
Kim Kardashian, who has recently chosen to pursue law, lobbied for the clemency of Alice Mare Johnson, who was sentenced to life behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense. Building close ties with the Trump administration, Kardashian has pledged to fight for prison reform, and has even helped free 17 inmates who were sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses.
However, the onset of politically active celebrities has not fared as well for other influencers, who have felt the pressure from their supporters to explicitly express their political alignment. Taylor Swift was highly criticized for her silence on political issues throughout her career, as well as her failure to formally endorse a presidential candidate in the 2016 election — which led to her immense public support of the Biden-Harris 2020 ticket and a stronger voice on the prevalent political issues.
Examining the public’s response to Swift’s silence in the 2016 election, their approval of Kardashian taking such a strong stance on prison reforms and, more broadly, celebrities’ push to vote, it begets the question:
Should Celebrities be Forced to Engage in Politics?
The short answer is no. However, arguments such as these rarely come without nuance.
I do believe that the platform celebrities have been given can be used to spread awareness on social issues, if they so choose. There are even times that celebrities should be urged to engage in political discourse, in particular about issues pertaining to sexism, racism and sexual assault in Hollywood.
In certain situations, silence from celebrities can also be interpreted as complacency, especially with issues that require social awareness in order to be legitimized. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, which saw an intense revival across social media, directly and rightfully criticized celebrities for their initial silence during a time of racial tension. This pushed celebrities into responding with Instagram posts or tweets expressing their support.
However, there is a distinction between demanding that white celebrities acknowledge their privilege and foster solidarity with their fans and coworkers of color, and forcing celebrities to give credible commentary on electoral politics and complex domestic and foreign issues. The BLM supporters pushed for simple acts of support that did not require an intricate knowledge of politics or racial dynamics in America. Not being racist and expressing one’s opposition to white supremacy can be done by anyone currently living in the United States, regardless of age or education.
The real problem with forcing celebrities to join conversations on electoral politics and other complex issues occurs when the public assumes that the celebrity knows anything about the subject at hand. Most celebrities are not political scientists, have not studied political science, nor have they acquired enough experience in the political system to be able to enter the wider political discourse.
Why does Taylor Swift’s hypothetical thoughts on Medicare for All matter if her socioeconomic status would never force her to be in a situation that she would be denied health care — or even receive low-quality care? Her distance from the real experiences of everyday Americans and lack of ample study on the topic would likely result in uninformed commentary.
One may ask that if a layperson does not have to have a political degree to comment on politics, why must celebrities? The average person does not have the type of platform that celebrities and influencers have. If a layperson spreads misinformation, then that information is not likely to reach millions of people. A celebrity, however, can spread misinformation faster than wildfire.
If Swift has the opportunity to perhaps influence many people to either be for or against Medicare for All, then I would rather have her refrain from making an uneducated hasty statement or a post that is only meant to make her followers think that she is well-versed in politics.
However, the assumption that people are readily swayed by celebrity endorsement has also been challenged by new research.
Research has shown that only 11% of the public would be more likely to vote for a candidate if they were formally endorsed by a celebrity, while 24% stated that celebrity endorsements would make them less likely to vote for the celebrity’s preferred candidate.
Generally, celebrities who do not choose to join the conversation on political issues — and who are forced into it by fans who believe that their platform could make a difference — latch on to the idea of voting. They emphasize the pressing need of every American to “have their voice heard” despite their political alignment, but in elections such as this one in which supporting the Republican Party meant supporting a racist who has enacted terrible policies, it does matter. The false notion that political parties do not matter, and one must just vote, is harmful.
It is interesting to note that majority of American voters say they oppose celebrities giving political endorsements, according to a American Barometer survey.
With the evidence pointing in the direction to the idea that celebrities should not and maybe do not influence public perception on politics, perhaps there should be a move toward accepting their political silence once again.
If a celebrity chooses to involve themselves in politics without pressure from their fans, they should amplify the voices of those more educated on the subject rather than attempt to make original commentary. No one should try forcing political statements out of celebrities who likely do not care nor understand the nuances of political issues. Let celebrities remain entertainers and let those with strong political education have major platforms to spread the proper information.