From ‘We, the People’ to the Power of People Magazine

Aspiring politicos have long tried to capitalize off the power of celebrity stardust, but with the increased popularity of late-night television and the ubiquity of the internet, these connections have been amplified and the volume of celebrity endorsements increased. From Frank Sinatra’s campaign song for John F. Kennedy, to the ascent of a B-level star at Warner Brothers (Ronald Reagan), to the election of a 14-season reality TV star, the undeniable relationship between America’s entertainment and culture machine and national politics has become a seemingly permanent marriage, for better or for worse. And the 2020 Democratic primary is no different, as the competition to garner the support from the popular and the beautiful has continued its natural progression.

The laundry list of celebrity endorsements for then-Senator Barack Obama helped propel his 2008 candidacy even before 2008, working in tandem with a unique capitalization of the internet and social media, which continued through the entirety of his presidency. The Hollywood endorsements, from Oprah to Kim Kardashian and Magic Johnson to George Clooney, brought fundraising dollars to the junior senator and buttressed his own cool factor.

Although such relationships are nothing new, Obama’s campaign and presidency heightened D.C.’s special attraction to New York and LA’s media scenes in the digital age. More than Richard Nixon’s “Sock it to me” moment or Bill Clinton’s sax solo, the Obama Team’s combination of precisely calibrated celebrity endorsement announcements and in-person events around the country (a science described by then-campaign event coordinator Alyssa Mastromonaco), coupled with “new media” tools from Obama’s then-relatively young campaign, set a new template for future campaigns.

“Pop culture and the president have been coequal since the very beginning,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, in an interview with the Prospect. “Political elections by definition are part of the popular culture.” The uniqueness of Obama’s campaign may be how deeply he leaned into this fact, and how well he was able to perform outside of the DC news media bubble space.

Oprah Winfrey was the first celebrity to endorse Obama—in September, 2006, before he even declared his candidacy. For relatively obscure candidates—as Obama was then—celebrity endorsements can make a difference, providing at minimum a media bump that can yield segments on television news or videos online. “Celebrity endorsements are a way to break through the noise,” Thompson says. “Candidates want the attention and fame of celebrity to brush off on them.” They’re often mutually beneficial for celebrities as well, who can further advance their own brands with a strategic political endorsement.

As a campaign progresses, celebrity endorsements can translate to further outreach, with candidates directly participating in entertainment media themselves. Obama did this countless times during his presidency, with numerous appearances on late night comedy shows, in addition to an episode of Netflix’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” the YouTubers interview roundtable, and the interview mentioned in every Obama staffer memoir as “saving” the Affordable Care Act, on, “Between Two Ferns.”

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“This is our American currency. If you can’t be a part of that how, can you lead this country?” says Stephanie Young, a former Obama White House Senior Public Engagement Advisor in an interview with the Prospect. “I would say if you cannot [engage American pop culture], you can’t be president of the United States.” Young adds that Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns wasn’t an outlier. Obama’s fluid transitions from the briefing room to the green room was the model, and one that today’s candidates attempt to replicate. Thompson says each candidate confronts “complex calculus” in establishing their identity, so there isn’t a set formula anyone can copy to be successful. Candidates have to find their own winning rhythm.

Few have been able to capture the same air of cool and pop culture fluency that Obama did, but strategic openness to the pop culture and entertainment media has made the difference already in the road to 2020. Millennial Pete Buttigieg owes much of his rise to the top tier of presidential contenders to his willingness to do any and all media when he launched his campaign. Early interviews with “Pod Save America” turned into Time, Vogue and Out magazine features and made the unknown former mayor of the fourth biggest city in Indiana identifiable — at least to politics news junkies. These photogenic features turned profitable for his campaign when Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour held a fundraising event for Buttigieg in her Manhattan townhouse last fall.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has bolstered her online presence with casual videos of celebrity phone calls with such supporters as U.S. Women’s National Team soccer star Meghan Rapinoe on leadership and Fab 5 beauty guru Jonathan Van Ness on healthcare. JVN called the health-care industry a “fucking racket” and became a surrogate for Warren’s health care plan, sharing his past struggles to pay for HIV medication. Within hours, both of these videos got thousands of views and shares.

The Democrat who has most captured the attention of the country’s pop culture icons, however is Bernie Sanders. Like Joe Biden, Sanders came into this election cycle as an established national figure. The two are also the oldest candidates in the field, but unlike Biden, who has been criticized for his outdated references, Sanders has created a magnetic pull to the country’s youngest voters and to a sizable share of the entertainment industry that once fell for Obama.

Sanders has benefited from digital-native content drawn from appearances on popular news comedy shows like Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix show, “Patriot Act,” and from numerous celebrity Twitter and Instagram posts endorsing him. He’s helped build his support from sit-down interviews with rappers Cardi B and Killer Mike. He’s also won a consistent place in the late-night comedy joke rotation.

In Sanders’s case, celebrities have been attracted to him, and then his campaign has used its creative license to show off these endorsements. “Bernie doesn’t know who Killer Mike is. Killer Mike found out who Bernie was,” Young says.

The new media cocktail of off-the-cuff status updates and tweets mixed with the “realness” of unscripted television has changed the standard for how many people rate a candidate’s authenticity. This has increased the necessity for candidates to enter the entertainment world and come off comfortable in that space, whether that’s the “Breakfast Club,” “The View,” or “The Daily Show.” Young describes this dynamic as a “hunger” for candidate authenticity, which is uniquely satiated by appearances in these non-traditional spaces.

“It’s confidence. We don’t want anyone that’s representing us or leading us that’s not confident. And cool is another way to say confidence,” Young says. “When candidates and politicians engage in these platforms it makes them feel like they’re ‘just like me’ … People do want to feel like their president is cool.”

However, there are diminishing returns to celebrity endorsements and their magic. Although Sanders may have more super models supporting him than any other candidate, because of his own self-sustaining popularity it doesn’t mean as much as it would for other candidates or as it did during his run in 2016, when he was still relatively unknown. “Bernie Sanders doesn’t need to let people know who he is. Bernie Sanders is a celebrity. Larry David plays him on “Saturday Night Live,” he’s the subject of late-night comedy on a nightly basis,” says Thompson. “If I’m a celebrity, I want Bernie Sanders to endorse me.”

But for political figures not universally identifiable, this special political-celebrity relationship can be one jumping off point for the candidates. “Endorsements are important to build trust and broader interest … but it’s just an introduction,” Young says. Success can be measured by the candidate’s transition from celebrity adjacent to actually being a celebrity-esque politician. Political pollster Anna Greenberg, of GQR, says beyond a media bump, she’s never seen a serious impact in voter support from a celebrity endorsement. She adds that nothing can substitute the attention from mainstream news media.

Moreover, not every candidate can use these same tools of introduction or operate in the pop culture world with the same benefits. Female and black candidates face a different political optics calculation and usually a higher level of scrutiny. “Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have moments, but the problem is they all sound like they were rehearsed in front of mirror beforehand,” says Thompson. “I think gender plays into it a lot. We would all like to say we are more enlightened than we were 100 years ago, when women got the right to vote, and we are. But there is still an alarming double standard.”

Despite the support from much of the celebrity class who supported Barack Obama as well as from the Democratic establishment, Hillary Clinton remained unpopular and was consistently labeled as unrelatable in her 2016 run. “Gender,” says Young, “absolutely plays a role.”

The break out success of New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez remains an outlier. But in the future, we may look back on the rise of this young, media savvy member of Congress as the start of a new model for female politicians. The authenticity and openness she displayed from her insurgent campaign to her on-boarding as a new federal lawmaker, mostly on Instagram Live and Twitter, constituted a novel approach to politics that turned her run for a House seat and her role as a congressional freshman into a platform for celebrity-level influence in Washington.

The political-pop culture jungle gym presents a different set of obstacles for each candidate who tries to climb it. But the need to establish and then navigate this rapport is proving to be a requirement in this year’s Democratic campaigns. It will continue to be so long as pop culture looms so large in the electorate’s consciousness – and in the world’s view of America.

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