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  • Writer's pictureLyla Bhalla-Ladd

Beware the Celebrity Politician

Mehmet Oz’s run for Senate is a reminder of political theater.

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Roman Emperor Augustus saw his rule over the vast, revered empire as a theatrical performance. When it came to the end, he asked his audience for their thanks. His last words: “Why don’t you give us applause and send us off stage.”

Augustus’ rule was truly a show. As Julius Caesar’s adopted nephew the emperor inherited the god-like status Caesar claimed in death. The Roman Senate even changed his name from Octavius to Caesar Augustus, meaning “revered one.” You can’t boost name recognition any higher than by changing your name to mean the son of a god.

Even today, cultivating name recognition remains one of the largest factors in winning an election. The Kennedy family, until 2020, had never lost an election in their 60-year political dynasty.

The political culture of antiquity coincided with the development of the theater and the art of acting. The idea of theater – constructed, artistic reality– filled Rome. Caesar chronicled his own history of the Gallic Wars by bringing along a historian on his travels, who wrote and took back to Rome to distribute Caesar’s tales of battle and Rome’s success. Caesar was his own PR team, wrote his own history and news, and distributed it unchallenged.

Constructed reality is no stranger to today’s politics. According to Brookings, there were 345 election deniers on the ballot last November. These politicians are writing their own history of January 6.

In Athens, the political transition from an oligarchy to a democracy led to a shift in how leaders won office. They had to learn how to appeal to the majority: common people, in the vulgar language, and on topics of their interest. Thus, rhetoric introduced the idea of political acting, and what we now recognize as modern-day “spin.”

In today’s political myth, the modern actors reflect the ancient stage. In Pennsylvania, the Mehmet Oz-John Fetterman race was an American reminder of political theater.

To operate within the public sphere and to serve the masses is an act in itself today. Politicians require speeches, or scripts; name recognition, or fame; and PR teams, or PR teams.

Today political acting transcends mere rhetoric and presentation and attracts actual “actors,” who manipulate the masses, and who use a political career to further their own monetary gain.

How did we get here?

Until 1964, the American people were generally trustful and approving of their government. However, in the ‘60s, and in the decade following the Vietnam War and Watergate, trust plummeted.

The distrust felt by the American people is not always directed at the politicians themselves, but rather at the idea of the Establishment. The American people lost faith in their leaders and yearned for something new. They craved an outsider. This opened the door for the modern phenomenon of the celebrity-candidate.

This reveals how desperate the American people are to stir change within the current political system. We prop up celebrities because of their strong rhetorical savvy, and because we are tired of the system as it is working. Democracy -- and faith in democracy -- are declining as a result.

Past celebrity politicians, like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, had what political expert, Steven Ross calls “deep political roots,” even when running for office as an “outsider.” Those roots once served as qualifying factors. Now, ties to the visible Establishment hurt candidates.

In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a unique celebrity-candidate as he had no party roots when running and instead embraced his celebrity status, often quoting his movies on the campaign trail. As one NBC executive said at the time: “When you have name recognition like him, you can go directly to the people.” It is that unity with the public that draws voters to celebrity politicians; the notion of an everyman’s man (or woman), of someone who you know- or who you think you know.

Dr. Oz, the ex-talk show host, ran on the basis of his medical degree and his passion for reigniting the “divine spark” inside us all. Somehow, Oz gained 31.2% of voters' support in the primary and 46.3% in the polls. Oz won over men over 50, rural voters, and voters without a college education. The candidate with almost no substantial running platform, only one year of “residence” in Pennsylvania, and a sham of a medical career came within striking distance of Fetterman.

With no political history, Oz was the prime example in the most recent election cycle of an unqualified, fake candidate who ran for the purpose of his own business advancement. Co-Director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, Mike Murphy identifies Oz’s problem. “He looks like such a cynical opportunist…Oz has no connection with the state, but Oz has one thing going for him: if the election is fundamentally ‘let's punish the president,’ like most of these midterms have been for a long, long time, [voters] are willing to not really care about Oz and use him as kind of a blunt instrument to beat on Biden and the Democrats.”

Moving beyond

The entire model of celebrity politics changed when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Trumpism is more than the phenomenon of an unqualified celebrity candidate. Trumpism, as its own political philosophy, prioritizes Trump’s political, business, and monetary needs above all public needs. Trumpism, in 2016-reality, served to voice the “silent majority” of the uneducated, white, working-class demographic. Those voters turned out for Trump in 2016 to express their desire for a candidate who seemed to talk and think like them. This was an extreme form of celebrity-candidacy.

Trumpism serves as a cautionary tale to what is possible from a celebrity candidate who takes office in order to promote himself- not democracy or the country. With the path paved by Trump in 2016, Oz took note of what public office could do for one’s business life. It’s no wonder Trump endorsed Oz in April.

The challenge for voters: Examine whether examine these outsider candidates are running for their legitimate passion for legislative change, or for their personal and financial advancement.

In Pennsylvania, the top issue among voters was the economy. Oz’s economic policy, as stated in just 69 words on his campaign website, declares that Biden caused inflation, and Oz would “restore” the economy by “focusing on the problems we face here at home.” In other words, Oz promised to combat rising costs by focusing on combating rising costs.

Oz’s policies were illegitimate. He relied on his TV fame to catapult him into office without an honest platform for voters to consider.

A cynical opportunist is exactly what these celebrity candidates are. They see the political sphere as a continuation of their careers and use public office to remain a big name on TV. In a time of such political polarization and turmoil, these celebrities deepen the wounds of a broken democracy.

“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain”

Fortunately for themselves and for democracy, Pennsylvanians saw through Oz’s performance. Losing 51- 46%, Oz’s political career was denied.

This midterm cycle, there were two types of outsiders on the ballot. The choice between the expedient public figures, and the genuine everymen and women, both politically inexperienced, reminded Americans of the hope they could find in our system. Putting our faith (and our representation) in the right outsiders helps make Washington more representative. Maxwell Frost, Florida’s first Gen-Z Congressman, and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, Washington’s 3rd District Representative, are the outsiders that fed-up voters should turn to.

Since the founding of democracy, political actors have put on performances to win the favor of the majority. We must accept this reality of political theater and focus on the need for a qualified outsider. who can ditch the typical bureaucracy of the modern structure, and capitalize on the expertise they have in a non-political sector.

The nature of being new is not enough. Legitimate candidates must be of quality, not just of mass interest.


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