Post-Trump, some say the problem with our electorate is that we put celebrities in office, that electing celebrities has a corrosive effect on politics and civility. Was electing Trump a mistake? Yes. But not because he was a celebrity.
Celebrities have successfully run for office before: Jerry Springer, Ronald Reagan, Al Franken, Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, Linda McMahon, Clint Eastwood, Shirley Temple Black, and many more. Celebrities are not new to U.S. politics. What’s corrosive to our politics isn’t celebrities becoming politicians.
The problem is politicians becoming celebrities.
Bernie ≠ Beyoncé
Some politicians stand out for amassing an overzealous following who think they’re beyond reproach. That kind of support is characteristic of fan behavior from the BeyHive, not of political supporters. Drooling over any candidate is unconducive to healthy discourse. Politics is an arena for debate and solving problems, not zealotry. We saw the dangers of zealotry when ride-or-die Bernie Sanders supporters refused to support Democratic nominees in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. In 2020, the Guardian called it, “Bernie or Bust.”
Nationally, we see the zealotry from Donald Trump supporters, as well. Try critiquing either Trump or Sanders and watch how forcefully their supporters respond — by, for example, storming the U.S. Capitol. Not everyone has that pull with voters. Nancy Pelosi, for example, has clout — but not a ride-or-die fan base. She’s a typical, mild politician. So are Mike Pence, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and even Barack Obama.
Obama, as skilled as he is, is revered. But he doesn’t command zealots. And this zealotry isn’t isolated to national politicians. Philadelphia has its own problem with overzealous political bases. Case in point: Mayoral candidate Helen Gym.
Zealotry in the Philadelphia mayor’s race?
The common thread between the zealotry, locally and nationally, is that their supporters apply a purity test to everyone except their candidate. Gym can eviscerate the Union League as racist, then walk into their building for a party with no accountability from her base because they — for better or worse, in sickness and health — support Gym. It’s selective blindness. And it’s not like this is Gym’s first faux pas. This is a pattern of behavior.
Most recently — literally, this past weekend — Philadelphia Magazine editor-at-large Ernest Owens broke the news that John Chou, a (now retired) big pharma executive, had contributed several thousand dollars to Gym’s campaign. Chou has been a supporter of Gym her whole City Council career, including in 2019, the same year Gym voted against a bill that would have held pharmaceutical companies, including the one her husband and Chou worked at, accountable.
Oh, and that pharmaceutical company? AmerisourceBergen, which the Department of Justice is suing for having a role in the opioid epidemic.
The entire point of engaging in politics is to settle disagreements about policy and social change.
Before that, Gym blasted Jeff Brown, another mayoral contender, claiming he’d been bought by the 76ers — which matters because of the controversial downtown stadium proposal. But seconds later, mayoral candidate Amen Brown called Gym out for meeting with the 76ers just days prior. Gym said the meeting was “not to discuss anything.” I guess mayoral candidates have meetings with wealthy businessmen to discuss … nothing. Sure.
All this with no accountability from her base. The Union League fiasco, by the way, happened just hours before the Working Families Party endorsed Gym. You’d think — being progressive and such — the Working Families Party would’ve pulled their endorsement. But umpteen hypocrisies later, they and Gym’s progressive base still back her … The ride-or-die zealotry continues.
Political leaders are … people
No one — especially supporters, who pay the closest attention — should forget that politicians are not beyond reproach. The entire point of engaging in politics is to settle disagreements about policy and social change. This inherently means everyone will be wrong at some point. And that is okay when there’s healthy discourse. When that’s the case, there’s room for Barack Obama’s evolution on gay marriage, for example.
But in a climate with purist zealots, healthy, honest political engagement is undoable. Even beyond debate, reasonable contemplation of the issues is discouraged when political zealots turn voter contemplation into a question of candidate loyalty instead of fidelity to solving the issues.
Public servants in our democracy are supposed to be part of the people. They are not supposed to rise above the people. But that happens when we idolize politicians, giving them comfort to contradict themselves with impunity as their zealous supporters make excuses for them.
Making idols of public servants makes us forget they operate in a field meant to hash out disagreements.
Other public officials have zealous bases too. Remember the hoopla over the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Like no jurist before her, she was immortalized. She was not Justice Ginsburg. She was RBG, the champion of liberal social issues. Or was she? For the most part, probably. But she was unreliable on some issues.
In an interview with Katie Couric, for example, Ginsburg called Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice during the national anthem “dumb and disrespectful.” Couric — a journalist and Ginsburg zealot — removed that damning portion of the interview, preserving Ginsburg’s perfect image. Couric admitted her bias, saying Ginsburg’s opposition to Kaepernick’s protest was “unworthy of a crusader for equality.” Instead of holding her idol accountable, she pardoned Ginsburg’s remarks, erasing evidence of it.
Let’s be real, making idols of public servants makes us forget they operate in a field meant to hash out disagreements. Politics is a controversial enterprise that should tease out nuances in politicians and politically engaged citizens. I doubt anyone’s truly a purist, in total agreement with one candidate, official, or Party. And, if anyone claims to be, they’re either unreasonable or lying. For the sake of healthy discourse and electing quality officials, stop idolizing politicians. Hold them accountable.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when John Chou’s contributions to Helen Gym began. According to her campaign, they began in 2015.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College.
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