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Democrats Should Run a Celebrity for President, Too

It worked for Republicans—twice. And charismatic candidates like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton don't appear every four years.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

Meryl Streep’s rebuke of Donald Trump during the Golden Globes ceremony on Sunday has revived the familiar complaint, heard from the left and right, that Hollywood’s liberalism hurts the Democratic Party. In Jacobin, Eileen Jones argued that Streep “strikes me as about the worst possible spokesperson imaginable for the Left in an era of working-class rage, so naturally she’s embraced even more tightly by liberals doubling down on their delusional Clinton Democrat worship.” National Review’s David French offered a conservative assessment that made essentially the same point: that Streep’s speech shows “why Trump won.” “Lots of voters don’t like to be hectored,” he wrote. “Lots of voters defy Hollywood’s commands.”

French, however, does think this liberal alliance has won something more important: the culture wars. “Indeed, since 1968—when the modern Left really got rolling—the Democratic party has been largely losing ground,” he argued. “But in that same period, whose cultural values have most advanced? The secular Left has taken a sledgehammer to God, family, and country—the pillars of our national culture—and Hollywood has led the way.”

This wrinkle exposes an argumentative flaw: If Hollywood is powerful enough to make people lose faith in God, family, and country, then why should it be a liability in winning elections? The whole business of Hollywood is popularity, which is also the whole business of winning elections. If celebrity endorsements are partly to blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss, why did her husband and Barack Obama win the White House with a comparably impressive set of star endorsements? And if these endorsements are so toxic, then wouldn’t celebrity candidates be even more so?

But history shows that celebrity candidates can win, and it’s for the same reason that politicians like Obama and the Clintons tout celebrity endorsements: We live in a media-saturated world where fame has persuasive power.

Of course, celebrity candidates seem to surface more often in one major party than the other. Two of the last four Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and Trump, had substantial showbiz careers. Arnold Schwarzenegger won the governorship of deep-blue California, and would have contended for the presidency if not for the constitutional requirement that candidates be natural-born citizens. Fred Thompson is best remembered for his performances as a tough but fair district attorney on Law & Order, but he also served as senator from Tennessee. The Democrats have nothing comparable except for Senator Al Franken, and he was always more of a political comedian than a movie star.

Charisma is hard to define, but it matters in politics. Over the past half century, the Democrats have won the presidency when they nominated candidates who were more magnetic than their rivals, as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were. Conversely, Democrats have always lost when they were outmatched by star power (as when Reagan ran against Carter). This was especially true when the Democrats ran wonkish but drab candidates, are a speciality of the party: Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. These are all smart political figures, but no one would describe them as charismatic.

The celebrity gap between the two major parties points to something essential about their nature. Perhaps right-wing complaints about Hollywood liberalism stem from conservatives wanting to have their own celebrity champions. French suggested as much when he wrote of Trump, “In many ways, he is Hollywood—a towering celebrity who has exhibited and lived exactly the personal values that fill the pages of People magazine and Us Weekly. To ‘beat’ Hollywood, the GOP turned to Hollywood.” Conversely, Democrats don’t need to run celebrities because they already have Hollywood on their side. Moreover, the consistent wonkiness of Democratic candidates suggests a party that values technocratic expertise. With Carter, Bill Clinton, and Obama, the party was lucky enough to get eggheads who were also compelling, camera-friendly speechmakers.

But it’s difficult to find a candidate who is equally smart and charismatic, hence the duds the Democrats often elevate—and who have lost them two close, winnable president elections in recent memory (2000 and 2016). Perhaps it’s time, then, for Democrats to take a page out of the Republican playbook and put a celebrity up for national office.

In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, Michael Moore said on CNN, “Democrats would be better off if they ran Oprah or Tom Hanks... why don’t we run beloved people?” It’s a question the party ought to ask seriously. For it’s easier to surround a good actor with smart policy advisors than to make a lackluster campaigner seem sexy and exciting. “Sincerity is the main thing,” according to a popular saying attributed to both George Burns or Groucho Marx. “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” We can amend that to: “Wonkiness is the main thing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

And with the right actor, you can fake it.

Trump has reinforced the lesson of Reagan: that we live in a polity where entertainment is one of the main prisms through which citizens see and understand the world. Media isn’t just a tool for spreading one’s message, but part of the message itself. Reagan and Trump didn’t just articulate conservative values; they performed those values, convincing many voters that they shared their interests and outlook.

That Trump responded so virulently to Streep’s Golden Globes speech—he tweeted that she was “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood”—suggests he recognizes the power of fellow celebrities. Since winning the election, he has brushed aside critiques from politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren, but he knows Streep has the ability to reach a mass audience that otherwise tunes out politics. Other stars, including Samuel L. Jackson to Alec Baldwin to Jon Stewart, have been similarly successful at getting under Trump’s skin, needling him about cheating in golf or labeling him with insulting nicknames such as “Fuckface von Clownstick.”

Instead of rejecting Streep, as writers like Jones suggest, Democrats would do well to embrace her and fellow Hollywood stars. The party could recruit Streep and others to bait Trump, and perhaps, as Moore suggested, groom some to be presidential candidates. In 2020, the Democrats could run Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyonce, Matt Damon, or Rosie O’Donnell. Some might guffaw at this idea. After all, wouldn’t running a celebrity candidate further associate Democrats with coastal elitism? But Democrats’ main problem last year wasn’t in appealing to anti-elitist voters; it was in getting out the party’s base. A magnetic, attractive movie star would have a far better chance of accomplishing that than just another accomplished, dowdy politician.