SHAH: We must be careful of celebrity politics


Opinions Column: The Progressive's Hot Take


We elected a billionaire misogynist and our democracy is at risk, but apparently, the greatest motivator to vote is a long Instagram caption penned by controversial pop star Taylor Swift. 

In less than 48 hours after Swift broke her staunchly “apolitical” streak to endorse the Democratic candidates in Tennessee in a message to her Instagram followers, more than 169,000 people registered to vote. On the other hand, vote.org’s non-partisan effort to promote voting only added 56,669 new voters in all of August. The difference is damning. 

And do not get me wrong. I love the impact a simple Instagram post had. I am deeply concerned for our country and our government, and I am so glad that young people are being encouraged to get involved and incite change. But, it is a deeply grim indictment of our society when our civic engagement truly just boils down to what Swift tells us to do. When we start taking civic engagement seriously only when our favorite celebrities encourage it, we have to start considering to what degree we take marching orders from famous personalities and to what degree we allow them to shape our social norms. 

In our culture, nearly everything we do (or choose not to do) is politically fueled. Celebrity culture can be boiled down to an institution that promotes and empowers liberal elites, and now more than ever, celebrities are coming out boldly opposed to our current president and his party. And of course, these activist movements helmed by celebrity personalities are empowering and have the potential to make a large-scale impact. Yet, even as a liberal myself, I am concerned that famous celebrity Hollywood stances on politics create uninformed mob mentalities that lead the average citizen to vote for candidates they know nothing about. Civic engagement has to come from within, but our recent celebrification of politics unintentionally encourages people to blindly follow the views of their favorite celebrity. 

Celebrities thrive on attention. It is quite literally how they keep their jobs. It is our job, as consumers of their content, to decipher which of their political actions are done for publicity and which are done out of genuine compassion and thought. 

And not to be deliberately negative, but self-titled feminist Swift’s political silence during the 2016 presidential election is worth analyzing. Most notably, this silence led to alt-Right movements repurposing Swift as an icon for closet conservatives. Swift’s refusal to speak up when her voice mattered the most is disappointing and painful, especially knowing now that her effect is so widespread. But the real question now is: Was Swift's Instagram post genuine or was it an effort to fit into our all-consuming political landscape? It is hard not to question her motives when she had the opportunity to speak out much earlier than she did. With the state of our country, it is hard for me to feel that an Instagram caption is enough. Am I the only one who does not think Swift is the savior of American democracy for simply writing a longer-than-average Instagram caption saying what many of us have been saying for the past two years? 

Still, Swift's Instagram post is largely a positive effect of "celebritydom" ... but the worst case scenario is out there: And his name is Kanye West. 

West, opposite Swift, is one of the most famous people alive. And he is the epitome of everything that could go wrong when a wildly misinformed person is given any platform he wishes. Perhaps he believes in what he is saying — from feeling like Superman in a Make America Great Again hat to feeling that slavery was a choice — but there is a good chance that West is just doing what he does best: wielding his celebrity power as a weapon by being the singular voice of the dissent from woke celebrity culture. And that has an impact — a problematic, uneducated, unhinged impact. It forces us to hold a magnifying lens to the impact celebrities can have on our politics. 

In reality, what Swift did to encourage voter turnout was the absolute least she could do. Imagine if she did more earlier. Perhaps the crippling dysfunctionality of our current government could have been avoided altogether. And that goes for all celebrities, for that matter. What if half-assed, too-little-too-late slacktivism in the age of President Donald J. Trump transformed to a much-needed movement to educate the American populace on local, statewide and national candidates of all kind? Perhaps we would have a government that we feel truly represents us. 

Trump himself is a celebrity that we elected into our highest office. Where does our obsession and fascination with celebrity culture end? And where will our educated and informed affair with the government that legislates our lives begin? 

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School sophomore, contemplating her primary major but minoring in political science and philosophy. Her column, “The Progressive’s Hot Take,” runs on alternate Fridays.

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