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American political celebrity

At a recent event for a 2020 presidential hopeful, I was struck by a question from the audience. Cloaked in a floral dress and cool demeanor, the woman ever-so-slightly raised her hand: “I saw you speak elsewhere a few weeks ago. You were different — subdued, diplomatic, placating. Is this just the California version of you? Who’s the real you?”

This got me thinking about a question that’s been on my mind since 2016. In his young adulthood, Trump branded himself as the most skilled, connected business tycoon in America. When he hit the campaign trail, he quickly transformed into a self-made outsider seeking to disrupt the political system. How could this man, the epitome of privilege and insider status, possibly have convinced the country that he was one with the masses? His shapeshifting didn’t seem to matter, because Trump is undeniably a star.

It’s not just Trump. We live in a world where you can’t be an influential politician without first attaining stardom. As I pondered this question, I headed to the haven of contemporary celebrity: Instagram. Beto O’Rourke goes to the dentist while Elizabeth Warren poses with her dog, Bailey. Politicians nowadays utilize social media to remind us that “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” But it feels more like they’re molding themselves into the people we want to see. Here, the public servant goes to Soulcycle. Next, they grab a cheeseburger for lunch. And finally, they introduce a groundbreaking bill on the floor.

Today’s American political celebrities have engulfed all forms of media. But the question remains: Who’s the real you?

Certainly, it is possible that candidates are simply adapting to millennial constituencies. Or even more nobly, perhaps they are making a valiant effort to lift the veil on Capitol Hill. While these motivations are both practical and laudable, I worry that politicians’ platforms are becoming increasingly shrouded by their celebrity. Will a constituent know who should be the 2020 Democratic pick after watching their featured Instagram stories? Do the Twitter posts of political buzzwords aid that understanding?

It’s not new that the best political stars are the ones to win elections. Before political warfare was waged on Twitter and Instagram, campaigns were defined by material culture: banners, T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers — all marked by eye-catching hues and trendy slogans. Fast forward to the advent of television in the 1960 election. On radio, pundits rated the debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy as a draw. But as soon as America got a load of Kennedy’s dashing smile and killer tan, the pendulum swung in his favor. It seems America has always cared more for celebrity than for politics. With the rise of social media, this tendency among constituents has taken on a new, ugly form.

I admire the notion of getting to know our country’s leaders through the platforms that are most available to us. But as views of congresspersons making bean soup consume our political purview, we lose sight of the issues that will actually prove valuable at the polls. (After all, who has time to read the entirety of the Green New Deal and keep up with AOC’s Pep Talk stories? Isn’t doing the former more important than the latter?) If the majority of our interaction with politicians has to do with the social media star they want us to see, it becomes a worrying possibility that we’ll forget to look for the legislator we need to see.

Fortunately, social media can reveal the politician beneath the star. Some contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential bid have been doing it right. Cory Booker often enters selfie mode and speaks directly to his viewers about the issues he is tackling. The same is true for Kamala Harris, who is getting more social media attention than her 2020 rivals. Harris limits her Twitter and Instagram use to what matters: her background, her policies and her hopes for the future. Social media can advance political ideals in an accessible way, as long as American politicians choose to wield the tool for good.

The 2020 election is not the final episode of “Dancing with the Stars,” where we vote for the most likable candidate. This election is about platforms and policies. Livestreams, tweets and Instagram stories may humanize politicians, but we won’t know the real them — the person they’ll bring to D.C. — until we understand the basis for their political decisions. This time around, let’s not vote for the best American political celebrity. In 2020, let’s vote for the best president of the United States.

Contact Tashrima Hossain at thossain ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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