The members of the electoral college make their votes official Monday, and many people have been imploring the ones committed to Donald Trump to cast their ballots for someone, anyone, else. Among those lending their voices are a group of celebrities you might have seen in this video, in which Martin Sheen, Debra Messing, B.D. Wong, Bob Odenkirk, Moby and a bunch of other famous entertainers earnestly explain how the time has come for the electoral college to serve its original purpose, or at least make a statement of Americans’ collective unease about Trump.
That’s only the latest entry in a campaign that was particularly heavy on celebrity involvement. The Democratic convention featured a parade of celebrities, many of whom also held big-ticket fundraisers for Hillary Clinton. Katy Perry probably appeared more often on the campaign trail with Clinton than Tim Kaine did. There were a bunch of videos, some of them quite clever and funny, like this one that parodied “We Are the World”-type collaborations in order to urge Trump’s defeat, or this one that just encouraged people to vote.
Republicans got into the act too — who could have predicted that the GOP convention would combine the blinding star power of Scott Baio and Antonio Sabato Jr.? — but this is an overwhelmingly liberal phenomenon. And while liberal celebrities get a lot of predictable scorn from the right for their political involvement, I’m here as a liberal to say: You’re not helping.
I say this with affection, because your hearts are in the right place. You see a critical political moment, and like millions of other people, you ask yourself: What can I do? And while anyone can knock on doors or go to a protest or donate a few dollars, you think: Well, I’m famous. People pay attention to me. If I and some other famous people put up a YouTube video, millions of people will watch it. I can use my fame as a tool to spread the message.
That sounds sensible, but what most celebrities seem to miss when they engage in these kinds of efforts is that there’s a difference between attention and persuasion. Yes, you can get millions of people to watch your video. But does that actually persuade them to change their votes to your preferred candidate, or turn out to vote when they would otherwise have stayed home?
There’s precious little evidence that it does. Entertainers have been endorsing presidential candidates for nearly a century, dating back at least to Al Jolson’s support of Warren G. Harding in 1920 (for you kids, Jolson was basically the Beyoncé of his day). Harry Belafonte cut an ad for JFK. Mary Tyler Moore testified to Jimmy Carter’s feminist bona fides. But since social scientists have been able to research this question in a systematic way, they haven’t been able to find much positive impact of these endorsements (though Oprah Winfrey’s primary endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008 is an exception). There is, however, evidence that they produce a backlash.
While that can happen on either side, it’s particularly acute with liberal celebrities, because their involvement in the campaign reinforces precisely the argument Republicans are trying to make, which is that Democrats are the party of the “elite” — not the economic elite, but an intellectual and cultural elite supposedly alien from the values and interests of ordinary, “heartland” (read: white) Americans. One simply cannot overstate the importance of this argument to the Republican case, because it’s what allows them to shift attention from all the ways they advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful. When Democrats say, “Our opponents oppose raising the minimum wage and want to cut taxes for billionaires,” Republicans respond with, “Pshaw, just what you’d expect from a bunch of snooty college professors and Hollywood liberals who look down their noses at you and your values. Don’t trust the liberal elite!” Every new video with a parade of stars telling people to vote Democratic makes the Republicans’ case for them, irrespective of its actual content. The unspoken message is always that liberal elites love Democrats, so Democrats must not be on the side of regular people. This was never going to be more true than it was in 2016, when the Republican candidate was so explicitly telling voters to despise the elites.
I’m sure this isn’t what you celebrities want to hear — after all, you’re just trying to help. But the good feelings people have toward your talents and personality just aren’t transferable into political decisions. There are contexts in which fame can be an effective tool, like bringing attention to an otherwise ignored issue. But a presidential campaign isn’t one of those contexts. To be fair, there are some celebrities (George Clooney comes to mind) who understand this difference and are strategic about where they get involved publicly and privately. But most don’t seem to get it.
To them, I say: If you really want to help, feel free to knock on doors or man the phone banks. You should certainly give money, which is something you’ve got, and encourage the other rich people you know to do the same. But you have to understand that effective political action isn’t just about doing the thing that makes you feel good, even if that’s what a healthy portion of all political action is motivated by. It’s about doing the things that will have the most impact and avoiding what might backfire. To make just one suggestion, folks in Hollywood might do better to use their storytelling skills to produce effective ads and videos that don’t actually feature celebrities.
Entertainment can be quite effective at changing people’s outlooks and making them question their assumptions, but not when you try to beat them over the head with what you want them to think.
After the election, Tina Fey said, “I think the real reason that Hillary lost — and it’s the thing that people are afraid to talk about: not enough celebrity music videos urging people to vote . . . I just think if there had been, like, one more funny rap, or like, another Hamilton parody, or something. Just like a little more hustle from Liz Banks, and we coulda taken Michigan.” It’s a funny joke, because it captures how absurd it was to think that stuff would actually work. That doesn’t mean celebrities shouldn’t get involved; they should, just like everyone should. But they need to be smarter about it.