As much as I’d like to believe that we are capable of confining the ridiculous carnival that is a presidential election to a single calendar year, it’s clear that the shooting galleries and Ferris wheels are already set up and open for business. The burden of covering the campaigns falls more heavily on my colleagues than on me. But as someone who has a deep and vested interest in making sure that our national conversations about culture aren’t stupid, campaign season can be particularly irritating.
So in the hopes of making our national discourse just a tiny bit better (and preserving a shred more of my sanity), if you’re a politician headed out on the stump, or a staffer on a campaign, listen up. This is your complete guide to talking about pop culture and recruiting celebrities without sounding absolutely ridiculous — or winding up with Clint Eastwood addressing a chair on national television.
1. Avoid get-off-my-lawn-ism: If you’re struggling to distinguish yourself from a crowded pack of potential candidates, maybe there’s something about trying to position yourself as the country’s foremost Beyoncé hater that makes sense (I’m looking at you, Mike Huckabee). But while going hard after the crowd that’s still nostalgic for Lesley Gore — and doesn’t know that the late singer was gay — might play well in the early stages of a campaign, as a long-term strategy, it’s a loser. Kevin Bacon will always succeed in bringing prom back to Bomont. Nobody who tries to put Baby in a corner will keep her there for long. The world is going to change, and you’re better off proposing ways to manage that change effectively than in making promises you can’t keep to turn back the clock.
2. But don’t go overboard, either: It’s all well and good to be able to able to drop a “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards” reference, and I’m all for a shout-out to the memory of Leonard Nimoy. But just as waving your cane about pop culture doesn’t magically repair the social fabric, talking about television or movies isn’t actually a substitute for discussing policy positions. President Obama’s affinity for “Homeland” hasn’t actually distracted anyone from his drone strikes program. And basing your office redecoration on “Downton Abbey” doesn’t actually make the case for trickle-down economics. Fandom is a powerful thing, but people often care about pop culture because it has resonance with their real lives. Flashing your culture cred as a shield won’t convince them. It’s almost as silly as trying to fight the culture wars.
3. Recognize the difference between wishful thinking and reality: Last month, Adrian Carrasquillo reported for Buzzfeed that Republicans were trying to woo the singer Pitbull away from the Democratic party. “Prominent Florida Republicans Gov. Rick Scott and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado recently showered Pitbull with gifts and praise, giving him the key to the city and declaring his birthday, Jan. 15, ‘Pitbull Day.’ Scott also bestowed the title of Ambassador of the Arts on him,” Carrasquillo explained. “Anitere Flores, a Cuban-America Florida state senator recently featured as a rising star in the Republican Party, gave an honorary degree to Pitbull last summer from Doral College, where she serves as president. She said the Republican Party is where he belongs.”
But beyond the fact that Pitbull has a charter school, the story’s sources were mostly expressing wishful thinking that Pitbull might come over to their side of the aisle, rather than any hard evidence of his political leanings. Not only does this kind of projection make the politician in question look a little desperate (see: Chris Christie’s wistful yearning after Bruce Springsteen), but also these hopes tend to sideline the question of whether a star’s product is consistent with a campaign’s messaging. “Face down, booty up” may be Pitbull’s idea for a perfect party — but that doesn’t mean he shares that idea of a good time with mega-donors from either party.
4. Don’t pick celebrity spokesmen just to annoy the other party: Michael Brendan Dougherty had a good column last month about the way conservatives simultaneously snark at Hollywood’s influence and covet it. Sometimes, they pick their celebrities mostly in the hopes of annoying liberals. But this is a practice that liberals sometimes fall prey to as well, tweaking their opponents and providing them with ammunition in the process.
Elevating someone like Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” — who was invited to speak at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference — just because he made some rather crude remarks about gay sex may tweak liberals. But it also gives the impression that conservatives are childish and puerile about a group of Americans who have made enormous political and social strides, and who have lots of money to spend on campaign contributions. Similarly, while I enjoy Lena Dunham’s work, her ad from the 2012 election cycle where she compared voting for President Obama to losing her virginity made me cringe. Maybe the spot was an attempt to make reelecting Obama feel as momentous as electing him. But the result gave the impression that enthusiasm for Obama was a little icky and cultish — and that Dunham can’t do anything other than push boundaries around sex.
5. Don’t treat artists like they’re dumb — or ATMs: For all conservatives like to stigmatize Hollywood as a bastion of knee-jerk Democratic loyalty, celebrities often have politics that don’t neatly match up with either party’s platform. For conservatives, that means there are opportunities to recruit artists for issue campaigns that don’t require them to endorse a whole program. Someone like Kid Rock, who tells the New York Times, “Fiscally, I’m Republican. But the social issues kill me — gay marriage and abortion. It’s like, Come on, man, get off it. There’s so many big problems we got that we really need to address in this country,” is a good case-by-case recruit.
And liberals ought to make use of the space that progressive celebrities who are to the left of the Democratic Party create for them on big issues. You can hire John Legend to play an inaugural ball. But why not listen to him on racial disparities in criminal justice, too?