We’re at least three presidents into this sort of posturing: Robert Altman said he’d move to France if George W. Bush was elected in 2000, and Alec Baldwin suggested he’d pull up stakes before reversing himself. In 2008, Akon said he would renounce his U.S. citizenship if John McCain triumphed over Barack Obama. And now “Girls” creator Lena Dunham has remarked that she’d relocate to Vancouver in the event of a Donald Trump presidency.
Beyond the fact that no one ever actually follows through on these pledges*, they’re one of my least favorite forms of interaction between the political and entertainment industries. Threatening to leave the United States behind for good may be a way to communicate just how high celebrities believe the stakes are in a given election. But it immediately undercuts artists’ credibility to speak on political issues in two important and specific ways. And that’s a shame for anyone who believes that artists actually have real things to offer the political process.
First, upping the ante like this immediately highlights the difference between celebrities and their fans, who presumably are the people they’re trying to influence.
Moving can cost thousands of dollars, and given the oft-cited statistic that 47 percent of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 on short notice, plenty of ordinary citizens probably don’t have the cash on hand to switch countries at a moment’s notice (though I guess we could all start Fleeing to Canada funds). Whether stars intend it or not, talking cavalierly about leaving the country because of the result of a presidential election is a good advertisement for just how much cash they have on hand and just how much flexibility their jobs allow them.
Because beyond the question of the immediate costs of the move, lots of people have jobs that they can’t just take with them. If you’re Miley Cyrus and your job consists of flying to different locations to record and tour, it doesn’t really matter where you make your primary residence. And people at the top of the creative ladder in the entertainment industry and the people who work steady, or even irregular, jobs in it have very different levels of financial security and job flexibility. I don’t know whether everyone in the “Girls” writers room would be completely sanguine about relocating to Vancouver for work, especially with the show coming to a close, if that’s where Dunham wants to live.
But especially in the world outside the entertainment industry, if you work at a store, or in a factory, or in a specific school district, there’s no guarantee that an equivalent job awaits you over the border, or that you’d be able to get a Canadian work permit.
Yes, I know, to a certain extent it’s silly to blame rich, highly in-demand people for being wealthy and valuable commodities. But flaunting their wealth and privilege in an unseemly way isn’t the only reason it’s extremely dumb for celebrities to threaten to move to Canada based on the outcome of an election.
The most idiotic thing about this particular bit of political posturing? It suggests that the people who engage in it are fundamentally unserious about U.S. politics. It’s a grand gesture that’s actually the equivalent of giving up and running away.
If you move to Canada, or France, or any place other than here and leave everyone else to live through the actual consequences of an election result you didn’t like, you’re not proving that you’re committed to change. Instead, you’re showing that your primary concern is for yourself, even though if you’re already a significantly wealthy person, you’re probably fairly buffeted from any actual policy changes that a new administration might institute. You’re signaling that you find being associated with a given president, and the Americans who voted for him or her, distasteful. And that’s an awfully flimsy reason to flounce out of the country.
I will make one exemption. If you declare that you’re moving out of the country but will dedicate, say, 90 percent of your money to funding down-ballot candidates and building durable political institutions that could change the electoral tide, I will give you a pass and agree to regard you as a moderately serious person. But if you’re going to do that, why not stay in the United States and enjoy the results of your investment?
And unless you’re willing to make that kind of commitment, your threats to deprive us of your shining presence don’t count for much.
*An exception, kind of, is James Cameron, who withdrew his application for U.S. citizenship after George W. Bush was elected.