Instead of rejecting Streep, as writers like [Eileen] Jones suggest, Democrats would do well to embrace her and fellow Hollywood stars. The party could recruit Streep and others to bait Trump, and perhaps, as [Michael] Moore suggested, groom some to be presidential candidates. In 2020, the Democrats could run Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyonce, Matt Damon, or Rosie O’Donnell. Some might guffaw at this idea. After all, wouldn’t running a celebrity candidate further associate Democrats with coastal elitism? But Democrats’ main problem last year wasn’t in appealing to anti-elitist voters; it was in getting out the party’s base. A magnetic, attractive movie star would have a far better chance of accomplishing that than just another accomplished, dowdy politician.
Judging by the response to a column I wrote last year about a potential path to the presidency for Dwayne Johnson, Heer’s not wrong that Americans are at least receptive to the idea of more celebrity candidates. But the prospect of recruiting extremely famous people with high Q scores to run for political office raises a whole host of additional questions.
First, is the appeal of celebrity candidates that they would theoretically be effective spokespeople for an existing Democratic platform, or that they, like Trump, might be rich and famous enough to campaign on a set of ideas that don’t hew neatly to the established contours of the partisan debate?
If the former, then the Democratic party faces two additional challenges. For all that people like watching movies starring actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, Americans haven’t necessarily fallen in lockstep on the issues that celebrities advocate for with great passion and energy. DiCaprio’s “Before the Flood” documentary about climate change scored relatively modest viewership in the United States, and he hasn’t exactly been able to turn climate change into a make-or-break voting issue on par with gun rights for huge numbers of American voters. Celebrity isn’t automatically portable.
And even if it is, Democrats will have to think about how to train and develop celebrity candidates, especially those who haven’t spent their whole lives planning for the sort of scrutiny that contenders for national audiences attract. If Democrats want to run Rosie O’Donnell, how do they deal with her 9/11 trutherism and her Twitter feuds? How do they strike a balance between preserving the unvarnished qualities that seem to separate some celebrities (though certainly not those who live their whole lives as if they’re reality productions) from professional politicians and reckoning with the fact that sometimes unpolished people will say things that are ignorant, appalling or truly crazy?
If celebrity candidates are meant to cut through the rigid conventions of political debate, introducing ideas that had previously been excluded from the conversation as too audacious, ambitious or, in the case of Trump, too blatantly racist and discriminatory, then the Democratic Party would have to cede power to these incandescent personalities and persuade the party’s stakeholders to do that as well. Republicans went through this process involuntarily; Democrats might be able to find a more dignified way to handle it if they recruited a celebrity deliberately, but who knows?
There are a lot of problems with political parties, which can be timid and captured by the interests of the rich and corporate. But there’s value in convening bodies and deliberative processes, too. Celebrity might solve some of the problems of an institution in trouble, but it’s no substitute for those institutions themselves. Trump isn’t the end of the Republican Party’s problems. He’s just the beginning.