Celebrity political activism apparently wasn’t enough to snag Abrams the victory on Tuesday in Georgia, where she was weighed down by the state’s Republican lean and intense voter suppression efforts. But Pence’s scorn for Hollywood, now a set piece in Republican politics, is a relatively recent development. There was a time when Republicans welcomed Hollywood and used its glamour to win over voters. But today, the GOP has settled on a narrow electoral strategy — appealing to a minority of voters — in which Hollywood is better as a foil than as an ally.
Criticism of Hollywood’s political activism has been around as long as the entertainment industry has engaged in the political process. As the motion picture industry mobilized for Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, a New Deal critic lamented their involvement and argued for the need to “separate glamour from politics.” But both Republicans and Democrats continued to develop relationships with the entertainment industry. Why? They understood that the majority of Americans were movie fans, and celebrities could help open doors to new demographics.
This strategy worked. During the 1944 election, the DNC recognized that in small cities and rural communities, Republicans frequently controlled the local newspaper, which limited the ability of the Democratic Party to deliver its message to voters. If a celebrity showed up in support of a Democratic candidate, however, Republican editors “would not be able to overlook the big names,” enabling Democrats to receive attention in previously hostile territory. This was crucial to encouraging voters to cross party lines and cast a vote for Roosevelt.
While the majority of Hollywood stars were in the Roosevelt camp, the Republican Party didn’t dismiss the industry as hostile or irrelevant. They tried to build relationships with entertainers so that they too could use star power to amplify their message and reach new voters. Dwight Eisenhower listened to the advice of Republican actors Robert Montgomery and George Murphy on how to “pick up where FDR left off in the establishment of contact with the public through mass communications media.” Central to this was using entertainers to bring the GOP message to new voters.
In fact, Eisenhower took it one step further. His campaign brought in advertising men, public relations consultants and Hollywood to sell Ike to television audiences across the country. A sophisticated advertising strategy, complete with the innovative “Eisenhower Answers America” campaign, used 30-second commercials played at the end of the most popular television shows to introduce Ike’s ideas about the taxes and foreign policy to television viewers.
In 1956, Montgomery invited “pro-Ike” celebrities on the talk show he hosted to discuss the merits of the incumbent president. Their goal: to rebuild the party by bringing Eisenhower’s message to Democrats and independents and activating new voters. Unlike political machines of the past, the GOP did not simply want to turn out committed partisans: They wanted to use entertainment to bring “media consumers” into the political process and win over persuadable voters they’d otherwise have trouble reaching.
These new ideas about media reshaped the GOP in the 1960s.
In fact, it is why Republican operatives encouraged celebrities like actors George Murphy and Ronald Reagan to run for office. In 1964, Murphy constructed a media-savvy, entertainment-driven campaign that united independents, Democrats and conservatives across the state to defeat John F. Kennedy’s former press secretary Pierre Salinger in a remarkable Senate upset.
Reagan did the same. While the conservative message offered by Barry Goldwater and others fell flat in 1964, Reagan found a way to package the same ideas in a more attractive way when he ran for governor of California in 1966.
Richard Nixon paid attention, studying how to use stars to sell his policies and reshape the Republican Party. He did so in an environment in which the Hollywood left was also gaining momentum in the civil rights and antiwar movements. Many of them became vocal critics of Nixon as well, joining in a 1972 effort led by Warren Beatty and Shirley Chisholm to try to turn Hollywood activism into momentum for George McGovern by delivering speeches in small towns across the country and hosting massive “Rock’n’rhetoric” rallies at Madison Square Garden.
Sure, Nixon’s campaign attempted to downplay these liberal efforts as “puff politics.” But they also fought back and tried to recapture the loyalties of the entertainment industry. His aides researched issues that might be important to celebrities and then reached out to stars to discuss policies and explain what the Republican Party could do for them and for the broader public. Nixon and his team understood that celebrities offered a unique opportunity to communicate the president’s agenda to new types of voters — in particular younger voters. As a result, Nixon Cabinet members and aides like national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Attorney General John Mitchell traveled to Los Angeles to discuss topics like the Cold War, the economy and domestic policy with celebrities.
Rather than demonizing Hollywood’s political activism, Nixon saw an opportunity to expand the reach of the GOP to individuals that could further amplify its platform.
Given this profitable history of GOP-celebrity partnership, it seems surprising that Republicans largely reject Hollywood today. In fact, a mere five years ago, the party’s Growth and Opportunity Project Report — the autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss — once again recommended establishing a “RNC Celebrity Task Force” to cultivate links to the entertainment industry as a “way to attract younger voters.”
But Republican electoral strategy has dramatically changed over time. Hollywood’s glamour and the ability of celebrities to attract attention has been a tool for both parties to expand their coalitions and encourage turnout. But Republicans no longer seem interested in expanding their coalition and reaching new voters. Instead, their strategy seems centered upon stoking the fury of a white, predominately rural base.
This base represents a minority of Americans, which is generally bad news for parties relying on democratic elections. But it is geographically well located, especially for controlling the Senate, and the GOP uses a variety of tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression to limit participation rather than expand it. In that context, demagoguing Hollywood is far more effective at energizing these voters, who already feel scorned by a liberal elite embodied by snobbish celebrities. When this minority stops producing victories, Republicans’ attitude toward celebrities will likely change as well.