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Why celebrities do not leaders make

By Elvin Lim


The tragic flaw of American democracy is that we seek the same qualities in candidates for political office as we do in the movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most recent case in point.

Celebrities have name recognition. They are easy on the eyes. And they pretend really well. Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to keep a 13-year-old secret from his own wife. Whoever said he was just a robotic bodybuilder clearly underestimated his considerable acting ability.

It is no wonder that good actors make great politicians. Like actors, politicians use image consultants to change how they look; their words are crafted by somebody else; they have publicists for image (or damage) control. And so mimesis occurs alike in art and in politics. Because both the actor and the politician revel in the attention that comes with being on stage, Plato did not think it wise that actors should have a political role in the republic. (Actually he wanted them expelled.)

Yet let us not malign the actors. The difference between political deception — whether it be the innocent smile of a John Edwards or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s family values spiel — and acting is that when doing the latter, the audience understands that make-belief is part of the game. Whereas the actor performs to entertain, the politician performs to gain office.

The distinction between acting and politicking, however, is less clear in our corrupted democracy. And citizens must accept our complicity in this, because we have come to expect a degree of deception from our politicians just as we condone make-belief in our actors. For it was too easy, too comforting for Californians to believe that an action-hero would sweep in and solve the state’s budget troubles. The Governator pulled out all the stops of his celebrity to encourage this lazy assumption.

Californians, and Americans in general, have two choices. Either we stop allowing actors to pretend their way into politics, or we stop complaining when they fail to live up to their big-screen reputations. The outrage we express whenever we find out that our predictions of moral rectitude expressed in our votes were way off is just our way of avoiding the more painful truth that the heuristics that we had adopted to guide our vote were entirely inaccurate. Sophisticated citizenry requires that we understand that glib actors with charming smiles are lovable, but that does not mean that they would love us back.

Our politicians and our citizens today worship at the altar of make-belief (politicians make, and citizens believe) images. Someone has to break the glittering cycle. It might as well be us.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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