Celebrity Politics by Mark Wheeler

Judith Bara on the politicisation of celebrities and the celebritisation of politicians

June 20, 2013

With this welcome addition to the burgeoning debate on cultural politics set within a framework of political communication, Mark Wheeler provides a fascinating insight into the parallel developments of the celebritisation of politicians and the politicisation of celebrities. This essentially scholarly work engages critically with several theoretical explanations of how and why such changes have developed exponentially in recent decades. At the same time, it gives an account of how these processes have taken place in the UK and the US that is accessible to a wider readership interested in the interplay between politics and culture. As a result of celebritisation, politics has come to focus less on traditional institutional practices than on voice, less on advocacy than on image, and less on message content than on performance. Indeed, the repercussions of these developments have profound consequences for the functioning of democracy.

Wheeler’s theorising differs from other accounts of these changes in terms of whether we regard politicians and celebrities as media-produced commodities. Politicians, some might argue, are in thrall to celebrities, who in turn become mouthpieces of politicians. Wheeler adopts a more subtle, considered framework, which proposes that the relationship between celebrities and politicians is a two-way process and that we should focus on how far they develop competence to participate in the political domain.

Much of the appeal of this book rests in Wheeler’s discussion of how the process of celebritisation has developed in the US, the UK and beyond. In the modern era it is clearly in the US where we discern a rise in the courting of celebrities to aid election campaigning by presidential hopefuls from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama. This reached its apogee when celebrities such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger – the self-styled “Governator” – transformed themselves into politicians.

Wheeler examines how such developments have contributed to an over-focus on image within the political arena to the detriment of ideas, public participation and political parties. This is exemplified by the ways in which televised leadership debates in the 2010 UK general election spotlighted the three main party leaders, overshadowed traditional aspects of the campaign and damaged further the image of Gordon Brown as an effective leader. (Brown had been correctly described as having a “radio face”.) Similarly, in the US presidential election of 2008 the Republican candidate for the vice-presidency, Sarah Palin, came across as weak because of her inability to provide effective answers to questions from television journalists. Conversely, Obama and his teams were shown to be highly skilled in using old and new media in both of his presidential campaigns. His one lapse was being over-complacent in allowing Mitt Romney the upper hand in the first televised debate in 2012. Likewise, in the UK, Tony Blair and David Cameron have harnessed celebrity input to their advantage.

A major question posed by this book is whether celebrity politics have enhanced or diminished the democratic process and, in particular, the possibilities for public participation. Wheeler argues that new challenges to both academic and popular accounts of celebrity status and evaluation of politicians have sprung up as a result of celebritisation and that the conduct of election campaigns has been transformed by it. He contends that the jury is still out on whether these changes have enriched the political process, and prefers at this stage to submit that celebritisation has provided alternative forms of political engagement that have been facilitated by both cultural and technological change. We should investigate further how these new forms might enhance citizens’ sense of political efficacy and raise levels of trust in politicians and political institutions.

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