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Edward B. Foley
Free & Fair is a collection of writings by Edward B. Foley, one of the nation's preeminent experts on election law.

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I Want My MTV ... Mayor!

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June 28, 2005

Under the headline "Vocal Candidate," the local paper recently introduced me to Justin Jeffre, former member of the boy-band 98 Degrees, who is running for mayor of Cincinnati. 1  I know that Cincinnati was the cradle for politician-turned-celebrity-turned-politician-again, trash talk show host Jerry Springer. Maybe there's something peculiar about politics in the Queen City that embraces entertainer candidates. But what explains the rest of the entertainer-mayors: Clint Eastwood in Carmel, Sonny Bono in Palm Springs, Alan Autry in Fresno? Add governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse "The Body" Ventura and a trend emerges.

At the state and local level, entertainers turned candidates now routinely seek public office. This recent proliferation of celebrity candidates is linked to a political process dominated by media, money, and malaise. But what is wrong with an executive officeholder who is more comfortable on the stage than in the statehouse? Critics lodge that celebrity candidates undermine representative democracy and the legitimacy of the executive branch. Some have suggested that our electoral system should be reformed, especially in the areas of campaign finance and media access, to make it more difficult for celebrity candidates to dominate seasoned political professionals as candidates for executive office. These suggested reforms, however, rest on the mistaken premise that entertainer candidates are a problem. I disagree. Rather than posing a threat to the democratic process or executive legitimacy, the rise of the entertainer-turned-politician reflects that the current electoral system works well to mirror the desires of the electorate.

Celebrity and the Entertainer Politician

Increasingly, there is a blur between politics and pop culture. Bill Clinton blows a saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. Schwarzenegger announces his candidacy on Jay Leno. The cable network Showtime even proposed a reality show, "American Candidate," to identify a person with the qualities and qualifications to be President. The winner would receive $200,000 and a nationwide media appearance to address the nation. 2  This blend of celebrity and politics is not new. P.T. Barnum ran more than the Big Top. He was also elected Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1875. However, the current level of preoccupation with celebrity status provides a foundation for the rise of the entertainer politician.

"Celebrity" is hard to define. In general, a celebrity is one who is widely recognized. Fame is a component, but certainly not sufficient; mass murderers can be famous but not be celebrities. Political scientists Darrell West and John Orman provide a useful taxonomy of celebrity influence on politics in their book Celebrity Politics . They identify, for example, legacies born into political-celebrity families (the Kennedys), political newsworthies (Jesse Jackson), and nonpoliticos acting as spokespersons (Charlton Heston). 3  My focus, however, is limited to a subset of what West and Orman call "famed nonpoliticos elected to public office" - entertainers seeking executive office. Think Schwarzenegger.

Broader inquiries are certainly possible. Celebrity candidates include former athletes (Jack Kemp), coaches (Tom Osborne), the extremely rich (H. Ross Perot), and the highly accomplished (John Glenn), as well as entertainers. However, something unique is happening with entertainers and executive office. Entertainers now seeking executive office, like Schwarzenegger, Ventura, Bono, and Jeffre, have resumes completely devoid of any background or experience that offers preparation for the decision-making demands of high-level executive leadership. 4

Media, Money, and Malaise

What characteristics of the current American political process foster this upsurge? You could say it all started with the advent of the direct primary system in 1968. Now voters, not party bosses, have a greater say in who the candidate will be. The entertainer politician is more likely to appeal to a mass audience of voters than to a handful of political elites. While our voting laws provide the structure for the election of popular candidates, mass media, especially television, is the most significant factor giving rise to the entertainer politician.

All candidates for statewide and local office need media access to get their candidacy before the voters. The celebrity entertainer is the ideal candidate. By virtue of their status, entertainers garner more media attention, the so-called "earned" or free media. The newspaper article on Justin Jeffre that caught my eye is a good example.

An entertainer who is used to self-promotion is also better equipped to use the media access. A TV or movie star should be adept at delivering the sound bites TV demands. The entertainer politician often has experience going toe-to-toe with the tabloid press and sidestepping controversy. If past misdeeds do surface, celebrity status insulates the entertainer to a degree. The public simply tolerates more-indeed probably expects more-past misbehavior by celebrities then it allows with noncelebrity candidates. 5

The media also plays a distinct role in the public's assessment of entertainers for executive office. Voters need to visualize them as potential leaders; television and film provide the roles. In essence, the entertainer politician gets more media attention and is better prepared to make the best use of it.

If TV time is essential to electoral success, cash is the key to TV. The importance of money to local and state political campaigns is the second factor contributing to the rise of entertainer politicians. All elections are expensive. The total expenditure for the 36 gubernatorial races in 2002 was $833.2 million. 6  This comes out to an average cost of $13.68 per vote. Mayoral races now hit record highs. 7  Candidates in the Cincinnati mayoral race are projected to spend almost half a million dollars. 8  A successful candidate must have fundraising capability. The entertainer comes well prepared with all-important name recognition, self-promotion skills, and celebrity friends. 9  They know firsthand that "celebrity sells." The public may also be more receptive to entertainers in this role. They are used to seeing the entertainer as pitchman. This greater familiarity could translate into an increased willingness to contribute.

A third factor contributing to the rise and success of entertainer politicians is the overall weakness of political parties. The traditional path to executive office involves a winnowing process typically controlled by political parties. Under this model, a viable gubernatorial candidate would have held many prior elected offices at the local and state level. Even a mayoral candidate would have prior experience serving in an entry-level office such as on a school board or city council. This experience in both contested elections and executive leadership provides the political base for higher office.

Growing public dissatisfaction with the product of this process and stagnant governance opens the door for independents and political outsiders. Voters want a "white knight" to champion reform. Entertainer politicians fill the bill. Based upon their celebrity and outsider status, entertainer-candidates can leapfrog the traditional political process. The parties must either make room at the top or risk losing even more electoral ground. This malaise in political parties, compounded by the importance of media and money, explains why entertainers can so easily morph into candidates.

The Academic Critique

So what is the problem if a pop star runs for mayor or talk show host wants to be governor? 10  The ballots are counted the same way regardless of the candidate's résumé. Nonetheless, the weight of academic opinion is that trading on one's celebrity in pursuit of executive office is wrong. Several interrelated criticisms emerge.

First, entertainer politicians fuel the current preoccupation with appearance already dominating politics. Democracy depends upon an informed electorate. However, hard news on political issues is being crowded out in favor of celebrity coverage. Entertainer candidates divert even more attention away from real issues in favor of superficial ones and widen this "news hole." In the end, citizens will lack the necessary information to participate effectively in democracy.

A second criticism centers on entertainers' lack of policy knowledge. While an entertainer's outsider status may initially appeal to disillusioned voters, the entertainer executive simply does not have the working knowledge of the major issues of the day to govern effectively. In comparison, career politicians, by definition, have spent years thinking about education, welfare, public transportation, and the like.

An absence of policy knowledge is compounded by a lack of traditional bargaining and negotiation skills. Effective dispute resolution, compromise, and negotiation are essential parts of the executive officeholder skill set. Without these skills, the entertainer executive can alienate those groups needed for effective governance-legislatures, city councils, the media, and ultimately voters.

These deficiencies lead political scientists and popular culturalists to the conclusion that entertainer candidates lack legitimacy undermining the executive office itself. Entertainers essentially dumb-down the electoral pool while pandering to the public's thirst for the superficial. Simply by running, they divert attention from important policy issues and hinder the electorate's access to information. If the entertainer wins, the new officeholder's inexperience in public policy decision-making guarantees an executive ill-equipped to handle the job.

Entertainer Politicians and Democracy

I reject this recurrent theme. As a threshold matter, I am troubled by the narrow view of representative democracy upon which it is based. Critics find entertainer candidates unfit by looking at the characteristics of the candidate alone. Representation, however, is relational. It involves not only the characteristics of the representative, but also how the representative reflects and resembles the represented. In the context of a relationship between the politician and the voter, there is new value in entertainer candidacies.

First of all, appearance is important. Appearance lies at the core of the relationship between the executive and the electorate. There are two types of executive actions-concrete and symbolic. Consider a simple illustration. President Bush's order of troops into Iraq is a concrete act. Compare that to President Bush landing a jet fighter on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and emerging from the cockpit in full flight regalia to the cheers of the crew. This performance, played out on live television, was masterful in detail down to the helmet tucked under his arm, "Commander-in-Chief" painted on the jet, and his swagger across the flight deck. 11  This executive action is purely symbolic.

It is also unquestionably using appearance to affect the representational relationship. Voters never know how a potential candidate will vote on every issue. It is through a candidate's appearance that voters fill in the gaps to create a more complete picture. It is estimated that 80 percent of Ronald Reagan's televised actions as President were appearance-oriented, symbolic acts. 12  Representative democracy depends upon this type of use of appearance and symbolism.

Now if Tom Cruise were a candidate, would his reenactment of Top Gun scenes be distinguishable from Bush's flight deck antics? The focus on appearance and image would target the same relationship between entertainer candidate and electorate as the President's symbolic act. My point is simple: all politicians use appearance to communicate with voters. An entertainer's use of appearance is no less legitimate than a career politician's use of it. To the extent that entertainer politicians emphasize appearance, they strengthen this representational relationship as opposed to distract from it.

And what of the entertainer's vacuum of public policy detail and skills? Viewed through the representative relationship, the entertainer-who lacks encyclopedic policy knowledge-more closely resembles the electorate than the career politician. At times, this is precisely what voters want. For example, in a pre-election poll, 34 percent of likely voters in the 2003 California governor's race said that Schwarzenegger's inexperience made them more likely to vote for him. 13  An electorate tired of policy wonks and political maneuvering can perform a throw-the-bastards-out house cleaning. This can usher in the entertainer candidate who functions as a sort of political everyman. Viewed through this relational lens, entertainers seeking executive office strengthen the political process, representative democracy, and legitimacy.

Of course, this doesn't mean that a victorious entertainer is destined to be an effective executive. Remember Jesse Ventura. But the discrete assessment of a gubernatorial or mayoral administration is not the point. Rather, entertainers who run for executive office at the state or local level expand our vision of democracy and remind us that popular culture is as much a part of politics as politics is pop culture. So bring on the MTV mayors. Hail to the Entertainer-in-Chief!

Notes

1. Kristy Eckert, Vocal Candidate, Former boy-band member changes beat of Cincinnati mayoral race, The Columbus Dispatch, May 31, 2005, at 1F.

2. See American Candidate at htpp://www.hotjobs.com/start/americancandidate (last visited June 2, 2005).

3Darrell West & John Orman, Celebrity Politics 2-6 (2002).

4. I know what you're thinking - what about Ronald Reagan - the quintessential entertainer politician? Reagan, however, wasn't elected President on the heels of "Bedtime for Bonzo." His movie career was already becoming a distant memory when he was elected Governor of California in 1966. In the interim, he was the chief executive of a large labor union, the Screen Actors Guild, where Reagan cultivated experiences quite suitable for executive office. The current trend is different.

5. For example, Schwarzenegger even rebounded from his 1977 interview in Oui magazine where he admitted to group sex and drug use.

6. Millions Spent on Governor's Race a Real Deal, Tallahassee Democrat, (Mar. 21, 2003) (citing Gubernatorial Campaign Expenditure Database), available at http://www.tallahassee.com.

7. Michael Bloomberg spent over $70 million in the New York City mayor's race in 2001. Lincoln Mitchell & Leo Glickman, Mixing Money and Politics: How Campaign Finance Affects Democratic Governance in the U.S., Human Development Report, U.N. Development Programme, at 30 (2002).

8. See supra note 1.

9. Not surprisingly, at his news conference announcing his run for mayor, Justin Jeffre was accompanied by Nick Lachey, former band mate and costar of "The Newlyweds" with wife Jessica Simpson. See supra note 1.

10. See Associated Press, Jerr-eee! Jerr-eee! Springer Steals Show (July 27, 2004) (discussing potential Ohio gubernatorial candidacy), available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5528856.

11. See Bush flies Viking, but he doesn't land it , New York Times, May 1, 2003 (describing the President's landing), available at www.jsonline.com/news/gen/may03/137887.asp.

12. Thomas Meyer, Mass Communication: Political Culture and Democracy , at http://www.nepaldemocracy.org/civic_education/political_culture.htm (last visited June 6, 2005).

13. Susan Page, Lack of Political Resume Can Actually Boost Newcomers, USA Today, Sept. 29, 2003, at 1A.