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Does a focus on individuals and celebrity make for a poorer political culture?
According to McAllister (2016), the increasing focus on individuals in politics can be traced back to the 1980s and the governments of Thatcher and Reagan (p. 2). Today, this trend has manifested itself in the so-called ‘personalization of politics’ (ibid., p. 1). Meanwhile, ‘the merging of celebrity and politics’ has also become a feature of contemporary political culture (Inthorn and Street, 2011, p. 1). Whilst it is widely accepted that personalisation and the development of celebrity have been significant, it is less clear whether they have led to a richer or poorer political culture. In this essay, I asses both perspectives. First, I consider how there came to be a greater focus on individuals in the political arena. Second, I briefly examine the impact of personalisation on political culture – namely in respect to how voters perceive candidates. Third, I examine the impact of celebrity on political culture – namely its impact on the quality of democracy and political engagement. Ultimately, I argue that the emergence of celebrity, despite some valid concerns, can engage those who might otherwise feel politically apathetic, whilst also allowing citizens to more easily hold political figures accountable.
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Only for the last 60 years or so has mass media been dominated by visual images. The emergence of television revolutionised the relationship between citizens and political figures by using visual images – rather than the text or audio of newspapers and radio – to disseminate information. This naturally directed attention towards the personalities of individuals, since, as McAllister (2009) notes, it is more straightforward to communicate political information through visual images of a ‘familiar personality rather than through an abstract document or an institution’ (p. 579). Following the emergence of visual mass media, then, individual figures represent a ‘convenient visual shortcut to capture and retain the viewer’s attention’ (ibid.). As such, televisual images can make it much easier for individual political figures to form relationships with citizens.
Evidence suggests that visual images on television significantly influence how political figures are perceived by audiences (McAllister, 2007, p. 582). For instance, the first presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 was the first of its kind to be broadcast on television and is widely seen as having won the election for Kennedy. Druckman’s (2003) study demonstrates that those who solely watched the visual television coverage of the debate responded differently to those who solely listened to the audio radio coverage. Those who saw the visual images placed more emphasis on their view of the candidates’ personalities and appearances, which ultimately ‘enabled Kennedy to win due to his superior image even though he was not necessarily better on the issues’ (Druckman, 2003, p. 563). Technological developments continue to transform the way in which political figures are able to communicate with citizens using mass media. Whilst televisual images seemingly began this trend, it has continued to develop with the proliferation of the internet. More recently still, the emergence of social media has completely changed the nature of political communication – not least by helping to facilitate the merging of politics with celebrity.
It is widely accepted that the development of celebrity has helped to shape contemporary political culture (Drake and Higgins, 2006, p. 89). There is disagreement amongst scholars, however, as to whether the emergence of celebrity politics is desirable or whether it threatens to create a poorer political culture. For instance, some argue that celebrity culture has led contemporary politics to depend too heavily on ‘image and spin’ at the expense of ‘rational argumentation’ (Drake and Higgins, 2006, p. 89). To this effect, Franklin (2004) argues that political figures must now focus on effectively ‘packaging’ themselves in order to be attractive to citizens. In other words, the emphasis is now on image rather than substantive policy positions and, for Franklin (2014), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election to political office perfectly exemplifies this prevailing culture of ‘style over substance’ (p. 12). On the other hand, Corner and Pels (2003) argue that this trend – which they refer to as the ‘performative restyling’, or ‘aestheticisation’ of politics – does not necessarily have to be seen as a negative development (pp. 16-17). Rather, by accepting and attempting to understand this development, we might gain a fuller appreciation of how political actors communicate with their audiences. Indeed, Corner (2003) suggests that the notion of the ‘mediated persona’ is not only a necessary component of contemporary politics, but also ‘a constituent factor of social life, including the realm of ‘private life’’ (pp. 67-68). Therefore, if performative behaviour is an inevitability, by accepting it – rather than denying its importance – we can potentially work towards achieving a more transparent political culture.
Unlike Corner, Kellner (2010) argues that the performative nature of contemporary politics and the focus on celebrity – which he refers to as ‘media spectacle’ – encourages and rewards ‘symbolic politics’ at the expense of ‘the hard work of diplomacy, policy formations and debate, compromise, and . . . implementation’ (p. 123). Employing similar logic, Louw (2005) claims that celebrity politics is simply one example of a broader ‘world of media-made illusion’ in which ‘the gap between entertainers and politicians narrows’ (p. 192). Louw employs the term ‘pseudo-politics’ to describe a reality in which ‘celebrities are scripted into performances designed to popularize political messages’ in the hope that information will ‘be absorbed by mass audiences in an uncritical way’ (ibid., 191).
In spite of Louw’s claims about the artificial nature of contemporary politics, celebrity politics still has the capacity to engage otherwise disaffected groups of people. For example, van Elteren (2013) claims that political apathy is ‘counterbalanced by a more distracted interest in political infotainment and celebrity’ (p. 274). Furthermore, van Elteren suggests that the consumption of political information is now characterised by ‘visual literacy’ and thus the performative nature of celebrity politics enables ‘audiences to “read” political characters and “taste” their style, enabling them to judge their claims of authenticity and competence’ (ibid.). Such developments lead Corner and Pels (2003) to assert that, whilst recognising the emergence of ‘new risks’, the ‘media exposure of political personae lends them a strange familiarity’ and therefore a more performative style of politics can provide ‘new opportunities for democratic representation and accountability’ (p. 7).
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It has been suggested that a focus on celebrity ‘trivialises politics’ and has led to a political culture which is predicated upon ‘personalities, image and spin’ (Marsh, ‘t Hart and Tindall, 2010, p. 10). According to this account, of which Weiskel (2005) is an advocate, culture complicated analysis and nuanced debate are likely to be replaced by constructed ‘pseudoevents’ (p. 394); which include carefully planned performances such as photo shoots (p. 398). This trend is often blamed for the ‘lowering of the quality of politicians’ and ‘the dumbing down of political debate’ (Marsh, ‘t Hart and Tindall, 2010, p. 10) however, others argue that this is a small price to pay for the gains in accountability that a more mediated political culture can deliver. Cowen (2000), for instance, insists that ‘[t]he separation of fame and merit is part of the price we pay for modern democracy, which relies heavily on media to monitor our leaders’ (p. 170). In other words, political figures are subjected to continuous public scrutiny as a result of a highly mediated culture. Thus, celebrity culture provides a level of scrutiny – ‘the burdens of fame’ (ibid.) – which, perhaps unintentionally, offers a high level of public accountability, whilst also enabling the public to become familiar with the personalities of political figures.
In conclusion, a focus on individuals and celebrity might be able to engage otherwise apathetic people in politics whilst also providing high levels of public scrutiny and, thus, more accountability. Therefore, despite various valid concerns, it certainly seems that a focus on individuals and celebrity does not necessarily result in a poorer political culture. On the contrary, a more personalised, mediated style of politics has the potential to enhance democracy through increased engagement and by more effectively disseminating important information.
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