Stop Looking to Entertainers to Save Us
No Jon Stewart. No Donald Trump. Let's set our sights higher.
Over the weekend, Politico published an opinion piece by former Republican political advisor, Juleanna Glover, where Glover lays out a case for why Democrats should consider backing television-comedian, Jon Stewart, for a presidential run in 2024.
Glover states early on that her strong preference is for President Biden to run for re-election (which seems a less likely premise with each passing day), but she thinks Stewart would be an ideal back-up plan for the Democratic party.
Her argument begins with Stewart’s deep interest in politics, and his rhetorical “wrestling with the kind of big, serious topics that actual politicians specialize in avoiding.”
“…he’s clearly engaged enough for the job,” she writes. “But the bigger reason is that he’s a better fit than most politicians for what modern politics has become.”
She likens today’s political landscape to a “carnival”, shaped into such by Donald Trump and the rise of the conspiracy culture. In this environment, she believes someone with Stewart’s pop-culture notoriety and non-politician oratory skills would make him a very formidable candidate. She also reminds readers that the formula she describes has already proven successful.
“Trump turned an entertainment career into a political one not by growing into the moment, but by dragging politics further into the zone of entertainment…” she writes. “Increasingly, being TV-savvy isn’t just a bonus for a world leader. It’s a core requirement.”
To bolster her argument, she evokes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who entered politics as a comedian and television star, and is now deeply admired internationally as a courageous and effective world leader.
That particular point seemed to capture the interest of longtime conservative commentator (and staunch Trump critic), Bill Kristol:
Glover believes Stewart would be particularly suited to outmatch Donald Trump at his own game, should the former president decide to run again.
She writes, “Stewart has far more TV experience and is plainly much smarter, with more agility before crowds. Trump’s go-to show of strength has been his ability to pull thousands for his political rallies because they are viewed as entertainment by his supporters. A Stewart rally would be a road show of the most hilarious and civic-minded entertainers known today. And on a debate stage? Stewart would never let Trump get away with his vague policy-thin repetitious platitudes and harangues. Game, set, match.”
If the GOP instead nominates someone like Ron DeSantis or Mike Pence, Glover says “Stewart would just wood-chip right through those two stiff-as-a-board speakers.”
What about Tucker Carlson, the right-wing media star whose name has already been added to some Republican presidential polls? Glover points to his infamous on-air confrontation with Stewart in 2004, where Stewart effectively “castigated” Carlson.
“It wasn’t just great TV,” Glover writes. “it was a snapshot of what the future could hold: a presidential race where America’s most watchable and admired television personalities, albeit with polar opposite audiences, battle it out over the future of the world.”
Having read Glover’s piece in its entirety, and thoroughly digesting it, I’ve formulated what I believe is a well-reasoned counter-argument:
No. No to all of it.
Listen, I get how big of a role entertainment plays into today’s politics, and I by no means underestimate the political advantages that a gifted entertainer can bring to a campaign or even elected office. But while much as today’s politics indeed resemble a carnival, the goal should not be to keep ushering in high-wire acts and jam-packed clown cars with the hope of reaching some ultimately substantive end. Treating voters like marks shouldn’t be a governing doctrine for our politics. Adding more acts to the show isn’t a solution; it just prolongs the problem.
It’s time to start pulling up the tent stakes.
While I would love to believe that someone like Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the rule, he’s absolutely not. He’s very much the exception, and the people of Ukraine are very fortunate that he is.
One of the endearing qualities of entertainment is its historical knack for distracting people from their problems. Such distractions can be good for the soul and bring about a fresh, positive outlook.
But we’re talking about the country’s problems, and we have some real and serious ones. The further infusion of entertainment and fandom into our politics over the years (which I would argue predates the Trump era) has distracted Americans from them for far too long. The huge bills of our societal excesses and neglect are coming due, fiscally, culturally, and strategically. And while it’s always good to maintain a positive outlook, it’s also time to get down to work.
“What about Biden?” some of you may be asking. “He’s a lifelong politician, not a celebrity… and look how terrible of a president he’s proven to be.”
It’s a fair point, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that a record-shattering 81 million Americans voted for Joe Biden, not because they found him particularly impressive, qualified, or even suited for the job, but because they’d become completely exhausted with the daily, over-the-top, reality-TV buffoonery of the former guy. Trump’s treatment of the pandemic as a side-show act was the final straw.
Biden, whose biggest asset as a candidate was ironically serving under another celebrity-style president, was effectively seen as a placeholder — a timeout from the lunacy that, in its final months in power, manifested into an effort to overturn U.S. democracy, and caused a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Stewart (or any one of a number of other celebrities) would ever go down that road, but the comedian has long been a bombastic and polarizing and figure in his own right. He made his living playing up to a partisan audience rather than appealing to, and trying to find common ground with, a politically diverse one more representative of our nation. He’s a guy who’s loudest applause lines have been his shallow, bad-faith assignments of the worst possible motivations to the other side. And truth be told, just about all “politically engaged” celebrities approach politics this way.
We don’t need more showmanship. We need more solutions.
In our country of roughly 330 million, we are blessed with lots of smart professionals and public servants with strong character, solid leadership skills, and relevant experience… even if most of us don’t know their names. Our country has the tools and resources to address our nation’s big problems, but in recent years, we’ve equated expertise and qualified experience with out-of-touch elitism. We’ve also cast moral decency and thoughtfulness as signs of weakness or cowardice. What used to be considered political assets have become political liabilities, and vice-versa.
That’s a big reason why we’re so eager, as a society, to entertain entertainers (many of whom never come close to recognizing their own limitations) in public office. Well, that and our chronically low attention spans and general disinterest in basic civics and even public policy.
And sadly, we tend not to hold celebrity politicians to the standards of the office they seek or hold, but rather to those of an entertainer (which are typically dirt low).
In fact, I suspect it drives President Biden absolutely nuts that the celebrity appeal of the presidency he formerly served under hasn’t managed to rub off on him, even as he employs many of the same political tricks and maneuvers to try and distract from his woes. When you think about it, Biden is living in the worst of both worlds: he’s a poor leader and a poor entertainer.
As I suggested up top, I think it’s pretty unlikely that Biden will run for re-election. If that holds true, both parties will have a prime opportunity in 2024 (as they did and squandered not so long ago) to nominate fresh new faces — candidates with experience, temperaments and other qualities actually suited for the job of America’s chief executive.
Let’s not decide instead that we’d rather be entertained. If people want Trump vs. Stewart, because they think it would be “epic”, let’s set it up on pay-per-view.
The “future of the world,” as Glover puts it, warrants something better.
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