NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n July 4, Kanye West announced on Twitter his intention to seek the highest office in the land. It’s not clear what we should make of this. Internet commentators unleashed a biblical deluge of “late registration” puns, pointing out that Mr. West has missed the deadline to make it onto the presidential ballot in at least six states, with the deadline for seven other states coming up in July. It also appears that he has yet to file the requisite paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission. Consequently, most people (though not Elon Musk, apparently) seem to be taking the announcement with a large grain of salt. Some have even put it down to shameless self-promotion, with Kanye’s next album and his new Gap fashion line set for upcoming release. Whatever the case may be — and who can really say, this is Kanye we’re talking about, after all — there is a broader point to be made about the encroachment of celebrity culture into the electoral landscape.
President Trump is the most obvious example. For years, he was beamed into our living-rooms, presiding over the rat-race of American capitalism as the King of the Hill, the incarnation of the success that every sharp-elbowed would-be entrepreneur aspired to. The Apprentice sold Trump to the viewing public as an all-American amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it was perhaps naïve for so many to imagine in 2016 that the image created in those years of reality-TV stardom would have no bearing on his electoral chances once he threw his hat into the ring.
We all know by now that the line between politics and entertainment has become increasingly blurred. Fictional shows and news networks measure themselves by the same standard: ratings. After the 2016 election, CNN CEO Jeff Zucker even entertained the notion that his network was partially responsible for the result because of its monomaniacal coverage of the Trump campaign. Whether or not that’s true, any analysis of the last presidential election certainly has to take into account the fact that Trump is always appointment viewing.
It could be argued that being good on television has been a sine qua non for presidential candidates since the Kennedy–Nixon debates of 1960. But even so, entertainment value has risen exponentially on the list of desirable attributes for politicians since then. The way Americans talk about candidates for high office in 2020 resembles nothing so much as amateur film criticism: “I don’t feel like I can identify with him,” “her story is very compelling,” “he’s just not connecting with the audience.” Of course, theater has always played an important role in politics, but why does it increasingly feel as if this role is the starring one?
Those inclined to reduce social and political events to material factors will probably be content to note the stunning multiplication of screens in American households in recent years and leave it at that. We are all watching more television, more YouTube, more Twitter clips than we were before, and so it is natural that the long-standing desire for entertainment in politics has become magnified. The television is, according to this reading of the facts, like the gun left on the mantlepiece in Act I of Nabokov’s play; by Act III of the digital revolution, we were bound to use it for something important, like choosing a president.
There’s a lot of truth in this, but not enough. As Fustel de Coulanges wrote, history’s “true object of study is the human mind: It should aspire to know what this mind believed, thought, and felt in different ages in the life of the human race.” In that spirit, we should reflect upon our repeated attempts to tear down the wall of separation between power and pleasure if we want to knock entertainment from the pedestal it occupies in our politics. Ask yourself: When was the last time the more boring of the two major-party nominees won a general election?
Alexis de Tocqueville made some observations about the nature of life in American society almost 200 years ago that are relevant here. He noted that the attitudes of people toward their neighbors in a democratic society are strikingly different from those in the aristocratic societies of the old world. The driver of this difference is the spirit of comparison that exists in nations tmarked by the formal equality of their citizens:
In certain areas of the Old World . . . the inhabitants are for the most part extremely ignorant and poor; they take no part in the business of the country and are frequently oppressed by the government, yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light. In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung upon their brows, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures. The chief reason for this contrast is that the former do not think of the ills they endure, while the latter are forever brooding over the advantages they do not possess.
Larry Siedentop has noted, “Whereas identities in an aristocratic society seem ‘natural’ or fated, in a democratic society they are constructed or artificial. . . . Individuals can distinguish between persons and roles, compare roles and aspire (at least in principle) to almost any role.” This spirit of comparison, fostered by the formal legal equality of all citizens, leads to an astounding release of energy in democratic societies as individuals are no longer bound by inherited roles or identities and can aspire to status, wealth, and power:
When people no longer feel tied to a particular situation, they compare what they have with what they might have, and the consequence is the multiplication of wants. Instead of the static wants of an aristocratic society, where people feel that their lot is fixed, members of a democratic society are obsessed with acquiring what they do not yet have.
This phenomenon was examined at length in economic terms by Adam Smith and other philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, but what really fascinated Tocqueville was the impact it has on the human soul. Civic equality is a double-edged sword, for while it succeeds in multiplying the desires of the masses, it also multiplies their disappointment and frustration as they find that status, wealth, and power are still concentrated in the hands of a small number of people. Here is Tocqueville again:
The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them. . . . They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures that stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition. . . . To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy that often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance.
The most important difference between democratic and aristocratic societies is the mechanism by which benefits such as status and wealth are allocated. In an aristocratic society, they are distributed according to the sheer accident of birth. This is an unjust and depraved arrangement from which millions have suffered, but it also leads to a social situation where people never really consider the possibility that their lot in life might be otherwise than it is. When the possibility of constructing your own life and identity is ruled out of the question from the start, the frustration, discouragement, and resentment that accompany the failure to do so are as well. Majorities in aristocratic regimes may have suffered needlessly for centuries, and we should celebrate their downfall as a result, but according to Tocqueville, there is reason to believe that for large swaths of history these people were, on a spiritual level, more content in their sufferings than we are in our excesses.
Things are much different in democratic societies and almost always for the better, but democracy still brings its own challenges — the systemic propensity for comparison is one. Once the notion that we are all created equal has penetrated deeply enough into the collective unconscious of a people, comparison is irresistible. There is no theoretical reason why a person cannot or should not aspire to the lot of another person in terms of power, wealth, or status if that other person is equal to him. In light of this fact, the market supplants birthright as the allocator of human goods, both physical and metaphysical. Since everyone is equal by birth, these things must be awarded to the man who can persuade his fellow equals to bestow them on him voluntarily. As a result, everyone in the community, faced with the possibility of success or failure where there was once only fate, is constantly assessing his progress in the endless competition, insecure in an identity that depends in no small part on the mercurial perceptions of the masses.
Imagine how this social dynamic plays out in, say, a New England port town at the turn of the 17th century, where two merchants are setting up rival operations somewhere on the Atlantic coast. Let us say that one of the merchants proves to be much more talented than the other, who is promptly run out of business. In purely economic terms, our sorry settler might still be in much better shape than a Russian serf living on the other side of the world, despite his failed venture. But he sees himself as a failure while the serf, never having gotten a chance to be anything else, is relatively content. The only thing separating the settler’s lot in life from that of the wealthy merchant is, in his eyes, his own inadequacy. The serf, by contrast, sees the distance between himself and his lord as a matter of immutable fate, so it does not threaten his identity or torture his soul.
If the power of this spirit of competition in the context of civic equality can be demonstrated simply by appealing to an intuitive just-so story about fictional colonists, what are we to make of its role in a globalized, technologically interconnected world? By now, economic and cultural globalism in combination with the Internet have eviscerated the ability of local communities to effectively generate wealth and status, while the centralizing Leviathan of government has done the same to their ability to generate power. The field of comparison on which each person plays is not a small township, or even a local community, as it might have been for our parents; it’s the whole world.
The imprint that social comparison on this scale has on the average American is not to be underestimated. On social media and on reality television, all of us are welcomed into the highly curated lives of the wealthiest, most successful, most beautiful people on the planet. It is a sad irony of the modern world that while each generation’s quality of life improves, the bar for success is also set higher and higher. When everyone is competing in every way with those humans who have been touched in some exceptional way by the finger of God, then there will inevitably be those among us who feel so weightless and anonymous that they give in to despair and turn to chemical consolation prizes, robbing themselves of life and livelihood alike.
This kind of social dynamic also spells trouble for those who do reach the very top, though they might not know it. In the old, aristocratic model, it was still possible for elites to recognize the role that providence played in their good fortune. The acknowledgement that they were not the authors of their own prosperity left room for the notion that they had some duty to exercise their privileges for the common good. We wouldn’t want to romanticize this too much. Noblesse oblige was likely far less common than high-handed arrogance and entitlement among the aristocrats of yesteryear. But at least it existed whereas among today’s meritocrats, it doesn’t. Given that the meritocratic ladder is a market mechanism, with credentials, jobs, and elections being decided (at least ostensibly) on the basis of merit, there is no logical reason for those at the top to believe that they owe anything to those at the bottom. Our culture reinforces the idea that they are the unilateral authors of their own success, just as it reinforces a similar notion about the failures of the down-and-outs.
Thus, Americans are left with two options: Either be a celebrity, or find one to champion you and make you feel visible. If you’re successful in the socioeconomic marketplace, then you can have the satisfaction of comparing yourself with those in power and concluding that they’re not so different from you. You might not actually be in charge, but you’re the kind of person who could be. If you’re less successful, or if you identify with those who are, then your best bet is to find someone higher up the totem pole who is willing to act vicariously as your voice at the top. (This is the mutual appeal that populists and the disenfranchised have to one another when they are effective, which Trump exploited skillfully in 2016.)
Fine, but the question still remains: What should be done about this state of affairs? What is the remedy for celebrity politics? For one thing, dispersing as much political power as locally as possible would help to imbue communities, neighborhoods, and towns with a level of status, a tangible meaning to life. For another, reversing the decline in religious association across the country could help, as the dense social networks and communities that religious bodies provide render their members less vulnerable to the overtures of celebrity charlatans who promise to be their champion in the political arena. There are undoubtedly policies that should be pursued to rehabilitate other, nonreligious institutions that act as local reserves of human capital in communities across the country, as well. But in the end, the radical treatment required to rid us of the enervating influence of celebrity will not come from the state but from a religious faith that can stand contra mundum — against the forces of fame and infamy — and demonstrate that those chasing status, wealth, power, and privilege were running in the wrong direction all along.