On Monday, I wrote a piece reacting to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech and reflecting on the true nature of Hollywood’s power. My thesis was simple: Progressive celebrities aren’t that effective as political endorsers, but they’re a potent cultural force. Celebrities relentlessly campaign for Democrats, and they relentlessly create art that advances and models their values. Democratic fortunes ebb and flow, but they’ve largely lost ground since the 1960s. Conversely, cultural trends have largely gone Hollywood’s way. Our nation is more secular, families are fracturing, and millions of people believe that America is “exceptional” mainly in its oppression of historically marginalized communities.
The New Republic’s Jeet Heer picked up on my comments and offered a response that I think misunderstands how and why Hollywood is more effective in culture than politics:
If Hollywood is powerful enough to make people lose faith in God, family, and country, then why should it be a liability in winning elections? The whole business of Hollywood is popularity, which is also the whole business of winning elections. If celebrity endorsements are partly to blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss, why did her husband and Barack Obama win the White House with a comparably impressive set of star endorsements? And if these endorsements are so toxic, then wouldn’t celebrity candidates be even more so?
Hollywood is powerful when it makes powerful art — when its stars, directors, and writers use their considerable talents to tell stories. It’s less powerful when it subordinates story-telling to preaching. Hollywood is at its most didactic in moments like the Golden Globes or the Democratic National Convention, when stars use the fame they’ve gained on the silver screen to grant themselves the credibility to speak about politics. There’s nothing all that compelling about watching Meryl Streep give a stump speech.
That’s not to say that star power doesn’t have its uses. Most politicians have insignificant name recognition, and celebrity endorsements can be helpful in alleviating anonymity. And, yes, some people are such devoted fans that they actually do care what their favorite star thinks about climate change or the Middle East peace process. At the same time, lots of other people are put off by actors or singers who seem to think they have special insights on the world’s troubles. At the presidential level, celebrity endorsements just aren’t that important — one way or the other.
Hollywood’s stories, by contrast, can be quite potent — especially over the long sweep of time. And when those stories consistently come from one point of view, that has immense cultural power. Scottish writer Andrew Fletcher said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Or, to quote Andrew Breitbart, “Politics is downstream from culture.”
That’s not to say that celebrities can’t be good politicians. As Heer notes, some of them (including Donald Trump) have charisma that translates well on the campaign trail. They also start with name recognition built around a popular personal “brand,” something that non-celebrity candidates lack. But again, the real impact of celebrity on America isn’t in politics, it’s in the far more important core values and world views that shape our communities and our lives.