Truth one: Outside of music, Kanye does not matter. Truth two: Despite this, people act like he does. That’s instructive. Truth three: This explains an important fact about our world, and how Americans think about politics.
The story started as every human story in history begins: with Kanye. West said something only an idiot or a fabulously wealthy person would say. But I repeat myself:
The outlines of what followed are broadly predictable and disappointingly regular. Every human being had a take. Not mere exaggeration, just simple truth: everyone who’d ever been anyone anywhere online replied. Since the majority of my readers are human persons who physically live in the world, I’ll spare us both the recap. After Kanye backed Trump, the right defended him.
No shock there. But more remarkable—and most telling—was the opposition. A series of affronted replies followed from the liberal side of the aisle. The sense of betrayal was palpable. Which is odd. In what universe is Kanye a symbol of enlightenment and compassion? The man makes blue-ribbon music, but he cannot be considered a fully actualized human being. It takes someone incredibly entitled to make Taylor Swift look like a marginalized prole, but Kanye was up to the task. Both then and now.
Every celebrity-has-a-point political essay should be cremated in a Utah firepit. Kanye should not matter to our politics. Roseanne should not matter. Shania should not matter. Neither should Scott Adams.
Celebrities, of any political persuasion, are irrelevant to American politics.
The folks I mentioned above are wealthy, successful people who have as much to do with working-class families as Charles Dickens did with trap music. Tim Allen was never an avatar for blue-collar manhood, Lena Dunham will never be the spokesperson for a generation, Louis CK isn’t a brave truth-teller, and Oprah is not the incarnation of female liberation. They don’t possess any oracular insight into the nature of things. We project it onto them.
Despite this, in defiance of common sense, celebrities matter. Their opinions matter to hundreds of millions of Americans. Serious sentiment is invested in entertainers—people who have a vested interest in reliably provoking passionate reactions from huge crowds. But the intensity and emotional content of those reactions varies according to politics. The difference is simple: when a celebrity takes an opposing stand, conservatives feel angry, but liberals feel betrayed.
The thrill conservatives get from celebrity Republicans has nothing to do with representation. Deep down, the right understands that liberals have the edge in celebrity culture—always have, always will. A small handful of reactionary mouthpieces are loved because they summon regular angst from non-conservatives.
Celebrities matter more to liberals. Don’t get me wrong: seeing conservatives upset over Kaepernick is extremely funny. But liberals are involved with celebrity politics in a peculiar way. Progressives treat celebrities like conservatives treat the police. That’s how Roseanne’s support for Trump became “relevant” to the national conversation. Forget the question of whether Roseanne has anything to say about block grants or mass transit. Here’s a better question: why was the question even brought up?
Here’s why. In this country, we treat politics as consumption. Perhaps it’s because this is a consumer society, and consuming is the way many of us deal with large questions. Perhaps it’s because we’re atomized, and everything we experience is filtered through TV, movies, and mass communication. All larger questions are, to use the term, mediated. Perhaps it has something to do with human nature: we have to personalize everything.
Or maybe it’s simpler: The Powers That Be would prefer we not discuss economics. The culture war is no real threat to the owners of America. If forced to choose, the Koch Network and Sheldon Adelson will always care more about government regulation than they do about sideline kneeling. Politicians and media outlets don’t like to criticize the one percent. But cultural signifiers are Open for Discussion … and they always draw ratings.
Symbolic war and war-by-champion is nothing new. According to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains:
Counting coup, or striking an enemy, was the highest honor earned by warriors participating in the intertribal wars of the Great Plains. Native peoples recognized precise systems of graduated war honors, and usually the greatest exploit was counting coup. Key to a man’s success in Plains combat was demonstrating his own courage by proving superiority over his opponent … This was best accomplished by risking one’s life in charging the enemy on foot or horseback to get close enough to touch or strike him with the hand, a weapon, or a “coupstick.”
Culture consumption is how most American citizens participate in (and think of) politics. Celebrity politics is a branch of cultural consumption: performative acts of symbolic magic, realized through cultural consumption and social presentation.
In reality, change comes from agitating, organizing, and confronting systems of entrenched power.
Our political system is set up to discourage such action. Even prosperous Americans, who have the time and resources for political involvement, feel excluded. But cultural signifiers are always available. You might not know what the hell the Import-Export Bank does, but it’s easy to discuss What Kanye Just Said. Fame has swallowed the world.
So it’s no surprise that most Americans turn to what they know: the tie between public notoriety and the public good. You pick your champions, and wait for them to encourage or disappoint you. Where celebrity politics is concerned, it’s mostly the latter. Celebrities are famous for what they are, not what they do, and effective politics is a matter of doing. Fame is a poor currency for holding value, and political activism cannot be exchanged for an equivalent amount of celebrity.
The fundamental contradiction of fame and politics will never go away. Fame’s a scarce resource, but politics belongs to everyone. Through politics, the necessities of life can be distributed democratically; fame is inherently elite. We deserve more than celebrity prophets. In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes; our politics, however, must last a little longer.