Don't expect celebrities to be political saviours -

Don’t expect celebrities to be political saviours

Michelle Rempel: Celebrities won’t save us on the merit of their celebrity alone. Good leadership requires real humility.


Oprah Winfrey listens in the East Room of the White House in Washington, during a ceremony where President Barack Obama awarded Presidential Medals of Freedom. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

This week, the prospect of an Oprah Winfrey presidential candidacy sparked a discussion about whether or not celebrities are automatically qualified to lead a government, on the basis of their celebrity alone.

Praise the heavens. This dialogue is sorely needed, and not just in the United States. It affects us here too.

So what does make someone qualified to lead a government, anyway?

READ MORE: Asking if Oprah will run for president is the wrong question

Today, if you found yourself in the back room of any political party in Canada, you’d probably hear political strategists talking about “raising brand recognition” as an end metric in any advertising effort or announcement involving their leader.

Sadly, this is one of the lenses that are used to evaluate policy decisions, too. Hyper-partisanship—blind loyalty or loathing of a party or a person—now can feel like a virtual requirement for politicos to drive a message. The same could be said for sensational outrage or facile talking points.

Any strategist of any political stripe who tells you otherwise is a liar.

So how did we arrive at this place?

First, the size and scope of government in Canada exponentially expanded around the time of the world wars. Since then, for better and worse, government has grown to touch virtually every aspect of a Canadian’s life.

My generation has grown up in a system in which government is so ubiquitous that many of us rarely think to question the role of government. We’ve developed a tendency to default to accepting the existence of the state across every area of our lives, and to look to the state as the solution to most public-policy issues.

This has led to a widening gulf between the size of the government and our individual ability and desire to scrutinize every aspect of it, and in turn, to scrutinize the people who we entrust with leading it.

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This precipitates the next problem. If we don’t actively examine the role and efficacy of government, then how can we reasonably assess what skills are needed to lead our government and represent our interests before we cast our vote? How do we know which candidate best meets these criteria? Are they seeking power for power’s sake, or do they plan on doing something with that power? If so, what, and what long-term impact will that have on our country?

Compounding the problem of our disconnect from the role and expansion of government is that social media and digital communications have fundamentally changed the way we consume information. The news cycle went from hours to seconds in a few short years. We tend to reward politicians and journalists who are out first on an issue with retweets, views, and votes. This can encourage rote responses or sensationalism as opposed to the measured thought that comes from taking the time to analyze, consult, or negotiate a position. From there, the dialogue too often moves to ad hominem attacks or oversimplified bandwagon defence.

This phenomenon does not encourage smart, non-populist policy development.

At the same time, our economy and the broader global community is experiencing significant changes. Some labour and service jobs are being automated, and the sharing economy, the internet of things, and government regulations are moving some professions into major operational change, obsolescence or unprofitability. Extremism, corruption, conflict and climate factors have precipitated one of the most severe global migration crises in history. People are on the move, and some types of jobs are becoming scarce. We are all looking for answers to address these challenges.

In doing so, it’s very easy to look outward for easy hope.

Enter our hunger for the celebrity leader, whose family dynasty, talk show, sports career, or whatever else, gives us familiarity with them. They can instantly become a trusted hero in our darkest hour. It’s their smiling face or forcefulness that allows us to hand over our collective responsibility for addressing the challenges of our time to the strength of their celebrity brand.

In reality, it takes an entirely different skill set to effect political change. Good public policy requires listening to the community to create and receive license for new ideas. It requires unique skills to draft ideas into law, and negotiate with other legislators to pass those proposed laws through a legislature. It then requires the exertion of will upon the inertia of bureaucracy to implement them. These are learned skills that benefit from experience in office.

That said, I understand our disillusionment with the political class. Those who gain experience in office can develop a tendency to think that experience entitles them to power. In reality, entitlement equates to death in terms of ability to achieve license to effect change.

READ MORE: Trump to celebrities: Move to Canada

This is why humility is probably the most important attribute an elected official can have. Affecting positive change as an elected official requires listening to people who don’t share your worldview and who question your dogma in order to understand what public-policy challenges your community is facing, and what to stand for. It takes humility in understanding that you’re not above having to explain your decisions to the public, nor above having to make unpopular decisions.

It takes humility to understand that your job is not about your ego or the expansion of your brand, but about the community of people who pay your salary to make the world better for them.

Beyond lack of skill in a legislature, this is why it’s dangerous to rely on celebrities for their celebrity alone, to effect change. It’s difficult to humble yourself when your brand gives you recognition, or makes people feel they have something to gain by stroking your ego. Fame and power make it easy to sit in an echo chamber.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have not been perfect on these fronts. As do many of my colleagues, I try to learn from the political leaders I’ve admired the most, leaders from across the spectrum who were uniformly humble and did not seek power for their own gain. Some were rich and powerful before coming into office, most weren’t. All of them made good public policy their goal.

All of this isn’t to say someone who is a celebrity isn’t qualified to lead government. Rather, from anyone seeking office, celebrity or not, we should ask them what their vision is, and question whether or not they have the skills needed to implement it. We then need to hold them accountable for the same.

In the end, we as the electorate get what we ask for. If we fail to scrutinize the role and efficacy of government before we vote, positive change doesn’t happen. If we reward sensationalism, likeability, and celebrity over humility and ability to affect positive change, then that is the style of government we will get. If we fail to identify and understand what policy challenges are facing our community, our candidates for office will do it for us and change will never occur. If we fail to insist that our elected officials are humble with the receipt of power, then abuses will occur.

Celebrities won’t save us on the merit of their celebrity alone.

Each of us owning our own responsibility to actively engage in the political process will.


Don’t expect celebrities to be political saviours

  1. Trudeau’s whole focus in on his brand rather than running improving our country effectively and efficiently. A real shame that he has two more years to go.

  2. There will never be a “political saviour”.

    By the time you’ve become something for everyone, you’re good for nothing.

    We have the technology that makes politics obsolete. We could vote online on all issues. No more left and right. No more partisans. Governments need only manage the will of the citizens.

    The part time high school drama teacher traded on his fathers celebrity. He’s nothing.

    • Hi, the question about whether we need politicians anymore has definitely come up for me in recent months. Since I see that so many of them aren’t deep thinkers meaning they do not think through their policies and decisions. Although I did think that Harper was definitely a thinking person’s thinker! He was deliberate.

      Whereas our so-called provincial leader, our federal government leader and our mayor of Calgary are all followers of radical self-serving environmental lobby – they haven’t thought through any of their policies. Certainly our current version of a chubby mayor is NO booster for Calgarians, for sure.

      I recently caught him red-handed telling me a law about how they handle their municipal budgets in the last quarter of their fiscal year. Oh brother.

      Stephen Harper’s government was decisive and they backed down on doing something stupid like forcing everyone to use poisonous mercury filled flourescent bulbs! (Thank God, someone was brave enough to point this out!)

      I didn’t know what would replace it. We’d still need people of integrity to oversee such a system, but I like your idea.

      • Thanks and you’re welcome.

        I wrote a university paper on it 30+ Years ago, entitled “Technological Democracy”, and have been refining it ever since,

        The Swiss have the most similar democracy in place today. It is a paper based system of referendums, 12 or more per year. More than enough to undermine partisan politics.

        We have so much technological opportunity today that our leaders just don’t have the will or ability to make use of.

        It’s like we prayed for a wheel only to drag it sideways.

        • In the “old” days, the proletariat was too dumb, too uneducated. We were told that we needed to be guided and led. No more. That hasn’t been true for the last 40 years! If we really want reform, then the Swiss way might be the right way to go. I need to look into the way they do this! Do they still need a HUGE expensive bureaucracy to administrate too?

          Thanks for making us think!

  3. This article ironically sounds like an endorsement for Trudeau over Trump. Yes both due to their upbringing benefited from certain privileges like Trump’s massive wealth and Trudeau inheriting much less wealth but an even more valuable in terms of politics brand in his last name because of his father’s tenures as PM. If people look up Trudeau’s youth he was never interested in politics and there are many video clips depicting a person who wanted no part of such a rat race. All changed when his brother died in an avalanche and he became an advocate to inform Canadians about the risks of such a disaster and how to take caution so he could prevent deaths similar to his brother. Then his father died and he made the infamous eulogy that basically illustrated a narrative of a pm to be till it happened when he revived the Liberal party at its lowest point to become the first PM to lead a third party into an elected majority government. Trudeau has a combination of public sector, private sector and non-profit experience not to mention 5 years of elected MP experience in Canada’s poorest riding (Papineau) before he was elected Liberal leader and later PM. He is producing similar economic growth to Trump but without the PR nightmares and media feuds. The Conservatives don’t stand a chance at beating him similar to how they had a tough time getting rid of his father and Jean Chretien’s stints as PM unless they find their own star savior. O’Leary was the ticket and even Trudeau felt a risk despite a public act that he was avoiding paying any attention to the PC leadership race. O’Leary if he spoke french would make the 2019 election a real fight but he doesn’t and he dropped out. Trudeau was bragging about his french when he did a Quebec town hall answering english questions in the language that the PC front runner at the time lacked any proficiency in. That was not a coincidence but more of a mental faux paux with O’Leary on his mind. O’Leary unlike Trump was self made – he unlike Trudeau started off lower middle class and experienced social mobility during both his childhood and his entrepreneurial pursuits. He also suffers from dyslexia – a learning disability he has never had shame disclosing and is a large driver for why he struggles to learn french so late in adulthood. Both Trudeau and O’Leary who most would say are celebrities have displayed humbleness through either tragedy or obstacle. Andrew Scheer may have similar experiences but he lacks the celebrity of an incumbent Trudeau to initiate a reasonable fight.

    • O’Leary didn’t believe to his bones that he would win, so he quit.

      Trump believed in himself so massively that he was unstoppable. He defied the pundits, even in his own party whom he dragged kicking and screaming tot he White House because he remains an outsider. He’s no politician and he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind.

      Yeah, few people admire what he’s done or how he did it.

      I suppose Trudeau also came up beyond the odds too. However, he’s not nearly as confident as Trump is. Trump knows what he wants.

      Trudeau is sort of like an innocent Deer in the Headlights – he needs to think things through.

      He is not doing that.

      I grew up during the P.E. Trudeau years in Montreal. I was 11 years old and couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about, especially his effect on women. Then again, I didn’t swoon over the Beatles either!

      I like Andrew Scheer. Because he’s real. He has a genuine smile.

      Trump not self-made? He went far beyond what his dad did. Years ago, I listened to his daughter speak at a conference. For someone so young, she was very put together, healthy and a great speaker. I couldn’t say the same for some of her peers at the time who were in the news for the wrong reasons.

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