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Opinion: Politicians are public servants, not celebrities

No one should be a “fan” of a politician.
Image by Noah Liebl
The influence of celebrity culture in politics can be dangerous and misleading.

Celebrities turning into politicians is a familiar concept to the American public. The most notable example for many is former reality TV star turned president, Donald Trump, President Ronald Reagan, and in Minnesota specifically, former Gov. Jesse Ventura and former Sen. Al Franken. 

This is not new, or necessarily always a problem. The problem comes when this happens in reverse: When politicians turn into celebrities. 

It has become normal to see mainstream politicians at the forefront of American pop culture, especially in memes, sitcoms and Saturday Night Live skits. We often see our representatives spotlighted in ways that do not equate to their roles as leaders and change-makers. 

In 2023, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared at the Met Gala wearing a dress that read “Tax the Rich,” making a statement about disproportionate taxation in America.

This message is important, but where is the line between messaging and the glamorization of politicians? We elected them to work for us, not to gain status through statement-making. 

Armelle Boukadida, a third-year student at the University of Minnesota, said because the lines are so often blurred between politicians and celebrities, it can be hard to determine their true intentions. 

“I think it depends on a situation, and I think it also depends on people’s intent, which you can only really guess,” Boukadida said. “Politicians using their attention to get into places like the Met Gala, there is always going to be a human nature of just wanting to be invited or just wanting to be there. I think it is a little for their own benefit, but I also understand the aspects of using it as a point of advocacy.”

As Boukadida said, when politicians emerge in traditional celebrity-dominated spaces, it is difficult to decide whether they are using their public platform to promote awareness or to promote themselves. 

Some of the time, it might be both. 

Many politicians and legislators have strong bases for their stances and the communities they represent. Our votes and opinions put them in office, so we naturally have strong personal connections with them. 

However, these connections can become judgment clouders for their current political actions. It allows us to prioritize their personalities over their policies, usually to their benefit. 

In the digital era, this has become even more exacerbated. Instead of only seeing them in person or on television, we can feel like we are connecting with politicians anytime we go on our phones. 

Bemnet Tessema, a third-year political science student, said while idolization of political figures is a problem, it can be hard to find a balance in the age of social media and celebrity culture. 

“I think it can get warped,” Tessema said. “Everyone has their own personal opinions on a politician as well that shouldn’t reflect their political views.”

Tessema acknowledged that social media is an essential resource in 21st-century politics, but said professional and personal accounts should be separated to maintain boundaries with political figures. 

“Social media is the first place that people go to find their information, so it’s very easy for politicians to be able to just have a single post that shares what they support,” Tessema said.  “Some politicians do have personal accounts and official accounts though, and it’s important to notice.”

Timberlyn Mazeikis is a fourth-year student and the founder of the University’s Students Demand Action chapter, a subdivision of the national gun violence prevention organization, Everytown for Gun Safety. In this role, she often meets with different legislators, both locally and nationally.

These meetings have given Mazeikis insight into how the images many of them present publicly differ from the actions they actually take. 

“One general thing that I’ve kind of taken from talking with legislators is no matter what they say to your face or post online, that doesn’t mean that’s actually what they’re going to do,” Mazeikis said. “It’s hard because politicians are made to say one thing behind closed doors (but) do something else outside. They want to keep that positive public image.”

Mazeikis agreed many political figures use social media to gain a following and showcase themselves in the best light but said it can also be an important tool to hold them at their word. 

“You can use social media to tag your politicians and remind them of what they have promised you and what they are there to do,” Mazeikis said. “You are their constituent, they are legally obligated to listen to their constituents.” 

As Mazeikis said, politicians are there to do a job, not to become a popular public persona. We cannot let empty promises dissuade us from this reality. 

No legislator should have fans, even if you really, really like them. 

If you are a fan of a certain actor, you can excuse or justify their poor performance in a recent feature film. Excusing a poor policy decision by a politician you are a fan of cannot be justified in the same way.  

We voted for them and we pay their bills with our taxes. We should not view them as our idols, but instead as people who work for us. With this, we need to learn to be objectively critical of their policies. 

Having this discernment is essential to holding politicians accountable. Our support should be based on where we have seen meaningful change, not who we find admirable or relatable.

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  • Susan Pastin
    Jul 10, 2024 at 11:08 am

    Amen!!! I once wrote a song about politicians and the chorus line went, “You work for us!“