You don’t know what the actor Matthew McConaughey has in common with former comedian Beppe Grillo? You did not know that in 2015 Volodymyr Zelensky played the role of president of Ukraine in a TV show, and that in 2019 he actually became the president of Ukraine? You never heard of Miroslav Škoro or Slavi Trifonov? Then, this article is for you.
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“I don’t really talk politics. I talk people. One could say, ha! That’s why you should be in politics. That’s what it’s about”, reasoned Matthew McConaughey, an Oscar-winning actor and —at the time of his New York Times interview— a whispered contender for Texas governor. While McConaughey declares himself a centrist —“it’s such a great time, and a necessary time, I think, to be aggressively centrist”— he speaks from populist positions: he sides with “the people” while criticizing the US party politics which needs “redefining”. Despite his admirable standing in the polls, McConaughey declared that he will not run for governor of Texas “at this moment”. However, his flirting with politics does not seem to end here. If he decides to pursue his career in formal politics at some point in the future, McConaughey is likely to jump on a train of celebrity populism, an emerging political phenomenon that combines the attractiveness of populist messages with the awe of celebrity culture.
The connection between politics and celebrities from showbusiness, sports etc. has been extensively documented in scholarly work on celebrity politics (see for instance John Street, Mark Wheeler) and celebritization of society (check Olivier Driessens). However, the challenging mission of identifying specific features of the celebrity-populist blend, as opposed to celebrityhood of mainstream politics, is still in its early days But why is this relationship between populists and the celebrity world so distinctive and relevant in the first place?
First, personalization, emotionalization and spectacularization have been identified as distinctive features of populist politics. In a highly mediatized and celebritizied world, the celebrity factor makes populist politics even more performative and potentially more appealing. Some would say – more seductive and more dangerous. Second, we believe that political science alone cannot explain developments in contemporary politics. In order to explain the political success of a reality TV star such as Donald Trump in the USA; the landslide victory of an actor such as Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian presidential election; the central role of the former comedian Beppe Grillo in Italian politics; the smashing success of a stand-up comedian such as Jon Gnarr in local elections in Island; the political uprise of a popular singer such as Miroslav Škoro in Croatia; the electoral shenanigans of a showman such as Slavi Trifonov in Bulgaria, and many others, political science needs a helping hand from celebrity studies, cultural studies, media studies and other related fields.
In a paper scheduled to be published in the special issue of the Journal of Political Marketing (edited by Miloš Gregor and Otto Eibl), we argue that celebrity populism cuts two ways: as a feature of celebrities who ride the wave of populism to run for office, and as a feature of populist politicians who adopt celebrity cues to appeal to voters. Building on David Marsh, Paul ‘t Hart and Karen Tindall’s categorization of celebrity politicians, we differentiate between two types: celebrity populists and populist celebrities. Celebrity populists are celebrities from show business, sports or other fields, who use a populist rhetoric to run for office and, in some cases, maintain this rhetoric while holding elected office. Populist celebrities are populist politicians who engage with different celebrity techniques to mobilize supporters and celebritize their image. In both cases, the attractiveness of populist appeals is augmented by celebrity allures and vice versa.
There is a sufficient number of parallels between celebrity politics and populism to suggest that the relationship between the two phenomena is almost instinctive. The connection seems to be the most discernible in their common reliance on emotions and performance, their maverick relation to mainstream politics and their contribution to what comes to be known as ‘fandom politics’. Gianpietro Mazzoleni correctly observed that populits often are “strong personalities that perfectly fit the news media’s demand for the spectacular and emotional treatment of social reality, including political life”. Dominique Wirz similarly asserts that “populist communication is inherently more emotion-eliciting than non-populist communication and therefore especially persuasive”. With regard to their maverick position, Paul t’Hart and Karen Tindall suggest that the more dissatisfied the publics are with traditional politics, the greater the opportunities for celebrities to successfully run for office. The same goes for populists.
The relationship between populists and their voters very much resembles a relationship between, let’s say, Taylor Swift and her fans. This idea of explaining the relationship between politicians and citizens through the lenses of fandom has been articulated by several authors. We want to give a special shout-out to Liesbet Van Zoonen for mapping the idea in her brilliant book “Entertaining the citizen: When politics and popular culture converge” back in 2005 and to John Street for his 2018 article on celebrityhood of Donald Trump. Van Zoonen argues that fans and political citizens have several things in common: they emerge from the performances of artists and politicians, they follow their ‘idols’ closely, they promote them, they discuss them among themselves and “come to informed judgements, and propose alternatives”. The difference between them may be, as Van Zoonen suggests, “in the type of psychological relationship that fans have with artists and citizens with politicians: affective and emotional versus cognitive and rational”. However, she challenges this dualism between rationality and emotions and argues that “we can accept the mechanisms of fandom as a basis for rethinking engagement with politics”. Fandom, maintains Van Zoonen, “is built on psychological mechanisms that are relevant to political involvement” and these are “fantasy and imagination on the one hand, and emotional processes on the other”.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s successful presidential stunt is a showcase of how the power of fantasy and imagination may work in contemporary politics. Before becoming president, Zelensky played a kind-hearted teacher who runs for president in a Netflix series titled Servant of the People. Then, in real life, he established a party called “Servant of the People” to run for president, and won the election with 73% of the votes. Zelensky cleverly blurred the line between fiction and reality and transferred the same narrative from the screen to real life politics.
Without doubt, populist narratives and celebrity charisma create a potent mix, that in a world of cynical and disenchanted voters, represents a powerful marketing weapon. The seductive power of the populist-celebrity marriage suggests that we should evaluate celebrity populism for its own merits, rather than placing it under the generic umbrella-term ‘celebrity politics’. Such approach enables us to consider potentially explosive implications of this emerging phenomenon and to analyze the anatomy of specific cases, in terms of their celebrityhood and the type of populism they invoke. The stunning success of Trump, Grillo, Zelensky and other celebrity avengers who changed the course of national as well as global politics, represents a good enough reason to take the phenomenon of celebrity populism seriously. And to understand that it is here to stay.
Marijana Grbeša is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb. She was a visiting professor at the Penn State University Lehigh Valley. She teaches courses in media, political marketing and strategic communication. She has published with Routledge, Palgrave and Lexington Books, among others. Her articles appeared in a number of international peer-reviewed journals. She is a recipient of the numerous academic, professional and research grants and awards. She is the editor- in-chief of the peer-reviewed Media Studies Journal (Medijske studije).
Berto Šalaj is a professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb. He teaches courses in political socialisation, political education, democracy and civil society. He published a number of books, chapters and articles on political culture, social capital, democracy, civic education and populism. He has been participating in a number of international projects on populism. He is the author of an acclaimed didactical game Ideological challenge, supported by the Agency for Electronic Media and UNICEF Croatia.