A Defeat for Celebrity-based Elections

I want to acknowledge the magnitude of this accomplishment.

Many on the Left were saddened by the closeness of this election, but to me that was evidence of our ongoing, inexcusable misunderstanding of our opponents. We’ve been able to escape doing that work because we isolate ourselves in cities (where the famous people live) and have had the option of depending on celebrity. A celebrity politician for the non-famous took us by surprise. But it does not diminish all the work this win took.

To me, this election is significant because it’s the first time in a long time that we have expressed our will through our own hard work and direct action. This election was won through monumental turnout, local focus on voter suppression, and close vigilance by average people, not professional pollsters or celebrity politicians. Ever since John F. Kennedy looked better on television, we have been fighting with a third adversary to the will of the people, and that is the distortion of how we receive our information in mass mediated, celebrity-based culture. This has been the culminating death cage match against the ultimate spawn of that culture — the love child of reality television and pro wrestling backed by a major political party who historically have struggled to produce celebrity candidates.

Perhaps this will be our first post-TV election.

I’ve been saying this since Bush vs. Gore, and most Liberals disagree vehemently, but I’m not going to stop saying it. Ever since JFK, the election goes to the most charismatic; it is the single deciding factor. I don’t even mean pretty, I just mean appealing in some way that is friendly to video. The politics almost follows from it. When Reagan was elected by a plurality of voters, it ushered in an era of people on both sides needing to mention the “importance” of small government and lower taxes — whether they believed it or not.

Democracy is a lot of work. It’s the type of work that if we stop even for a season, something undemocratic rushes in to fill the vacuum. Democracy is not a thing that happens by itself, through the machinations of the framer’s genius. Those things provided a good foundation, but we are the only things standing between our heritage and rule by the few.

I love that White people in my Facebook feed are discovering what a boon Stacey Abrams’ work against voter suppression in Georgia has been, but it’s also making my skin crawl. I fear another Celebrity of the Left in the making. She’s a great role model, and a great leader, but don’t make her a celebrity, because fighting racist voter suppression is work that all of us should be doing, not just Black women. It is in all of our interest, White, male, female, straight, queer, trans, cis, Black or brown. That is awareness and vigilance that all of us need to participate in, otherwise democracy ebbs and flows along with celebrity. At the end of the day, depending on celebrities to do our work for us weakens us.

I would argue the incessant White Liberal miscalculation of our opponent stems from White Liberal racism. I think we are only beginning to fully comprehend what racism is, and how we ourselves participate in it. We can’t understand our White opponents if we don’t understand Whiteness as a culture. Here I use the Kendi definition of racist, which is actions and words that protect racist policies. The opposite of racist is antiracist, in his book; if we White Liberals are not doing what’s in our power to fight racist voter suppression, we are not practicing antiracism. By understanding our own Whiteness and racist complicity and embracing a politics that includes everyone, we can begin to become immune to the whims of celebrity politics.

I love hearing people describe how they’ve never been politically active before this election. I fucking love that. Before, forces of injustice counted on us White Liberals not paying attention to gerrymandering, racist voter suppression, and disinformation campaigns. When we had the celebrity candidate in our corner, the election was easy — White people like me even went so far as to declare it a post-racial world. But by tuning out once our man was in office — and by “us” I mean “me” — we allowed the forces of injustice to severely limit the gains we could have made.

A decorated car celebrating beneath my window in Chicago.

I argue that all of us non-celebrities coming together to fight is far more powerful than one celebrity president, and the more each of us does, the less any one of us has to do. This was one of Barack Obama’s favorite points: “A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.” He tried to counter it, but having him on our side hid from us the work that was really needed. Having him on our side hid from us the undemocratic nature of elections being dependent on celebrity, of elections being decided with the same type of unreflective thinking that decides what we enjoy on TV. Even though the margins are tight — how could they not be?! We’re just learning how many people actually need to participate to win an election without the benefit of celebrity — this year, our eyes are open and we worked together to get here, and that’s more powerful than anything in the whole world.

Wendy A. Schmidt is a Chicago-based playwright. She/Her

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