Follow Capitol Hill: reality TV and American politics


In 2021, former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner ran for Governor of California in special general state elections. Shortly after announcing his race, new and entertainment the shows aired segments about Jenner’s budding political career, often featuring more clips from her red carpet and keeping up with the Kardashians appearances as the discussion of his policy.

Jenner isn’t the only reality TV star to enter politics: Trump became president after years of starring in The apprenticemembers of TLC’s Duggar family 19 children and counting have applied for and held positions in Arkansas State Legislatureand american idol finalist Aiken clay ran in the Democratic primary to represent North Carolina’s 4th congressional district in May of that year. While reality TV and American politics may seem like two areas that shouldn’t intersect, reality TV has become a near-perfect platform for current and aspiring politicians, allowing them to grow in popularity and improve their perception with voters. However, this phenomenon can be potentially detrimental from the perspective of voters, as voters may be inclined to vote for the candidate they consider to be the most “relational” or know by name, rather than the one they really agree with the policies.

Celebrity status has helped politicians mount successful campaigns and improve their public perception among voters. After spending almost 30 years playing in various films and television programs, Ronald Reagan was governor-elect of California in 1966 and again in 1970. After his two terms as governor, Reagan continued to serve as 40th president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. His notoriety contributed to his popularity in the polls, with to research of economist Heyu Xiong stating that Reagan’s career as host of General Electric Theater helped him appear “more personally appealing to voters”. Same Recent Comments left on downloads of Reagan’s campaign ads show viewers hailing him as their “favorite president” and “sincere and dignified”.

Nearly four decades after Reagan’s first term as Governor of California, former actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor-elect of the state in 2003. The Republican candidate won 48.58 percent of the vote in the special recall election and, like Reagan, his victory and subsequent political career were aided by his celebrity status. Not only was Schwarzenegger already a household name, but the roles he played in blockbuster films such as The Terminator and Total recall pushed specific narratives about him on voters.

In a article Examining Schwarzenegger’s political career, scholar Freya Thimpson explains that his “penchant for characters and films that play on ideas of hidden meanings, metamorphoses, and the shifting ground of identity laid the groundwork for an audience voter imagines new roles for him. “Essentially, the elaborate narratives about Schwarzenegger over several years allowed voters to see him as their representative and governor, not just a high-profile celebrity.

Figures like Reagan and Schwarzenegger paved the way for several other famous candidates to enter the realm of American politics, especially reality TV stars in recent years. A notable example is Dr. Mehmet Oz, who was the republican candidate in the recent Pennsylvania Senate race. In addition to occasionally mentioning his past on the dr oz show, slandering his opponent John Fetterman was a central tenet of his campaign. In a highly controversial move, the Oz campaign attacked Fetterman for his alleged poor health after suffering a stroke. However, despite this and years of medical misinformation spread across his show, voters still seem to place some level of trust in Oz’s politics. Not only the charisma of Oz and qualifications as a licensed doctor make him seem more trustworthy, but they also play into larger schemes of widespread misinformation propagated by the GOP. Although Oz lost the election to Fetterman, polls still reflect the relative success of Oz’s campaign techniques as he ultimately only lost by one. 4 percent margin.

“As current politicians and celebrities simultaneously take advantage of reality TV as a campaign tool, the question arises: how does American politics become more like reality TV?”

Right-wing conservative candidates aren’t the only ones entering politics from reality TV. Members of the Democratic Party also participated in this phenomenon. Ancient Survivor and Fantastic race contestant Eliza Orlins ran for Manhattan District Attorney in 2021. Along with using her social media platforms to spread messages about her policies, she has also tweeted about other alumni Survivor competitors who had approved his candidacy in order to obtain more donations and support.

In the same way, RuPaul’s Drag Race candidate Honey Mahogany is president of San Francisco Democratic Party and is currently running for San Francisco District 6 Supervisor. His Instagram Feed features messages from his election campaign with the occasional appearance of a comrade drag race star. Moreover, in a interview with voguesays Mahogany drag race groomed her for politics because it allowed her to be forced to survive in a ‘high pressure situation’ and ‘deal with an audience that is both loving and can sometimes be… very unforgiving “.

The political success of these reality stars begs the question: what makes them so appealing to voters? The answer is twofold. First, there is the obvious advantage of entering the political sphere with pre-existing fame and fans. Name recognition can be found at “signal viabilityand increase voter support for candidates. Having this advantage then allows candidates to spend the majority of their time focusing on other things, such as criticizing their opponents, rather than having to attract a large voter base.

Second, reality television pushes very specific narratives about the people it presents to viewers and the general public. In the words by Freya Thimpson: “Viewers expect to witness something more real than an expressly fictionalized narrative. When voters see a reality TV star turned politician, they may feel like they’ve seen a glimpse of the candidate’s authentic life. This false sense of authenticity feeds into the larger notion of populism– reality TV politicians can play on this idea of ​​being seen as relatable and “one of the people” by their constituents.

Even politicians who have never appeared on television before their political careers lean into the idea of ​​relatability in order to retain their popularity and the trust of voters, especially younger generations. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez frequently goes live on Instagram to participate in viral social media challenges and even made appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Former President Barack Obama released his annual summer playlists since 2015 with songs ranging from Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” to Lil Yatchy’s “Split/Whole Time”. Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) frequently posts on his love for the Wu-Tang Clan on his social media profiles. All of these “casual” moments on social media help us feel closer to politicians, as if we have a glimpse into their lives. Although they’ve never been on reality TV, these carefully curated social media posts and interactions aim to familiarize and humanize the politicians to voters, making them look more like “real people.” As a person simply puts it Twitter: “obama like me fr.”

As today’s politicians and celebrities simultaneously take advantage of reality TV as a campaign tool, the question arises: how is American politics more like reality TV? Of Jackie Kennedy giving the first television tour from the White House in 1962 to John Fetterman who recruited Billiards for his campaign, it seems politics has always mimicked the “up close and personal” and ridiculous drama of reality shows. However, while this phenomenon may sway voters in favor of certain “relationable” candidates and raise awareness of specific political races, it is important to consider the detrimental consequences of reality TV on American politics. Name recognition isn’t everything – if more people vote for a candidate they feel they know rather than the candidate whose policies they support, it could have disastrous consequences for the future of the American democracy. It is crucial that we implement more comprehensive voter education and work to address misinformation as a larger systemic issue, lest social media become the single most important factor in American politics.


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