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The Paradox of the Celebrity Politician

I like to think that if some Martian stumbled onto Madison Avenue and met Carrie Bradshaw for an anthropological interview, it would have just about the least accurate understanding possible of the New York City lifestyle.

Carrie and her crew inspired a fiercely devoted following among my friends and I growing up — but it didn’t take us long to realize that there was something more than a bit delusional in her character. Her image seamlessly blends all the elements of early adulthood that unavoidably contradict. The starving artist ethos; the lavish New York lifestyle. The loud-and-proud feminism; the caricatured social scene that likely fails the Bechdel test. Carrie’s “Sex and the City” storyline is the ultimate testament to the power of celebrity. It’s curated. It combines our paradoxical values, merges competing desires in illogical ways because, at the end of the day, it isn’t real. It is disconnected from the messy realities of life off-screen.

The curated contradictions of celebrity are precisely what make it such an appealing fixation. Studying and obsessing over Hollywood lives enables us to temporarily avoid the complexity of our own, the difficult decisions we confront between competing value-sets and lifestyles. And there’s nothing bad about using celebrity as an intermittent channel for escape. But it worries me to see celebrity values increasingly embedded in the realm that ideally should be most in sync with our gritty realities: politics.

Celebrity power and political power, in their truest senses, are fundamentally mismatched. Where celebrity represents the idealized and unattainable, politics should represent our realizable ideals — the values we can make manifest, so long as we confront and wade through the contradictions instead of papering them over with a glossy finish.

Cynthia Nixon’s platform for New York governor represents all the best of progressive ideals, particularly a recommitment to public spending and raising taxes on business and corporations. In her campaign video, she sounds a rousing call to action: “Something has to change. We want our government to work again, on health care, ending mass incarceration, fixing our broken subway.” Her campaign website accuses Governor Cuomo of “inhumane budgets” and of “selling New York off to the highest bidder.” Prominent progressives have been increasingly vocal in embracing her run. In April, the Working Families Party gave her their endorsement. Her campaign manager is AFL-CIO veteran strategist Nicole Aro, and Bernie Sanders’ former digital fundraising director Tim Tagaris has also signed on to advise her campaign.

But a political leader can’t just be someone who knows the liberal script. Unlike a celebrity, a good candidate shouldn’t just know the talking points — she should be someone familiar with the work of organizing, the relationships and compromises it takes to actually implement ideals.

New Yorkers need a candidate to oppose incumbent Andrew Cuomo. And it makes sense for this opponent to draw on an outsider’s positionality, to challenge the establishment politics mired in decades of dynasty and corruption. But that challenger need not be an outsider to New York politics entirely — it should be someone drawn from the state’s dynamic organizing community, someone who has dedicated their career to social and policy reform beyond just attending fundraisers and proffering donations to liberal causes. Celebrities like Nixon should be putting their dollars behind a new generation of progressive organizers and policymakers, instead of just looking for more airtime themselves.

Oprah2020, which began as a series of lighthearted tweets, soon picked up alarming speed as well. Oprah Winfrey also knows progressive talking points and the idealized combination of policies that we’d love to see enacted. But that doesn’t mean she has the experience of politicking needed to accomplish her stated legislative aims.

The celebrity turned politician is a play we’ve all seen on the political right. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Our current president. But we’d be mistaken, on the left, to sell ourselves out for star power. Since when did our electoral strategies become ploys ripped from the GOP’s playbook? Our strongest policymakers have shown us, time and again, the efficacy that comes from years of experience as a community organizer, or legislative strategist. Someone who understands the difficult but gratifying work of grassroots mobilization and movement building that can turn ambitious values-based visions into successful bills and policies.

Hollywood, Washington, and Albany have all drawn their fair share of criticism for being out of touch with the realities of their viewers, voters, and ordinary constituents. But they aren’t interchangeable. The more we get our lines crossed, the more we undermine our own capacity to rebuild a political space shaped by truth and values, and not just by a nice-sounding script.

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