The Politics of Celebrity Are Still a Dead End for the Democratic Party

From Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton, from Beto O'Rourke to Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic Party seems addicted to using personality-driven stardom as a substitute for real politics.

Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign event in Knoxville, Iowa, 2019. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Among other things, the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries produced their fair share of flash-in-the-pan candidacies — some of which flamed out before a single vote could ever be cast. Beto O’Rourke, at least for a few weeks, was well on his way to becoming the next Bobby Kennedy; Kirsten Gillibrand was at one time an inevitable front-runner; Kamala Harris, meanwhile, was going to build an unstoppable juggernaut on the back of viral debate moments and televised one-liners. Much of this, of course, was just wishful thinking or bad punditry. But the whole affair nonetheless revealed something instructive about the perceived currency of celebrity in twenty-first-century Democratic politics.

Given what the final result actually was, one might think liberal strategists and consultants would wise up to the idea that said currency often has very limited practical value: a dozen or so ephemeral candidacies later and the likes of viral debate moments and glossy magazine profiles had failed to make the race anything more than a left-right contest between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. When all was said and done, ideology had a lot more weight than celebrity, and Biden — the utterly conventional and familiar former senator and vice president — beat back not only Sanders but a whole cavalcade of flashy media darlings auditioning to be the 2020 version of Barack Obama. Whatever currency celebrity may have in politics, it’s apparently separate from electoral success.

If the ambient gossip about who might succeed Biden is any indication, that lesson has clearly failed to stick. In this respect, the lengthy profile of Pete Buttigieg recently published by CNN is emblematic: more or less taking as a given the idea that a hypothetical contest between the secretary of transportation and Vice President Harris will likely decide the future of the Democratic Party. The piece shows the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in high demand as campaigns across the country call in surrogates to stump ahead of next month’s midterms. Buttigieg, or so it seems, is now second only to President Biden himself in terms of such requests — an unusual development given his relatively junior role in cabinet and lack of elected experience beyond his stint in local government.

There’s nothing puzzling about it, of course, if you’re plugged into Democratic politics. As 2020 showed us, personality and celebrity loom so large in the contemporary liberal imagination they are now often seen as more than satisfactory substitutes for ideological coherence or even electoral viability. When it comes to the former, the secretary of transportation can twirl toward freedom with the best of them — having amended, updated, or simply changed his stated commitments so many times over the course of his adult life it’s difficult to know what he actually thinks about anything (to call Buttigieg a political chameleon would in fact be an insult to colorfully-skinned reptiles the world over).

As for electoral viability, Buttigieg’s presidential campaign undeniably had more staying power than Harris’s but, even here, any takeaway is strictly relative — Buttigieg failing to win a plurality of votes in a single one of the relatively few primaries and caucuses he contested. Much like in 2020, he’s now frequently discussed as a serious candidate for the presidency less because of belief or track record than the perception that his stardom in some Democratic circles can one day be translated into mass popularity. Anecdotally at least, recent elections give us plenty of reason to find this formula suspect. Even with the constituency limited to liberally inclined primary voters, 2020 saw most would-be meteoric candidacies burn out well before Super Tuesday. In next month’s midterms, O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams meanwhile looked poised to lose their respective runs for governor notwithstanding the very real celebrity both possess.

In a world where Donald Trump can become president of the United States, it’s futile to try and predict political outcomes with any certainty. Buttigieg (or another media-friendly centrist figure like him) may indeed emerge yet as a possible successor to Joe Biden or face off in a future contest against Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Dr Oz. What can be said is that, in 2022, the Democratic Party’s investment in celebrity-as-politics continues unabated. In the twenty-first century, the political and cultural ecosystem of American liberalism has turned plenty of politicians into celebrities and made many of them exorbitantly rich besides but has been far less effective at winning big legislative fights or securing electoral hegemony.

Building brands and fan cultures around individual personalities, it would seem, is no substitute for building political power.