We are fatally obsessed with celebrities.
While this statement applies to the ridiculous success of the Kardashians and the Kate Middletons of the world, it has further applications. When you look through the top articles on the New York Times Politics page, or even the NYT World page that hosts global news, names flash at you. Of course, the names that appear in headlines aren’t new. The headlines proclaim — and repeat — extremely familiar names like Sanders, Rousseff, Mugabe or Trump.
This is not without consequences. Our celebrity obsession acts as a mechanism of our social-political system that draws attention toward individuals, portraying them as potential saviors or villains, and distracts our attention from systems of exploitation, leaving them free to operate and devastate.
We, as consumers of information, are drawn to the recognizable. Our information is coded in reaction to this preference. Looking at the New York Times’ front page, the names “Clinton,” “Trump” and “Sanders” are all front and center — easily recognizable and guaranteed to draw attention. All three are familiar characters in an ongoing drama that pits not just ideologies against one another but personalities complete with colorful backstories and dramatic tendencies. These characters are carefully and intentionally scripted to appeal to certain parts of our human experience. Yes, that means Trump is being intentionally Trump-ish; the perception that he is unscripted or irrational is wrong and exactly why he is so dangerous.
More important, however, is how all of our candidates are extremely interested in maintaining their celebrity and name-recognition status. Their ultimate interest is to draw attention to themselves. Trump talks about “making America great again,” but he wants to be the one to do it. Sanders is saying almost the exact same thing: using contra-system rhetoric but insisting that he is the one to lead the change. Our extreme form of celebrity-worship and hyper-individuality is a reflection of our distraction from the systematic causes of social problems and an aversion to systematic change as a treatment for our social ills.
I’m not only speaking to the U.S. Take the impeachment process in Brazil as an example. Impeachment looks like a real option for President Dilma Rousseff, who has been implicated in a scheme to manipulate debt figures in order to win reelection. Brazil is currently experiencing a national recession of historical proportions, investigating immense corruption scandals on multiple fronts, fumbling an attempt at the Olympic games and combatting a massive epidemiological tragedy with the Zika virus. But the enormous social and political mobilization has focused on the impeachment of an individual: Dilma Rousseff.
This is not to say that Rousseff should not be impeached or that who occupies the position of president of the United States does not matter. Both of those questions matter. But our obsession with the celebrity political figure illustrates our desire to export political and social responsibility onto someone else. We want to elect the right person who will do all the necessary work so that we don’t have to. We hope that it’s a one-time correct decision, like a lottery ticket, that solves everything. This, we insist, is democracy.
That is not democracy, my friends. That is fantasy. Impeaching President Rousseff will not solve Brazil’s problems, and electing Bernie Sanders won’t solve the United States’. We will continue to place our hopes in vaporous celebrities until we absorb the blame for our own community’s wounds and assume the responsibility to heal them. We have that potential, and democracy means we have that right. Will we embrace it?