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Is America's Celebrity Culture to Blame for Poor Leadership?

by Edgar Wilson, published

If the party system collapsed overnight, would we really have better candidates?

Suppose closed primaries were all opened—a long-term goal currently pursued by the Independent Voter Project, The Centrist Project, and numerous others, currently gaining real traction.


America’s ideological constipation were suddenly relieved, breaking out of the notional Conservative-Republican, Liberal-Democrat litmus test that uses single issues to glue politicians to broad platforms.

Would we get better candidates?

America’s dysfunctional party system may be under attack, reform, and reconsideration, but the country’s celebrity culture has aligned with politics in such a way that elections reward narcissism more than they produce quality leadership.

Consider the case of frontrunner Hillary Clinton. At this point in the election cycle, polling numbers are a better reflection of celebrity and name-recognition than actual broad approval or voter preference. Without the “D” next to her name, Clinton is still driving a machine built on years of public presence, a cult of personality, and cultural momentum that keeps her relevant, regardless of accomplishment, competence, or real leadership qualities.

Donald Trump, similarly, has a revenue stream and penchant for staying in the headlines that has sent him to the top of Republican polls, despite everyone from his own party’s leadership to professional analysts and even former allies insisting he has no real capacity to manage the office of President.

The net result is that American voters are not effectively demanding, or receiving, the best leaders in their candidates—they are receiving the individuals who most desire and maintain their own celebrity.

Jon Stewart is ending his Daily Show tenure just as the 2016 Presidential Election gets busy. Stewart’s celebrity, debatable role as the “Walter Cronkite for Millennials,” and journalist status all came to him in spite of an insistence that he was not, and did not deserve to be, any of those things. Repeated calls, of fluctuating seriousness for his candidacy for president may be less an expression of partisan politics than a collective yearning for leadership that values its role and function less than the attention and perks that role brings.

That, or voters can’t tell the difference anymore between politicians and people who are just famous.

No one is more impressed by their political talent and leadership skill than the candidates themselves; American voters see this, know this, and have grown so inundated with evidence of this that perhaps they don’t see an alternative—quasi-ironic populism surrounding Stewart’s candidacy notwithstanding.

On the eve of the first (of many) Republican candidate debates, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz penned an op-ed in the New York Times musing on leadership, America’s challenges, the election, and why he feels he can do more good in his current role, than by throwing his hat in the ring and entering national politics.

As with Stewart, the actual political potential of Schultz is little more than conjecture; yet Schultz’s tenure has also put real money toward providing the “servant leadership” he says America needs. Schultz initiated the Starbucks partnership with Arizona State University to provide access to online degree programs for employees, and has been outspoken about his distaste for the student loan system in higher education. Problems are easy to diagnose in politics, but solutions--even incomplete solutions--are rarer.

Again, Schultz is declining (for now) the chance to run for office, preferring instead to serve the best way he knows how. On the electoral side, we see the opposite trend: candidates insisting on running, regardless of whether they know how to lead.

America needs neither comic statesmen nor more coffee, but it does need leaders who are evaluated, respected, and elected according to their leadership skills and public service, rather than the tangential minutia that comprise celebrity gossip and media fascination. Divorcing candidates from the artificially limiting bipartisan system will be liberating to ideology—to provide Americans with real, better options will take a separate revolution.


Image: Donald Trump stocklight /

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