When it comes to public affairs, Americans are by and large politically uninformed, myopic and unmotivated. Their partisan identification mostly informs their political preferences (rather than the other way around). These traits create a favorable environment for celebrity candidates. Inattentive voters are more likely to know who they are even if they never consume political news. Because these candidates rise to prominence in industries which monetize popularity, those same uninformed voters are also likely to think highly of them, and be largely unaware of the skills necessary to govern.
Is the rise of celebrity candidates cause for concern? The charitable view of political amateurs such as celebrities is that they are a breath of fresh air for democracy. People who vote for political amateurs, as Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor once described, believe that they will "go to Washington, take Washington by the lapels, shake it up and then return it back to what we need to be doing." One might even argue celebrity candidates are manifestations of populism in its purest form - antidotes to the machines, big money, and back-room deals that political realists maintain are necessary evils to keep government running smoothly.
But existing research casts a cloud over this sunny evaluation. Political amateurs are, on average, more ideologically extreme, less willing to work in a bipartisan manner, and inferior when it comes to the essential political skill of bargaining compared to experienced elected officials. A survey of the psychological literature on celebrities and a close examination of political memoirs in this book lend further support to the notion that celebrities appear to be almost uniquely ill-equipped to successfully govern. They have selfish motivations for running, serious personality anomalies that make the grisly and unglamorous work of policymaking more difficult, and are more likely to surround themselves with fearful sycophants than teams of rivals. Lack of interpersonal trust, insecurity, and a constant need for public adoration play a similarly foreboding role.
This is a deeply unsettling combination of qualities for world leaders, one that cost the founders sleep. Hamilton and Madison all but equate fame with ineptitude and poor character throughout the Federalist papers. They designed slow, rigid government institutions and ensured frequent elections, partly to ensure that if an unfit celebrity was swept into office by an undiscerning and uneducated public, voters could remedy their error a short time later before too much damage was sustained. But because the effects of government policy and administration can take so long to manifest, the founders’ institutional fail-safes may not function as intended. The decisions our leaders impose on us often exert lagged effects on social conditions. Americans are routinely reminded of this fact when it comes to social progress. President Obama frequently uses a Martin Luther King Jr. quote to bring Americans hope and assuage their fears about the future of the United States: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” King famously said, "but it bends toward justice." Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a similar way of putting this. "Progress is slow, but we have traveled a considerable distance," she said recently at George Washington University.
Voters are less often reminded that deterioration, like progress, can also occur slowly. It happens when nobody is paying attention, when our daily lives are undisturbed for extended periods of time. Both the GOP and Democrats have consistently strengthened the executive when their party is in power and Congress has been lethargic and weak with regard to preserving its Article I powers. The "legislature’s unexercised muscles" have atrophied, wrote George Will in a rebuke of congressional Republicans who have followed President Trump’s lead, "because of people like them, who have been too weak to use their Article I powers against the current wielder of Article II powers." And so far, the effects of expanded executive power have been relatively muted, perhaps because those powers have mostly been vested in presidents with ample experience and at least a modicum of moral integrity in recent decades. But now we have a president who has publicly considered pardoning himself and his political allies if found guilty of illegal behavior, who has fired and punished his political enemies, unilaterally withdrawn from international agreements, levied tariffs against allies, censored the press, threatened nuclear war, befriended and praised dictators and tyrants, sowed doubt in the integrity of elections and flirted with the idea of staying in office for life.
While Trump’s erosion of democratic norms is shocking to the most astute political observers, many Americans cannot yet perceive any material consequence. But we should not make the mistake of assuming these actions will not wreak havoc down the road. The economy performed well in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, but continued trade wars may one day bring it to its knees. Straining European alliances may not inspire alarm during peacetime, but if a global conflict erupts America could find itself dangerously isolated and vulnerable. If such a crisis occurs in the near future, Americans may learn their lesson, and think twice before again electing an inexperienced candidate bereft of relevant talents save for the "little art of popularity." But if the event that reveals the danger of impulsive, uninformed policymaking is sufficiently delayed, Americans may wrongly infer that skill and experience are orthogonal to sound stewardship of the state. If enough voters accept such a fallacy, we can expect the nation’s public stage to be increasingly lit by the flash bulbs that surround crowd-pleasing neophytes, while our brightest political stars are one by one extinguished.