Hollywood celebrities once again are gearing up to advocate and agitate for their causes as elections approach, but political scientists and observers say liberal stars do as much to hurt as help their efforts.
Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence recently participated in a livestream event dubbed “Unrig the System,” a so-called bipartisan effort designed to clean up politics. Her gig, however, didn’t bolster a particular candidate.
Meanwhile, a gaggle of late-night comedians has vowed to support Glam Up the Midterms, aimed at increasing millennial voter turnout in time for the November elections. Spearheaded by confrontation comic Billy Eichner, the Glam movement offers an apolitical mien — for the moment.
The politically charged Grammy Awards and Golden Globes telecasts this season also indicate that the entertainment industry won’t let the midterm elections happen without its input.
But in the wake of the failure of the full-scale industry push for Hillary Clinton in 2016, political observers are left to assess whether Hollywood’s progressive campaigns do more to mobilize liberals or energize conservatives.
Princeton University politics professor Lauren Wright said celebrity sway over the political system is generally overestimated but still has perks for progressives.
“Even if Jennifer Lawrence isn’t running, she can get attention to her topic,” said Ms. Wright, who is wrapping up a book tentatively titled “Star Power” about celebrities running for public office.
As for those endless awards show speeches? “That helps within the party, but it doesn’t help across party lines,” she said.
Ms. Wright said a celebrity’s effectiveness as a change agent begins to fall once that star becomes politically active and outspoken.
“If Meryl [Streep] wants to help the ‘Me Too’ movement, she should continue being apolitical Meryl Streep and not say too many political things,” Ms. Wright said. “The second they do, they’re seen as a partisan.”
David Harsanyi, senior editor for the online politics/culture magazine The Federalist, said midterm elections generally lack the sizzle to bring out the masses, with or without entreaties from the likes of John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” or Seth Meyers of NBC’s “Late Night.”
Despite their good intentions and enthusiasm, celebrities probably hurt causes with their activism, he said.
“I wonder if the pushback against ‘look at these Hollywood elites telling us what to do’ doesn’t actually have more of an effect on the conservative side of the ledger than as a motivating factor on the left,” Mr. Harsanyi said.
Celebrities speaking their minds about politics and current events is nothing new. Marlon Brando sent American Indian actress Sacheen Littlefeather to the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony to reject his Oscar for best actor, citing Hollywood’s stereotyping of American Indian characters.
Three decades later, Michael Moore used the same Oscar podium to slam President George W. Bush for his Iraq War policies.
But today’s media-driven, celebrity-focused environment has amplified the noise with 24/7 cable networks and daily podcasts dedicated to the latest star sightings, messaging platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat that seemingly put ordinary folks in touch with their idols, and websites including YouTube and Facebook where videos and other media can be replayed and shared ad infinitum.
Political strategist Christopher Metzler, who regularly appears on Fox News, contends that Hollywood’s collective voice has lost some of its intensity in recent years. A group of Americans has bought into the notion that the industry represents the “limousine liberal” mindset that can’t connect with what matters most to them, he said.
The star-studded “Save the Day” video released before the 2016 presidential election to help Mrs. Clinton netted millions of views, currently near 8.5 million on YouTube. Yet the White House glass ceiling remains unbroken.
That’s not to say celebrities can’t impact the nation’s political mood.
“Hollywood can make a difference if it focuses on issues with specific outcomes,” Mr. Metzler said. “The country is so divided along ideological lines. There are issues such as looking at economics … which can bring the country together.”
The best way stars can do that? He suggests using Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, along with their video platforms, to magnify the messages.
Part of the problem for modern Hollywood is similar to what conservatives say about the current Democratic platform, Mr. Metzler said.
“People complain about the president. OK, fine. However, what are your solutions?” he said. “If, in fact, he’s such a moron … why hasn’t the opposition party been able to chip away at the things he’s doing? … The messages have been nonexistent or horrible.”
He said Hollywood stars who don’t realize how their views are received have a similar disconnect.
“A lot of celebrities simply believe the fact that they’re celebrities carries some weight. It does, but is it the right kind of weight?” Mr. Metzler said. “They haven’t thought about that. … If you want to make change, preaching to the choir doesn’t help. You have to reach out much broader. … Until they use the power of their celebrity to do that, we end up in the same cycle.”
Ms. Wright said star activists are far more effective in another way: as candidates.
The mere speculation that Oprah Winfrey might challenge President Trump in 2020 rocked the political world. Ms. Wright said her polling suggests that action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would have a bright political future if he were to leave Hollywood for the Beltway.
“Celebrities make for excellent candidates,” Ms. Wright said. “Their skill sets have been honed for a lifetime, geared for drawing attention and support for themselves. … They’re better suited for that task than being a surrogate for someone else.”
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