Only a few months after taking office, President Trump have confirmed all the worst fears of progressives and liberals. From his potential ties to Russia to his almost beyond belief retrogressive budget, the new administration is promoting an agenda that is as economically elitist as it is politically authoritarian. Even more worrying, has been Trump’s commitment while in power to in his rhetoric and actions contribute to the rising tide of white nationalism sweeping the country and potentially the world.
Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party has sought to lead the mainstream charge to fight this agenda. Their goal is to win back the Senate and House in 2018 and the Presidency in 2020. Central to these hopes is the discovery of a new charismatic politician who can inspire the nation against Trump and for economic and social justice.
However, these desires for a telegenic “star” are short sighted and even dangerous. It plays into the celebrity and demagogue style of Trump and the popular reaction that has fueled his victory. In doing so, it distracts from the real political task of building a sustainable and mass progressive movement from the bottom up.
The Threat of Celebrity Politics
A crucial aspect of Trump’s popularity is his celebrity appeal. During the election commentators rightly highlighted how his ascendancy represented the arrival of a “Reality TV” style politics. His campaign was characterized by drama and pathos usually only reserved for television – chock full of personal feuds, false accusations and a concern with publicity over organizing or a coherent ideological message. Trump had gone from the “Celebrity Apprentice” to the “Celebrity President”.
The concerns over this type of politics go far beyond mere cosmetics. It represents an updated version of authoritarianism for the social media age. It focuses on the ability of a singular political “savior” to challenge a corrupt status quo for the betterment of the “real people”, making everyone who would stand in his way an “enemy”. It trades honest ideological deliberation and debate with officially sanctioned insults and innuendo. It is the cult of personality repackaged for a 21st century audience.
Worryingly, the Democrats have fallen into this enticing trap of political celebrity. They are constantly on the lookout for the “breakout star” will turn their and the country’s fortunes around. Tellingly, one of the frontrunners in this audition to become this centre-left savour has been the former television writer and comedian Senator Al Franken. Additionally in the past several months the mainstream media has anointed respectively Senator Kirsten Gillibrand , Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman Adam Schiff as the new Democratic messiah.
Wishing on a Democratic Star
This competition to be the next Democratic idol certainly makes electoral sense. The next election could be won or loss on who makes the better media figure. However, this celebrity obsession by Centrist elites is a threat to the creation and spread of an actual progressive movement.
Indeed, it reflects an already failed strategy where liberals and progressives have seen the Democrats ultimately fail them in victory. The Presidencies of first Clinton and then Obama were built on promises that they would steer the nation in a fresh and fairer direction. By contrast, they solidified the ideological drift toward free markets and global corporate rule. Their charisma on the campaign trail was matched by a politics of diminishing returns centred on being the “lesser evil” of an irrevocably corrupt status quo.
The fanatical belief in the saving power of a charismatic leader threatens in the long run to sink not only the Democrats but also the progressive cause. It plays into a shallow and elitist driven model of political action that favors gilded promises rather than genuine action, playing to the passions of the crowds rather than serving the actual interests of the people.
Building a Progressive Movement
Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, the resistance has been waged as much in the streets as its has hallowed halls of Congress. Below the surface of official politics have been global marches challenging the legitimacy of Trump and his reactionary agenda. Raucous townhalls where with everyday citizens protesting a Republican health care plan that firmly places profit over people. A women’s strike that captured the attention of the world and put forward a clear and bold call for a 21st century feminist struggle.
These inspiring displays of resistance were driven by a commitment not to any single leader but to the broader cause of justice. It is built on the ideals of transforming society in the name of equality and liberty for all. It wants to topple an economic and political establishment, represented by both Democrats and Republicans, that benefits the 1% at the expense of the 99%. It was the spark that lit the fire for the progressive insurgency of Bernie Sanders and leftist movements arising internationally.
The path to progress will not be brought to us by celebrities but by shared struggle and vision of change. The Democrats should stop wishing on a “star” and start helping to build an actual progressive movement.