Conservatives love to complain about Hollywood liberals hijacking our culture and our politics. With the likely seating of SNL-alum Al Franken in the Senate and the possible candidacy of actor Val Kilmer for New Mexico governor, you can expect such riffs to hit a fever pitch.
But there’s a dirty little secret behind this stereotype: The most successful celebrities turned politicians are Republicans.
Ronald Reagan began the modern celebrity-turned-politician era, with his unlikely campaign for California governor in 1966 before being elected president in 1980. Conservatives love to recall the Gipper giving the “evil empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, but Reagan called Hollywood home for most of his adult life and Merv Griffin was a far more common family-dinner companion than Jerry Falwell. If he’d stayed a Democrat instead of changing his registration before running for office, the attack ads would have written themselves.
For all of Warren Beatty’s flirting with elected office, the next most successful statewide actor-turned-candidate is California’s current Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger—a Republican. And when professional wrestler and sometime actor Jesse Ventura ran for governor of Minnesota, he did it as an independent, not a Democrat. (Clint Eastwood was elected mayor of Carmel, California, in a 1986 nonpartisan election—but it’s safe to say that Dirty Harry ain’t no Democrat.)
The actor trend holds also true for congressional campaigns—Fred Thompson and Sonny Bono won election to the Senate and the House, respectively, as Republicans. So did Hollywood song-and-dance man George Murphy, who served one term in the Senate from California in the late 1960s—and GOP Rep. Fred Grandy of Love Boat fame. The world’s first superstar, Shirley Temple, ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican and later served as U.S. Ambassador to Ghana. Democrats have only the dude who played “Cooter” on The Dukes of Hazard to crow about.
Athletes turned congressman have a similar celebrity appeal, and here too Republicans are over-represented, from Hall of Fame pitcher and current Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning to football stars Jack Kemp, J.C. Watts and Steve Largent—as well as once (and future?) Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann. Democrats have only former Knicks star and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley to turn to for congressional chest bumps and courting the sports-bar vote.
So while the Ed Asners of the world love to protest, admittedly outnumbered Republican celebrities are more likely to actually run for office. This has its advantages: If Alec Baldwin had followed through on his threat to run for New York governor as a Democrat in 1998, we might have been deprived of his turn on 30 Rock—an unfair trade that would have been only to the tabloids’ benefit. And when liberal pop-culture figures do run for office, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair found in Great Depression-era California, they usually lose. (At least Sinclair got a book out of it—1935’s I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked.) See also the flops of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.
Conservative populists are quick to indulge in sour-grapes celebrity-bashing, but they turn into hypocrites when the opportunity to rally around a Republican celebrity presents itself. The latest gossipy boomlet around having Forrest Gump and CSI star Gary Sinise serve as a next GOP savior (an idea first floated by The Daily Beast’s own Nicolle Wallace) is case in point. It’s an admission that the GOP needs not so much a rebranding as a facelift, and that personality often trumps policy, despite the McCain campaign’s “celebrity” ads. Following this line of logic could lead to a desperate candidate deployment of every center-right celebrity in existence, from Patricia Heaton to Tom Selleck to Kelsey Grammer to Bruce Willis. But any Democrat who tries to get in the arena will be immediately tarred as an inexperienced liberal elitist by talk radio.
The reality is that it takes courage to be a conservative in Hollywood—it can be a career-ending principled stand. But rather than demonizing popular culture and then wondering why they are unpopular among artists and young people, Republicans should play offense and make a case for their cultural relevance. There’s no reason that libertarians at least can’t make a compelling stand—independence is the essence of cool in America.
The bottom-line: Our Founding Fathers envisioned a citizens’ legislature. Actors, authors, and athletes have at least as valuable a perspective as people whose primary claim to office is high name-recognition because their fathers held high office before them. We could use more art in our politics; and less politics in our art.