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Keeping Up with Capitol Hill: Reality Television and American Politics

San Francisco Chronicle

In 2021, former Olympian and reality television star Caitlyn Jenner ran for Governor of California in the state’s special general election. Soon after she announced her run, news and entertainment shows ran segments on Jenner’s nascent political career, often featuring more clips from her red carpet and Keeping Up with the Kardashians appearances than discussion of her policies.

Jenner is not the only reality television star to enter into politics: Trump became president after years of starring on The Apprentice, members of the Duggar Family from TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting have run for and held positions in the Arkansas State Legislature, and American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken ran in the Democratic primary to represent North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District in May of this year. While reality TV and American politics may seem like two realms that should not intersect, reality television has become a nearly perfect platform for current and aspiring politicians, allowing them to increase their popularity and improve their perception amongst voters. However, this phenomenon can be potentially harmful from a voter perspective, as constituents may be inclined to vote for the candidate they deem most “relatable” or they happen to know by name, rather than one whose policies they truly agree with. 

Celebrity status has helped politicians mount successful campaigns and improve their public perception among the voting public. After spending nearly 30 years acting in various film and television programs, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966 and again in 1970. After his two terms as governor, Reagan went on to serve as 40th president of the United States from 1981 to 1989. His name recognition helped his popularity in the polls, with research from economist Heyu Xiong indicating that Reagan’s career as host of General Electric Theater helped him seem “more personally appealing to voters.” Even recent comments left on re-uploads of Reagan’s campaign ads show viewers hailing him as their “favorite president” and “sincere and dignified.” 

Nearly four decades after Reagan’s first term as California governor, former actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of the state in 2003. The Republican candidate won 48.58 percent of the vote in the special recall election and, similar to Reagan, his victory and subsequent political career was aided by his celebrity status. Not only was Schwarzenegger already a household name, but the roles he played in blockbuster films such as The Terminator and Total Recall pushed specific narratives about him onto voters. 

In an article examining the political career of Schwarzenegger, researcher Freya Thimpson explains that his “penchant for characters and films that play on ideas of hidden meanings, metamorphoses, and the shifting ground of identity have laid a groundwork for a voting audience to imagine new roles for him.” Essentially, the narratives crafted about Schwarzenegger over the course of several years allowed voters to see him as their representative and governor, not just an A-list celebrity. 

The likes of Reagan and Schwarzenegger have paved the way for several other celebrity candidates to enter the realm of American politics, specifically reality television stars in recent years. A notable example is Dr. Mehmet Oz, who was the Republican nominee in the recent Pennsylvania Senate race. In addition to occasionally mentioning his past on the Dr. Oz Show, slandering his opponent John Fetterman was a central tenet to his campaign. In a highly controversial move, Oz’s campaign attacked Fetterman for his alleged poor health after he suffered a stroke. However, despite this and years of medical misinformation spread on his show, voters still seem to place some level of trust into Oz’s politics. Not only do Oz’s charisma and qualifications as a licensed physician make him seem more trustworthy, but they also play into broader patterns of rampant misinformation spread by the GOP. Though Oz did lose the election to Fetterman, the polls still reflect the relative success of Oz’s campaign techniques as he ultimately only lost by a 4 percent margin

Right-wing, conservative candidates aren’t the only ones entering politics from reality television backgrounds. Members of the Democratic party have participated in this phenomenon as well. Former Survivor and The Amazing Race contestant Eliza Orlins ran for Manhattan District Attorney in 2021. In addition to using her social media platforms to spread messages about her policies, she also tweeted about other former Survivor contestants who had endorsed her candidacy in order to procure more donations and support. 

Similarly, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Honey Mahogany is chair of San Francisco’s Democratic Party and is currently running for San Francisco District 6 Supervisor. Her Instagram feed features posts from her campaign trail with the occasional appearance from a fellow Drag Race star. Further, in an interview with Vogue, Mahogany said Drag Race prepared her for politics because it allowed her to be forced to survive in a “high pressure situation” and “deal with a public that is both loving and can be… very unforgiving at times.” 

The political success of these reality stars begs the question: What makes them so appealing to voters? The answer is twofold. First, there is the obvious advantage of entering the political sphere with pre-existing fame and fanbases. Name recognition is found to “signal viability” and increase voter support for candidates. Having this advantage then allows for candidates to spend the majority of their time focusing on other things, such as critiquing their opponents, rather than having to draw in a large voter base. 

Second, reality TV pushes highly specific narratives about the people it features onto viewers and the general public at large. In the words of Freya Thimpson: “reality TV audiences have a fulfilled expectation that they are witnessing something more real than an expressly fictional narrative.” When voters see a reality star turned politician, they can be under the impression that they have seen a glimpse into the candidate’s authentic life. This false impression of authenticity feeds into the broader notion of populism—reality TV politicians can play off of this idea of being seen as relatable and “one of the people” by their constituents. 

Even politicians who never appeared on television prior to their political careers are leaning into the idea of relatability in order to retain their popularity and trust amongst voters—particularly younger generations. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez frequently goes live on Instagram to participate in viral social media challenges and has even made guest appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Former President Barack Obama has released his yearly summer playlists since 2015 with songs ranging from “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin to “Split/Whole Time” by Lil Yatchy. Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) frequently posts about his love for the Wu-Tang Clan on his social media profiles. All of these “casual” social media moments help us to feel closer to politicians, as if we have a glimpse into their lives. Despite never having been on reality TV, these carefully curated social media posts and interactions are intended to familiarize and humanize politicians to voters, making them seem more like ‘real people.’ As one person simply put it on Twitter: “obama just like me fr.” 

As both current politicians and celebrities simultaneously take advantage of reality TV as a campaigning tool, the question arises: How are American politics becoming more like reality TV? From Jackie Kennedy giving the first televised tour of the White House in 1962 to John Fetterman recruiting Snooki for his campaign, it seems as if politics has always emulated the “up close and personal” and ridiculous drama of reality shows. However, while this phenomenon may sway voters in favor of certain ‘relatable’ candidates and spread awareness of specific political races, it’s important to consider the harmful consequences of reality TV on American politics. Name recognition isn’t everything—if more people vote for a candidate that they feel like they know rather than the candidate whose policies they support, it could have dire consequences for the future of American democracy. It’s crucial that we implement more comprehensive voter education and make an effort to combat misinformation as a larger systemic issue lest social media becomes the largest factor in American politics.