Against The Celebritization of Politics

Peter Hennessey has grave reservations about how British politics are becoming more Americanized celebritized, noting that someone like Clement Atlee would never have become Prime Minister if he’d had to engage in televised election debates:

The problem with the debates is that the structure of them, the nature of the celebrity in Britain in parts of the media these days, mean that to shine in leadership debates before a general election, you need the characteristics of a plausible tart

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Against The Celebritization of Politics”

  1. True that. But I’m not sure the Brits were that much better. Parliamentary debates are remarkably similar to a game of the dozens. Is a plausible tart all that inferior to jukebox witty?

  2. I don’t think I can agree with the good Lord Hennessey here. For better or worse, parliamentary democracies still seem to function by different rules.

    For starters, nobody votes for the PM directly. On the next ballot, most British voters won’t see David Cameron or Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg (except the ones whose constituencies they represent). They will only be able to vote for the local candidate of the Conservatives or Labour or the Liberal Democrats (or a number of other parties). The PM is determined indirectly by what party you vote for and can in theory be replaced at any time by the winning party (though that happens rarely). That makes the voting process quite different from voting for the US President independently from voting for your Representative and Senator.

    Second, British voters can see the PM and the Leader of the Opposition square off in the Commons every single Wednesday. A television debate prior to the election adds precious little here. The major British politicians are known quantities because they don’t get to pick and choose (like US Presidential Candidates) what they want to talk about and when. And insofar as charisma matters, the sea change — if any — was when the House of Commons started to televise its proceedings in 1989. But that didn’t stop John Major from winning the 1992 election.

    1. Very good point about TV at PMQ, that was indeed a Rubicon. I still though think that this past cycle the debates gained outsized attention, particularly in terms of elevating Nick Clegg.

      The voting process as you note is different to the US approach. There must be empirical evidence on this point, but I don’t know what it is: If you like the head of a party, does that make you more likely to vote in your own constituency for that party? If it does, celebritization at the top would still matter, even though few people can vote directly for the top person.

      1. I’ve wondered about that myself. When I discussed it with acquaintances in British Columbia (where a small change in the NDP vote caused a huge Liberal to Conservative swing in local election results), they seemed to have difficulty with the idea that someone might vote for a local member of a different party from the one you wanted to win the election, the way Americans often vote for a President of one party and a Congressperson of another.

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