With awards season upon us, it is time to reflect on the accomplishments of the talented musicians and actors this past year. However, the Grammys and the Oscars have been severely criticized the past few years for a lack of diversity in their nominees. Their viewers now expect these award shows to reflect their political views. Many ask, “Why?” Nominees are supposed to be recognized for their achievements in film, television, and music, not their political stances. This may no longer be the case. Celebrities are now expected to use their “platforms” to advocate for political issues. They must go beyond fundraisers for causes like disease prevention and literacy and now often endorse political candidates. Many celebrities simply use Twitter for witty jabs at President Trump, but one musician stood out last year for her contributions to politics: Taylor Swift. Swift found a way to organize a massive “Get Out the Vote” effort remotely with her social media accounts. Her success cannot be understated, earning her the award of “Best Political Activist”.
In the past, Swift was incredibly reluctant to voice her political views. She explained in 2012, "I don't talk about politics because it might influence other people, and I don't think that I know enough yet in life to be telling people who to vote for." Still, her endorsements of two Democrats likely came as no surprise to her fans, given her prominent role in the #MeToo movement, her donations to March for Our Lives, and her song about the legalization of same-sex marriage. Still, many journalists and Twitter users criticized her for not using “platform” to significantly impact the political sphere. Social media especially disapproved of Swift’s claim to support feminism but was notably absent from the Women’s March in 2017.
Then, Taylor Swift shocked the world when she stepped into the political arena in early October. Her post on Instagram not only discussed her support of feminism, LGBTQ+ issues, and racial justice, but she also endorsed two Democrats. Recent evidence suggests that Swift’s post had a significant impact, indicating that Americans do indeed care about the political views expressed by celebrities. The response to Swift’s initial post that endorsed two Democrats energized the left and inflamed the right. A flurry of joyful liberal tweets emerged, full of puns and song lyrics. Right-wing commentary declared their betrayal by Swift, and some proclaimed to never listen to her music again. President Trump even joked that he liked Swift’s music “about 25% less.”
Swift had an undeniably substantive impact on the midterms. Voter registration through vote.org tripled in the days following her initial post on Instagram. This was dubbed the “Taylor Swift Effect,” and it did not stop there. She continued to encourage young eligible voters by featuring pictures of newly-registered voters and people with “I Voted” stickers on her social media pages. Swift also highlighted links to op-ed articles against the Republican contender for Senate in Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn. Many fans thanked Swift and claimed that they would not have voted had it not been for her inspirational messages regarding the importance of voting: “Just voted for the first time absentee [...] I’m forever inspired by you and your passion to make a difference.”
Although only one of the Democrats who Swift endorsed actually won, news outlets reported record turnout among young voters in a midterm election and and a noticeable increase in the number of absentee ballots. She received criticism from the right by numerous people full of degrading word play on her songs. Laura Ingraham and other conservative figures joked that Swift should “shake it off” and that “haters gonna hate.” They also raised a separate issue: the belief that Hollywood personalities have virtually no influence on politics. Swift and other celebrities endorsed and campaigned for Democrats across the country, and many of those candidates lost. Many conservatives derided Hollywood’s failed attempts to win races for these Democrats and cited this as the reason why celebrities should stay out of politics.
I would have agreed with this assessment not too long ago, but Hollywood has consistently demonstrated its influence on politics the past few years. Swift is not the first or only celebrity to use her fame and influence on her audience to achieve a political objective. It is easy to forget that President Reagan was once an actor and started in politics as a leader in labor unions for actors. I would characterize this as an exception rather than a trend for the late twentieth century. Celebrities have had an enormous impact on elections in the twenty first century. In fact, Oprah’s endorsement of then Senator Obama during the 2008 primaries was a “decisive, if not a deciding factor” of his win and earned him over one million votes. We also tend to forget that the current President is a celebrity as well. Part of the success of President Trump’s campaign in 2016 must be attributed to his name recognition. His presence on various reality television shows allowed him to enter the homes of ordinary people and install himself in the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere. Incessant coverage of his campaign by media outlets and widespread commentary on social media garnered President Trump an unprecedented nearly $5 billion worth of free media, more than that of Secretary Hillary Clinton, Senator Sanders, and all of the Republican primary challengers combined. Few presidential candidates have had this opportunity outside of typical political campaign advertisements, and it can not be undervalued.
Looking to the future, many celebrities have already either announced or indicated their intentions to run for office. Oprah is suspected of planning a bid for President in 2020, and Kanye West has already declared his intentions for 2024. We may well see more celebrities as President after the end of the Trump administration given their disproportionate influence on our elections and ability to reach everyday people. They might have some difficulty winning over Independent voters, but there is one group they and President Trump can faithfully rely on: their fans.