Through its reckoning with the wars, financial crises, and terrorism of the last few decades, the United States has transformed into an ideologically-divisive version of its previous self. The country’s two political parties appear unable to reconcile with the other’s view of America.
Reconciliation involves finding a middle ground between two extremes and forging a new reality for both sides. It involves crossing the aisle and leaving your intellectual comfort zone in search of a compromise. However, when both sides fail to see even the possibility of a greater good, their attempts to come together seem seldom.
In the TED Radio Hour episode entitled “Reconciliation,” host Guy Raz speaks about how common ground can often allow individuals to see the humanity in a person they ideologically diverge from. One example given was sports message boards. Although people in these communities may be Democrats or Republicans, they can always come together to root for the Red Sox or the Golden State Warriors.
Another common ground in the United States has been celebrity. Regardless of who you are or what you believe, celebrity in America has always been a glamorous version of the American dream that people have strived for. Celebrities are often seen as blank slates in whom we imagine our own biases and thoughts to be reflected.
However, as celebrities increasingly make use of social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, this reflective quality has dissipated. Instead of maintaining a neutral image for all Americans to rally around, celebrities frequently and actively wade into political discourse. Rather than acting as unifying figures, this practice causes celebrities to be seen as representatives of the elite establishment by some in the current political climate.
In some ways, celebrities speaking out on certain issues exemplifies how an America where Donald Trump can become the president came into being.
While listening to Meryl Streep’s now famous Golden Globes speech in which she derided Trump, I started to realize that regardless of Streep’s intention in using her celebrity platform to discuss political ideas, she had sacrificed her true power — the ability to be a unifying figure for Americans — in the process.
Streep’s speech was spoken to a room of celebrities who represent the one per cent of society. Regardless of what she might have said, the same people who have always supported her would support her. Her ‘stand’ against Trump was performative rather than persuasive.
It would be unfair not to mention that other celebrities and ‘commentators’ have played a similar role. Streep’s speech, like other statements by celebrities since November 8, illuminate the perceived ideology of the ‘coastal elites.’ When a large percentage of the American population believes that Donald Trump is an anti-establishment disruptor, the acts of these celebrities merely prove their point.
The fact that celebrities are perceived to have influence only exacerbates their divisive potential. If one only listened to the illusory thoughts of liberal thought leaders, you would have believed that Hillary Clinton would be the forty-fifth president of the United States. However, if you listened even closer, you would have heard the rumbling of another movement.
Although all your favourite celebrities were posting about #FeeltheBern, he didn’t win the Democratic primaries. Although all your favourite celebrities posted vintage Hillary Clinton photos, she did not win the election.
Celebrities can be guilty of overestimating their own influence, which may explain why they continue to make political statements. Even if celebrities do have sway, it is likely only on a small portion of the population that may be convinced by what they have to say — the rest will either use their statements to bolster existing opinions or to exemplify an opposing one. This is even more of an issue in a world where algorithms play a large role in curating our online experiences.
The act of voting is often impulsive, emotional, and personal — many of the reasons behind a person’s vote are due to personal circumstances that are far removed from the privileged lives of the “elites.”
Although the Internet age allows information to travel swiftly, it also makes our memories short. On Monday, it might be pictures of Streep, and on Tuesday, photos of President Obama in his final appearances as commander-in-chief. The collective memory of the Internet is short, but real world actions will always speak volumes.
When discourse is concentrated online and through the mouthpieces of celebrities, honest debate is substituted for soundbites of anger and frustration from all sides.
The only way to come to constructive conclusions is to reconcile our feelings, and Streep’s speech only shows how difficult that will be in this political age. Celebrity could be a neutral ground where the rest of society can see its humanity, but today, celebrity has become yet another reason why people will not reach across the aisle and begin to heal.