Avengers (et al) to the rescue.

Photographer: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

How Robert Downey Jr. and Friends Honor the American Way

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Let’s talk celebrities and politics. Joss Whedon (creator of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV show and director of the two blockbuster "Avengers" movies) has formed a pro-Clinton PAC with $1 million of his own money and is producing a series of videos with big Hollywood celebrities. The first one urges voters to register to vote and features movie and TV stars including Avengers Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump campaigned Tuesday with boxing promoter Don King and former college basketball coach Bobby Knight, while many actors from "The West Wing" are traveling to Ohio on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

To begin with: No, voters aren’t going to base their vote choice on what some actor or sports hero tells them to do. The celebrities doing these things, whatever their intentions, are probably doing more to promote themselves than to promote their candidate. At best, the direct effects of anything like this is really small.

On the other hand, it’s not as if very many people are going to switch away from Clinton because actor Clark Gregg likes her, or away from Trump because reality star Omarosa supports him. So it’s unlikely any of this does any harm to the candidates.

And collectively, it’s probably true that these sorts of things are real cues to voters who aren’t particularly interested in politics that, hey, there’s an election coming! For some of us, the election has been going on forever and we’re counting down the days until it finally ends – but for many other Americans, politics is sort of a droning background noise most of the time, and they only really pay attention in last few weeks of the campaign. 

That might be more helpful now than it was in the old, pre-internet days of three broadcast networks and a public television station. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was harder to be isolated from big political news. So it’s not that any one particular ad does much, but collectively these things do eventually remind people that it's time to pay attention.

My real defense of celebrity participation in politics, however, is that even if it has no effect at all it’s still good, healthy fun.

In particular, over the last two or three decades the U.S. has become a nation with more patriotic rituals that evoke its military (such as flyovers at sports events) rather than those which are centered in democracy as the core of the nation. With all due respect to the military, this should dismay us. The U.S. should be proud of its democracy, and that means (among other things) celebrating elections, which are symbolically (and to some extent substantively, although that's more complicated) the central action of a mass democracy.

Which seems to be what Whedon's celebrity-studded video is all about: registering to vote and voting. I'll choose to interpret the celebrities' message not as the elitism of famous people, but as one of participation for everyone. And that's worth celebrating. 

  1. Does Don Cheadle count as an Avenger? I guess so. Disclosure: I was in college with Whedon, although he was a couple of years behind me and as far as I know we never met. Still, my kids might think I was cool if he (or any of the celebrities in this story!) followed me on Twitter or something like that.

  2. Even the ones they know and like. Bobby Knight and Don King? Really? For someone who is a true 21st century television star, Trump’s ideas of who is well-known and popular seem to be at least thirty years out of date.

  3. God Bless America, the ascendant patriotic song of the 21 century, does not reference the military, although it's often presented in a military context – but it also fails to cite democracy, or even freedom.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net