The convergence of politics, media and technology has given rise to an intriguing new phenomenon - the political celebrity. From businessman-cum-reality TV star Donald Trump to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian comedian turned president; from Imran Khan, cricketer turned Prime Minister in Pakistan to George Weah, former world footballer of the year turned President of Liberia – these celebrities from across the world have hacked the conventional political ladder, exploited a leadership vacuum, and leveraged their popularity to ascend to power. Their success has defied traditional political wisdom and has now fanned speculation around whether we are witnessing the early stages of a new political phenomenon. Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
The convergence of politics, media and technology has given rise to an intriguing new phenomenon - the political celebrity. From businessman-cum-reality TV star Donald Trump to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian comedian turned president; from Imran Khan, cricketer turned Prime Minister in Pakistan to George Weah, former world footballer of the year turned President of Liberia – these celebrities from across the world have hacked the conventional political ladder, exploited a leadership vacuum, and leveraged their popularity to ascend to power. Their success has defied traditional political wisdom and has now fanned speculation around whether we are witnessing the early stages of a new political phenomenon. Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

Amid the dysfunction and polarisation of today’s global politics, where disillusioned electorates are desperately searching for alternatives to the status quo, unconventional heroes and villains have emerged.

The convergence of politics, media and technology has given rise to an intriguing new phenomenon — the political celebrity. From businessman-cum-reality TV star Donald Trump to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian comedian turned president; from Imran Khan, cricketer turned prime minister in Pakistan, to George Weah, former world footballer of the year turned president of Liberia — celebrities across the world have hacked the conventional political ladder, exploited a leadership vacuum and leveraged their popularity to ascend to power. Their success has defied traditional political wisdom and has now fanned speculation over whether we are witnessing the early stages of a new political phenomenon.

Some have now even gone so far as to suggest Kim Kardashian may be primed for a successful run for the White House. Could it really happen? To answer this question it is important to understand what exactly is fuelling the trend of celebrity politicians. The first reason is simple — knowledge, information and, most importantly, opinions, have been democratised.

In the past, politics was largely the preserve of elites. Barriers to entry were significant and exclusionary, and only the educated were deemed to have the requisite skills, judgment and pedigree to lead nations. In much the same vein that religious leaders whose ability to read and translate Latin texts elevated them to a position of virtue, politicians were revered as the intelligentsia and conferred a status that was insurmountable. This created a monopoly of power. 

However, modern realities (in particularly social media) have changed the rules of the game. With the ability to connect with audiences with a simple click, savvy celebrities have found megaphones for their messages. The result has been a tectonic shift in the manner in which political leaders are elected — the digital world has made it easier for outsiders to circumvent conventional paths to success.

Reality TV personality Kim Kardashian speaks at a public discussion during the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT 2019) in Yerevan, Armenia, on October 8, 2019. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER
Reality TV personality Kim Kardashian speaks at a public discussion during the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT 2019) in Yerevan, Armenia, on October 8, 2019. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER

This speaks to the second driver: the nature of political communication. While many traditional politicians have to spend considerable time, effort, energy and funding to establish awareness of their ideas and values, celebrities benefit from existing fans and supporters.

For context, if Kardashian’s Instagram was a country its population would be the eighth-largest in the world. Those already surrounded by fans and superstardom are better equipped modern communicators than traditional politicians. Many have applied the basics of marketing to their personal lives already — building powerful personal brands, honing a point of view on issues, dealing with controversy, weaving together media narratives, selling their “product” to millions of followers and creating large-scale advocacy. These are skills that are deeply relevant for the modern-day political game.

For example, while Trump’s conservative competitors had to achieve a level of popularity to enter the presidential race, his starting point was to activate the already large base of people who knew him, were impressed by his achievements and perhaps even had some affinity towards his personality. This dynamic allows new-age celebrity politicians to skip the credibility loop and jump straight to the “I’ve achieved this, imagine what I could achieve in politics” stage.

Bobi Wine, the Ugandan musician turned politician, is another standout example of this. In a world with waning political role models, it’s no surprise people are willing to take a punt at those who achieved mass success in other parts of society.

Furthermore, new-age celebrity politicians have been able to successfully bucket traditional politicians into the enemy camp, labelling them part of “the establishment”. The creation of this narrative around a common enemy is a smart psychological tactic and effectively captures the mood du jour. By invoking a them-versus-us narrative, these celebrities tap into a deep part of the human condition that drives our behavioural preferences.

“Make America Great Again” was a masterstroke in political communication, positioning the US as having regressed from its glory days and allowed Trump to place the blame firmly at the feet of the political establishment. When a clear enemy is combined with a simple rhetoric it gains momentum quickly.

There is also an aspirational element associated with celebrities. Celebrity politicians have been accessible to fans around the world on the cricket field, soccer pitch, through their TV screens and, today, through social media. They’ve brought an unattainable, aspirational world to the ground, to the people, through their ability to relate to the ordinary man and woman. Many have well-told stories of rags to riches, long journeys and proof of what’s possible with hard work and a dash of chutzpah. To the masses of voters tired of political elites, modern-day politicians offer newfound accessibility.

What does this all mean? First, current developments are the latest manifestation of an elongated cycle of global populism and a backlash against the establishment. Although in the past figures such as Ronald Raegan and Arnold Schwarzenegger have successfully transitioned from acting to politics, this was done within a conventional political system of established rules and norms. These examples were few and far between.

However, the electorate, and by extension the nature of popular politicians, is transforming rapidly. The rules of the game have changed, and with them the need for businesses to adapt to these new  realities. Rather than being shocked by freak occurrences it is imperative for businesses to understand that we have entered an era in which such celebrity politicians are on their way to becoming the new normal, unless a fundamental response is forthcoming. This is an especially important realisation in a time when it is increasingly difficult to delink political choices from consumer preferences and behaviours.

Further, because celebrity politicians propose simple solutions for complex problems and prioritise short-termism over long-term strategic planning, there is an inherent risk of failure. The focus on personality rather than policies may yield wins in the short term, but is likely to be wholly inadequate in dealing with the development needs and expectations of impatient electorates. This mismatch, combined with the fact that many such politicians simply do not possess the skill sets required to run complex countries, magnifies the potential for poor governance. For businesses and investors, many of whom have been caught flat-footed by the disruptive and unconventional shifts thus far, there is a need to anticipate rather than react to these changing dynamics.

There is no doubt that the political rules have changed. As we head into the new decade we need to re-evaluate what we have always taken as given and believed to be impossible. A decade ago Kardashian was most known for her home videos. Now, after multiple visits to the White House for her work on prison reform, and with a pending law qualification, the combination of fame, money and credibility make her a compelling and quite realistic political proposition. In previous years, such a claim would have been dismissed out of hand, but today only a fool would discount the possibility of her entering the ever-chaotic race for the Oval office.

• Gopaldas is a director at Signal Risk and fellow at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. Chaudhry is managing partner at M&C Saatchi Abel Johannesburg.

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