Book reviews 379
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Celebrity Politics, Polity Press: Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2013; 240 pp.: £16.99
Reviewed by: Angela Smith, University of Sunderland, UK
In recent years, there has been a huge amount of academic interest in the intersection of celebrity and politics, with various studies exploring the nature of celebrity within the political system. Mark Wheeler’s book makes a valuable contribution to this debate, in his systematic discussion of politicians who are celebrities and also celebrities who engage in politics. Wheeler takes as his starting point the argument that celebrity politics operates in a post-democratic context. He offers a historical contextualisation for the commodification of politics in the last 100 years, where politicians have become celebrities and celebrities have become politicians, employing the conventional shorthand CP1 to refer to the celebrity politicians who have achieved political office and CP2 for celebrities who are politicised and engage with politics in some way outside of official, elected office. He shows how the celebritisation of politics has brought about alternative forms of political engagement and shows how these can be linked with cultural changes in concepts of citizenship and participation.
The book opens with a chapter that serves to theorise a normative position for celebrity politics in an era of post-democracy and late modernity. Drawing on a wide range of studies from both Europe and the United States, he teases out the nuances of celebrity activism and public engagement. Wheeler outlines several analytical approaches to develop a systematic taxonomy for the consideration of celebrity political engagement along with the rise in the personalisation of politics. The book then moves onto a historical overview of celebrity politics, thus dismissing the commonly held view that this is merely a product of late modernity. He shows that ‘fame’ in politics arose in antiquity but came to develop more fully with the onset of mass communication in the 20th century.
In particular, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John. F. Kennedy are shown to have used the cultural capital of iconic film stars of their era to promote themselves on radio, television and in the print media where they sold themselves as heroes of the ‘American dream’.
This established a template for modern endorsements, which Wheeler discusses in more detail later. At the same time, as this template was being laid down, celebrities sought to attach themselves to political campaigns, with the civil rights and anti-war campaigns of the 1960s and the 1970s attracting film and rock stars into political debate. at Freie Universitaet Berlin on May 5, 2015ejc.sagepub.comDownloaded from 380 European Journal of Communication 29(3)
The next chapter shows how the mediatisation of celebrity politics developed with specific reference to the United States and the United Kingdom. It explores how developing technologies such as Web 2.0, rolling news channels and the dominance of entertainment on television scheduling has led to a change in political communication. In the British context, there is an emphasis on the party political adoption of celebrities to their cause, with far fewer CP1s owing to the different nature of politics compared with the presidential system in the United States. However, the case of Tony Blair and New
Labour in the 1990s is shown to have similarities with the Clinton era campaigns in this respect. This is an aspect of the CP1 that Wheeler takes forward in the next chapter where he offers a case study of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign which allows for a discussion of the technical affordances of Web 2.0, and emergent social networking, alongside the more established news and chat-show broadcast events which were used to create a highly successful campaign. Obama’s campaign constructed a credible persona that was linked with an orchestrated political movement. In a UK context, Wheeler then contrasts the failure of Gordon Brown’s 2010 election campaign with that of David Cameron, despite his adoption of the technological strategies that had worked so well for Obama.
The book then moves on to a discussion of politicised celebrities, offering a historical survey of popular culture celebrities’ involvement in specific campaigns. Wheeler builds on Ellis Cashmore’s (2006) observation that celebrities have become repositories of the sort of moral authority previously associated with charismatic leaders. He shows how, in the United States, there developed a tradition of celebrity activism in fund-raising, raising public awareness and advocacy, starting with Jerry Lewis in the 1950s who used his celebrity to raise huge amounts of money for the US Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Wheeler also offers a survey of CP2 lobbying in the United States, such as the involvement of Charlton Heston in the National Rifle Association. In the UK context, CP2s have joined together to raise money for charities such as found in the establishment of Children in Need and Comic Relief, or have raised public awareness on issues such as the plight of impoverished ex-soldiers (in particular, reference is made to Joanna Lumley’s association with the Ghurkhas). This chapter then moves on to a discussion of a development of this, whereby celebrities become politicians. Most famously, this is Ronald Reagan in the