Politicians have been looking to harness the power of the pop-culture celebrity since, at the very least, 1920, the year Warren G. Harding enjoyed the support of the actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the backing of the Chicago Cubs and a campaign song by Al Jolson (“We’re here to make a fuss!/Mister Harding, you’re the man for us”). Evidence of the actual impact of such endorsements remains mixed — it all seems highly dependent on the circumstances. But the quest to translate celebrity allure into cold, hard votes seems almost irresistible.
This August, Bernie Sanders’s campaign released two separate videos made in conjunction with pop-culture figures. One had Sanders in conversation with a longtime surrogate, the rapper Killer Mike, but it’s the other that drew more attention. In that one, the candidate sits across from the 26-year-old star Cardi B in a nail salon in Detroit. Sanders wears a navy suit and his signature hunch. Cardi is in a mint-green dress, slightly sheer and buttoned up to her neck. (This is Business Cardi; the only added flash comes from her signature acrylic nails.) Everything about the scene reads as a classic television-news interview. Both are miked up, their gray armchairs angled toward one another in front of a tastefully neutral background. The sole difference is that instead of a gray-haired news anchor presiding, it’s Cardi B, the stripper turned reality-television star turned chart-topping rapper, asking questions about the minimum wage and health care.
There are many intersections of politics and popular culture we’re used to seeing, and while they always feel contrived, it’s usually clear whose rules everyone is expected to obey. A pop star, pumping up the crowd at a political rally, knows to be polite and sincere; a politician, visiting a late-night talk show, knows to act relatable and take some gentle ribbing. This video — inexplicably interspersed with interior shots of the salon and close-ups of Cardi’s nails — is more of a challenge, with the two figures trying to meet, casually, at the intersection of vastly different contexts. It is a celebrity-generated piece of political content, with which Sanders surely hopes to reach Cardi’s immense and youthful social-media audience, but it is also a simulacrum of a traditional broadcast interview, in which Cardi dutifully asks questions gathered from her followers on Instagram. The two seem a bit as if they’ve been shoved together into one large suit jacket. “Bernie, do you think it’s going to be possible to eliminate student debt?” Cardi asks. “Because so many people are suffering from these things, and it just — I feel like it discourages the youth to go to school.” Sanders responds as if he did not anticipate this question: “Cardi, you are 100 percent right.”
This pairing came about more naturally than it might look. In 2016, Cardi encouraged fans to “vote for Daddy Bernie”; she and Sanders have spent the last few years complimenting each other online. She is young enough to fit into Sanders’s base, and in many ways their brands align: Both appeal to their audiences by speaking with a certain blunt authenticity. That quality is clearly refreshing for younger audiences, but it also means that, throughout this video, you can almost feel the tension of the ghostly P.R. teams surrounding them, willing the conversation to go smoothly.
An influential celebrity backer can be valuable during a primary; one study credited Oprah Winfrey with netting Barack Obama an estimated million primary votes in 2008. But stars who ally themselves with political campaigns tend to show up during the general election, and usually lean on their own talents rather than their skill at talking politics; they’re safer fund-raising, making brief appearances at rallies or creating bits of comedic content. Frank Sinatra did it for both parties, backing John F. Kennedy and later Ronald Reagan. Bruce Springsteen played rallies for John Kerry and Obama. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign occasioned a vast wave of celebrity content. Katy Perry sang at the Democratic National Convention, coaxing the crowd to “roar for Hillary” before singing her hit song “Roar.” Lena Dunham appeared in a Funny or Die video titled “Sensual Pantsuit Anthem,” wearing a red pantsuit, performing a self-deprecating rap and pausing, at one point, to muse, “I wonder if I’m actually hurting her chances of winning.” The actor Elizabeth Banks helped coordinate a video, shown during the convention, featuring Sia, Alan Cumming, Aisha Tyler, Connie Britton, America Ferrera and Eva Longoria singing a campaign-associated song a cappella, giving off strong freshman-dorm vibes. A top comment on the video’s YouTube page: “Well this didint work out.”
The goal of this content is simple get-out-the-vote enthusiasm; what the celebrities are lending the campaigns is their ability to reach and excite people, including those who don’t follow politics. One key segment, obviously, is young people, still widely imagined to be more interested in pop culture than voting. (Youth turnout has, after all, remained low for decades, only to well up in last year’s midterms.) Getting young people to vote is the sort of goal that can sound almost nonpartisan, even as everyone knows precisely which way that vote is expected to break. Organizations like Rock the Vote have long used the power of celebrity to try to entice young people to the polls; a 1990 ad had Madonna clad in an American flag, transforming the lyrics of her single “Vogue” into an exhortation to “vote.” This is the gist of Sanders’s sit-down with Cardi B, a subtext eventually made text: “If we have young people voting in large numbers,” he says, “you know what, I have zero doubt that Donald Trump will be defeated.”
It’s also, of course, the premise of Sanders’s campaigns for the presidency — that it’s possible, even necessary, to circumvent the usual routes to power by connecting with new masses of voters, and transforming a party in the bargain. And if that’s the goal, why not approach a sit-down with Cardi B with approximately the same aims as an appearance on “Meet the Press”? There’s celebrity cheerleading, troop-rallying and youth-pandering, and then there’s using the tools available to speak to audiences often deemed too unreliable to depend on for votes. The limits of that second approach are an open question, but the world, and the internet, offer more and more opportunities for trying it out: countless figures, from the mainstream to online niches, with immense followings to address. At the very least, it’s not a cappella.
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