Academics at Washington State University have discovered something that may not be very profound. Celebrities are quite successful in persuading young people to turn out and vote.
The survey found that get-out-the-vote pitches by celebrities in the 2004 election cycle helped create an 11 percent increase in voting by people between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to the 2000 election." It suggests that we can make use of celebrity culture to get students engaged," said Erica Austin, a co-author of the study and dean of the school. "They want to be like celebrities."
Austin's team found that "celebrities have the power to motivate civic engagement regardless of their own grasp of the issues at hand." It's easy to question the political savvy of musicians like P. Diddy or Christina Aguilera. Oprah Winfrey's big primary push for Barack Obama gushed through the news and spilled over at the ballot box, even if her speeches on his behalf vaguely touted him as "The One" and sounded like a goopy New Age chat. He was "an evolved leader" and "we're all here to evolve as human beings."
Austin's team also found that celebrities make their fans more idealistic about the political process: "Appeals based on wishful identification with celebrities can increase young adults' belief that participation can make a difference."
The one twist in this study? Young people don't necessarily vote for the candidate celebrities might endorse, meaning Oprah may have turned out some Hillary voters, or even some Romney or McCain voters.
The Washington State findings mirror a 2004 study by Natalie Wood, an expert on celebrity endorsements in politics at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "They are not an influence in swaying the vote," Wood said. "Telling me to vote is one thing, but telling me who to vote for is different." Family and friends have a greater influence over actual voting decisions, she says.
If celebrities can move young people not just to buy their music and movies, not just to troll the malls looking for their officially authorized fashion lines, not just to change the slang they use, but to get out of the house or the dorm and vote, then why is it preposterous to suggest that these same celebrities can weaken the magnetism of the moral compass in the young? What a Christina Aguilera or P. Diddy defines as cool on MTV can often take hold overnight in high school hallways and college student unions. If celebrities have the power to push political mountains, then everybody should acknowledge they have an even greater ability to shape the moral landscape in America.
And any politician seeking their assistance for the sake a few votes is enabling -- and advancing -- the culture rot these punks propose.
The Obama campaign released a new video on Oct. 21, in which the rapper known as Jay-Z urged viewers to participate in the process. "I want all my people in Michigan to go out and vote," he said. "I need you to vote Nov. 4," he says, calling this "the most important election that will happen probably in your lifetime."
At a Los Angeles concert on Oct. 16, Jay-Z wowed his audience by dedicating his song "99 Problems" to John McCain and his "homegirl" Sarah Palin, explaining that he was referring to "the one who says, 'You betcha.'" This is the same song that was controversial earlier this year when Obama was running against Hillary, since its signature line is "I got 99 problems, but a [B-word] ain't one." Jay-Z is not a celebrity who usually builds enthusiasm about government, since the song also has an entire verse about being racially profiled by the "mother f-ing law" for "doing 55 in a 54."
Doesn't the concept of a civic-minded gangsta-rapper strike anyone as odd? More to the point: If we are to conclude that a fragment of his message devoted to politics has the power to move thousands to the polls, what does this say about the power of his everyday, every-disc message -- the celebration of the violent gangster culture -- on the young?
Even though many people cite the moral decline of America as a major reason why the country is "moving in the wrong direction," this is another presidential-election season where neither the Republican nor the Democrat has dared to offer any political commentary on the sorry state of our popular culture. No debate moderator has found it worth discussing. But millions of Americans are still looking for someone, somewhere from Hollywood to Washington who actually sees our "entertainment" as a social problem, and our celebrities as worthy of criticism and not lock-step idolatry.