In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Celebrities in US Politics

  • Introduction
  • Origins of Celebrity Politics and Landmark Monographs
  • Foreign Policy/Diplomacy/International Relations
  • Celebrity Humanitarianism and International Development
  • Celebrity Engagement, Messaging, and Audience Response
  • Celebrities and Social Media/Media Effects
  • Celebrities and the Environment

Political Science Celebrities in US Politics
Harry C. Strine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0332


The technological innovations during the 20th and 21st centuries that brought us radio, television, movies, the internet, and social media have created a class of people, celebrities, who, at first glance, wield enormous influence in our society—from setting fashion trends and hairstyles to advancing social movements and political causes. Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Ronald Reagan rode their celebrity to elective office. Other celebrities are increasingly using their status to influence politics by endorsing candidates for office and pushing for change in domestic and foreign policy. This essay focuses on the scholarship on the effect of celebrities in American politics. The study of celebrities in American politics is a largely interdisciplinary enterprise, with contributions from political science, sociology, marketing, history, cultural studies, mass communication, and communication studies. The literature on celebrities, and, more specifically, celebrities in American politics, has branched off into five key areas – (1) Celebrity Endorsements, (2) Celebrities and American Government Institutions, (3) Celebrity Politics and Celebrity Culture, and (4) Celebrities and the Environment.

Origins of Celebrity Politics and Landmark Monographs

The seven major works on celebrity and celebrity politics are Boorstin 1992, McCracken 1989, Gamson 1994, Harvey 2017, Mills 1956—a classic political science book on power in American government—Wheeler 2013, and West and Orman 2003. Mills 1956 provides the earliest marriage of celebrities with American government as he claimed, from a sociological perspective, that celebrities, prominent entertainers, and media personalities were one of the six groups of elites that control the “dominant institutions” of society. Boorstin 1992 was the first to claim the media has created a false reality in which celebrities play larger-than-life roles that people look up to. McCracken 1989 attributes meaning transfer theories to celebrities in the advertising world and Gamson 1994 investigates the effect of celebrity culture on American society. West and Orman 2003 categorizes different types of celebrities but cautions that politics built on image and celebrity is a threat to our political system. Wheeler 2013 calls for a reevaluation of our traditional understanding of celebrity politics in light of the changing communication technology and the decline in trust toward the political class. Harvey 2017 explains how and why celebrities are more persuasive than politicians.

  • Boorstin, Daniel J. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1992

    Our day-to-day experiences as a country have contributed to the construction of a false reality. Boorstin provides the first contemporary definition of ‘celebrity’: “a person who is known for his well-knownness (p. 57).” Americans ascribe greatness to ordinary Americans, casting them as heroes, or celebrities.

  • Gamson, Joshua. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520914155

    The first real academic text that breaks down the key elements of celebrity culture to understand, from a sociological perspective, how and why celebrity culture has become so powerful in the United States. Gamson unpacks celebrity culture through an examination of celebrity texts, interviews with producers of celebrity entertainment, and consideration for the audience that consumes the material.

  • Harvey, Mark. Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1zc2x91

    Harvey presents a theoretical and empirical analysis of celebrities’ role in politics, looking at items such as their legitimacy, expertise, persuasiveness, and credibility Employing various case studies, such as Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016, Bono’s meeting with President George W. Bush at the 2005 G8 Summit, and George Clooney’s activism regarding the Sudan Civil War, as well as other experiments, Harvey concludes that celebrities spotlight, or raise the salience, of an issue or issues, something at which politicians are not very successful.

  • McCracken, Grant. “Who Is the Celebrity Endorser? Cultural Foundations of the Endorsement Process.” Journal of Consumer Research 16.3 (1989): 310–321.

    DOI: 10.1086/209217

    This landmark article from the marketing discipline demonstrates how celebrity endorsements are a popular marketing technique for advertisers. Celebrity endorsements work because celebrities are attributed with cultural meaning that can be transferred to the product and then transferred to the consumer. Meaning transfer theory largely provides the theoretical basis for understanding how celebrity political endorsements work. Available online by subscription.

  • Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956..

    This classic text on power argues that only elites control decision making in American government. Mills classifies celebrities as one of the major group of elites, along with the media, the military, the corporate rich, chief executives, and others who control policy and policymaking in the United States.

  • West, Darrell M., and John M. Orman. Celebrity Politics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

    Celebrity activism has stimulated public involvement in our political system and has transformed our political system into one which is governed by “celebrity politics.” There are five different types of politicians: “political newsworthies,” “legacies,” “famed nonpoliticos” from outside politics who run for office, “famed nonpoliticos” who act as lobbyists or spokespeople, and “event celebrities.” Americans’ fascination with celebrities and celebrity politics attracts interest in politics but it threatens the values of compromise and serious debate on issues that matter.

  • Wheeler, M. Celebrity Politics: Image and Identity in Contemporary Political Communications. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013.

    This modern classic text includes chapters on all of the main elements of celebrity politics from a transnational perspective, including celebrity as part of democratic theory, a history of celebrity politics, celebrities in American politics, the celebrity politician, celebrity advocacy, and celebrity and the media. Celebrity politics has provided an opportunity for increased civic engagement by the people.

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