Take a peek into stores in the US and you’ll find a plethora of campaign gear for political candidates that only exist on TV shows–everything from shirts touting support for The West Wing‘s Jed Bartlett to mugs promoting Veep‘s Selena Mayer in her re-election campaign. Take a look at newspaper headlines and you’ll find articles fantasizing about the modern Republican Party under the leadership of Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock and blog posts pondering over which Scandal character the country needs now. Typically, political observers don’t think twice about such signs of public support for fictional campaigns. After all, reason dictates that fictional candidates can’t compete in real elections. But the recent election of Vladimir Zelenskiy into the Ukrainian presidency suggests that maybe, they can.
Before running for president, Zelenskiy was a popular TV actor, who had gained popularity for playing the role of Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko–an ordinary school teacher who becomes president after his anti-corruption rant goes viral. Now, after running a campaign that bore strong resemblances to that of Holbordko’s Zelenskiy has attained a record-breaking victory in Ukraine, winning all of the country’s districts but one.
But Zelenskiy is just the latest in a series of celebrities turned successful anti-establishment politicians. Before he decided to found the Five Star Movement in 2009, Italy’s Beppe Grillo was a famous comedian known for his social and political commentary. Today, his party holds the greatest number of seats in Italy’s parliament. The election of Donald Trump puts an American spin on the same tale. Much like Zelenskiy, Trump’s successful presidential run was characterized by a campaign that provided little in the way of policy specifics but centered around promise to fight corruption–or as he calls it, “draining the swamp”. Yet even though all three celebrity-politicians seem to align with different sides of the socio-political spectrum (Trump’s Republican party is conservative, while Zelenskiy self-describes himself as “very liberal”), the media often loops them together under the political umbrella of “populism” [Source: Zelenskiy, Grillo, Trump].
In an era of increasing democratic erosion, it seems pertinent to ascertain whether celebrity politicians like Trump and Zelenskiy subscribe to populist notions of governance. And more importantly, whether there is something about the rise of celebrity politicians that should make us fear for our democratic institutions.
Jan-Werner Mueller’s definition of populism provides a three part test for determining whether political leaders are democracy-eroding populists. According to him, leaders are populist if they adhere to an understanding of “the people” as a good, virtuous, and homogeneous entity, warn of a conspiring elite that is unanimously evil, corrupt and self-serving, and most importantly, are holistic and anti-pluralistic, in that they claim to be the sole true representatives of the people. Operating under Mueller’s definition, celebrity-politicians like Donald Trump clearly appear to be populist. Trump’s frequent bashing of the “arrogant elite” and unprecedented amount of rallies with his voter base, suggest an adherence to the populist notion of a unified “people” in support of the leader against “the elites”. Importantly, he’s also depicted himself as the sole savior of “the people” in a manner that’s anti-pluralistic; anyone who speaks against him or his actions, be it the “fake news media”, governmental entities, or political opponents, is automatically framed as an “enemy of the people“.
But while Trump’s combative personality and extreme ideological positions make his adherence to populist tendencies fairly easy to spot, Zelenskiy’s understated demeanor and lack of adherence to any firm politics make his strain of populism more difficult to catch. Unlike Trump, who gained support by boldly presenting himself as the people’s savior, a vote for Zelenskiy was perceived more as a satirical means of protesting the corruption of the Ukrainian political system than a solution to the country’s problems. In fact, Zelenskiy’s entire campaign consisted of much satire and little politics. Zelenskiy refused to go to televised political debates or hold big rallies, instead opting to spread memes on social media, and perform comedic skits and stand-up routines in circus-shaped rings. When asked about his legislative plans, Zelenskiy didn’t provide substantive policy proposals, and instead promised to let voters decide what policies to enact through direct democracy referenda. Because of the absurd nature of the Zelenskiy’s campaign, it’s difficult to see it as anything more than a fun attempt to release frustration with a corrupt political system through satire.
But an application of Mueller’s theories onto Zelenskiy’s campaign reveals a much more sobering reality; his “fun” campaign presented serious threats to democracy. For one, Zelenskiy’s reliance on direct channels of communication like social media, and avoidance of media outlets, is indicative of what Mueller calls “direct representation”–a populist tactic that stops journalists from being able to mediate, counter and check politicians, by avoiding or minimizing interactions with press agencies. Another democracy-threatening populist tendency becomes apparent upon closely analyzing Zelenskiy’s slogans and rhetoric. In adopting the slogan “Servant of the People”, and claiming that he was sent to his opponents as the people’s “verdict” on them, Zelenskiy portrays himself to be a anti-pluralistic representative acting on behalf of the unanimous will of “the people”. This clearly fulfills the requisites of holism and anti-pluralism that Muller  ascribes to a democracy-eroding populist leader.
Some critics might argue that Zelenskiy’s promotion of “direct democracy” referenda vindicate him of being a democracy-eroding populist. After all, wouldn’t his commitment to popular referenda suggest an appreciation for a pluralism of ideas–an idea antithetical to populism’s defining anti-pluralism?’
However, if anything, Zelenskiy’s promotion of “direct democracy” referenda only provides more proof of his populist tendencies. Mueller himself acknowledges that “populists often demand more referenda”–but not because they seek to increase popular participation in politics. Rather, by enacting “direct democracy” referenda in selective instances, populists can market their own agendas as being the “will of the people”, which in turn, allows them to quell criticism of the policy in legislative bodies, and deflect blame for any policy that fails.
Thus by promoting methods of supposed “direct democracy” and “direct representation” instead of allowing his ideas to be publicly challenged in policy debates and journalistic interviews, Zelenskiy reveals that like many of his celebrity-politician compatriots, he too is a democracy-eroding populist.
While one can’t paint all celebrity-politicians with the same brush, the recurring rise of celebrity candidates who seem to eschew democratic principles in favor of populist tendencies is undeniable. Though it would be unfair to purport that former celebrities will always make democratic-eroding candidates, the next time a TV star promises to speak for the common-man and fight the elites, we ought to take a closer look.
*Photo by Wikimedia Commons, “”Владимир Зеленский 2018 1″, Creative Commons Zero license.
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