Shining in the flash of the paparazzis’ cameras, one would think that the woman posing was a seasoned celebrity. An actress, or perhaps a pop star. In reality she was the U.S. representative for New York’s 14th congressional district. And she was attending the Met Gala. Many were immediately struck by the irony of how a person whose dress was emblazoned in blood red with the words “Tax the Rich” was a guest at a $35,000 a ticket fundraiser, rubbing elbows with those who are the definition of the so-called “one percent”. Whether this unprecedented move was an attempt to “have a conversation” about tax reform as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed, or it was merely too good of an opportunity to hobnob with elites to pass up, the end result was the same: a stunt dripping with hypocrisy, an embracing of the celebrity spotlight, and the turning away from a model of professionalism that has long been the expectation for elected officials.
AOC is by no means the first elected official to enjoy the notoriety that comes with being a politician on the national stage. Obama counts Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Oprah as close friends. With his Hollywood good-looks and easy charm, JFK has often been called the first “celebrity president”. And who even knows where to begin with Trump? However, the fact remains that by conflating the identities of elected officials and celebrities, an important unwritten rule is subverted and the very offices that these men and women hold are undermined.
While many may have found AOC’s actions distasteful, few would consider them to be damaging to our democracy. This view, however, does not take into account the role that norms play in our government. Many of our expectations for our leaders are not found in laws or statutes, but instead are the result of the accumulation of precedence set by leaders of the past.
There has long been an expectation in this country for the standard of behavior of our politicians. While they may be well-known, they are not celebrities in the way that A-list actors and musicians are. There is a very good reason for this. If a person is an elected official, for that period of time in their life, their personal interests must play second-fiddle to the interests of the country and of their constituents. The public trusts them to act in the national interest and not in their own self-interest. When these men and women become celebrities, their professional and personal identities start to become conflated, and in turn, their interests do as well. Thus, did AOC attend the Met Gala as a private individual, or as a U.S. Representative? The fact that this question does not have a clear answer speaks to the confusion that naturally follows the advent of celebrity-politicians.
Still, many will argue that while paling around with the rich and famous (who, it is worth noting, were all unmasked even though event workers had to remain masked) at the most elitist event of the year is distasteful, to call it anything more than that is a stretch. This brings us to an important discussion about the role of norms in our democracy. Norms inform much of the way our government functions and the standards we set for our leaders. They create checks for politicians in areas that the law cannot reach. By testing the limits of the these norms, politicians are able to subtly rewrite the expectations set for them, and thus change the limits and parameters of their positions .
But beyond the poor optics of celebrity-politicians, the actions of these leaders undermine the gravity of the office they hold. In order for the seriousness of what it means to be an elected official to persist, the sanctity of office must be preserved and that cannot happen when people begin to see being a politician the same way they do celebrities. As idealistic as it may sound, these norms must be protected if for no other reason than to discourage the running of those who see political office not as an honor and an opportunity to fulfill their patriotic duty, but as a fast-tracked path to celebrity. Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “5: The Guardrails of Democracy.” Essay. In How Democracies Die, 97–117. London: Penguin Books, 2019.