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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Essay: How parasocial relationships with politicians have shaped ‘Ugly Hollywood’

Hollywood has a glistening reputation, renowned for its literal and figurative Walk of Fame. But Hollywood isn’t the only prominent city in the United States where stardom has captivated the country’s attention.

D.C. – which political commentator Paul Begala dubbed “Ugly Hollywood” in the 1980s – might not be as glamorous as Tinseltown, but it’s brimming with a similar vein of fame-seeking, self-righteous politicians and public figures that dulls the poignancy of real political policy and civil service.

Celebrity politicians, basking in all their Capitol Hill glory, toe the line between making politics accessible to the public and romanticizing the powers that be. Congress isn’t just the seat of the U.S. government – it signifies glory and name recognition for up-and-coming politicians. There’s a reason being a “Hilltern” – the nickname given to interns working on Capitol Hill – is a coveted position. For D.C. residents, it’s analogous to working under the Hollywood big-league producers. Like traditional red carpet celebrities, politicians mold their personalities around their campaigns and careers, which can elicit obsessive and unbalanced dynamics with constituencies.

Parasocial relationships, a term coined by psychologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wahl in 1956, describes one-sided relationships between celebrities and their fans. When fans treat a public figure as their close friend or enemy, they invest their time and energy into a person who probably doesn’t know they exist. Because of how social media elevates politicians, constituents become enamored with their congressional representatives much like they would an influencer, musician or actor.

While psychologists are still unraveling the impact of parasocial relationships on politics, these relationships have proven to be a direct indicator of public sentiment for political elections and campaigns. A study conducted by University of Haifa professor Jonathan Cohen and Temple University professor R. Lance Holbert found that intense parasocial relationships denoted strong support for former President Donald Trump following his inauguration. Parasocial relationships also increased support for other political leaders like Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan, according to the study.

As politicians increase their presence on social media sites like TikTok to advertise their campaigns and policies, their personalities and public image become too closely intertwined with their policy and they limit the degree of separation between shallow, social media influencing and positive political impact.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, frequently jumps on Instagram Live to share everything from mundane details about her life, like making macaroni and cheese, to experiences with major political events, like her recollection of Jan. 6. Interacting with fans or antagonists in this manner creates an illusion of closeness – as if a public livestream is the same as a private FaceTime.

When supporters romanticize politicians and overly antagonize their opposition, the focus shifts from their policy rather than their personality. Articles focusing on Trump’s fiery Twitter comebacks and overall scandalous presidency limited the discussion of real issues, like environmental deregulation and his “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal border crossings. A Pew Research Center study found that more than two-thirds of examined news stories in 2017 about Trump were centered around his personality and leadership style instead of his policies and beliefs. Articles about Ocasio-Cortez’s “obsession-worthy Instagram” or how she “beats everyone at Twitter” repeat the same pattern.

The personalities of celebrities have supplanted their policies and ideologies, creating a one-track mind for their bases. Our politicians are no longer complex, multi-faceted human beings with a range of social and fiscal beliefs. They have become caricatures of themselves and their political stances.

No matter how far-right or far-left politicians come across, there are still complexities to their legislative decision-making processes. Issues like gun control and universal health care are quite literally life or death – and constituents should treat them as such. But due to the reputations these lawmakers have cultivated through social media, their stances become extensions of their assumed personas. From conservatives dubbing Ocasio-Cortez as a leftist extremist to liberals slamming Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-GA, as a right-wing conspiracist, polarized personas have fueled echo chambers of undiscerning political thought.

Celebrity politicians and the parasocial relationships they enable can negatively influence public perception and shape the future of how politicians communicate with their voters through a fraudulent sense of personalization. It takes an element of egoism for a politician to want to enter a career in front of an audience, and these politicians now find themselves in the same category as Hollywood influencers and A-list celebrities. We need to draw the line between civil servitude and celebrity status, recognizing when we as voters are falling into the traps of unrequited obsession.

Paige Baratta, a freshman majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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