Matt McDaniel

8 minute read

So, you may have heard that Kid Rock (Robert Ritchie), the singer/rocker/rapper/producer/actor is teasing a bid to challenge incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow in the 2018 United States Senate race in Michigan. (And he might be able to win). The reactions have ranged from humor to disbelief to consternation… to laments about the decline of Western Civilization.

Let’s start out by acknowledging that there’s a chance that this whole thing is a prank, or, more charitably, a play by Ritchie to boost sales in conjunction with his new releases and upcoming tour dates. However, for the sake of what we’re talking about in this article, let’s assume that Ritchie is in earnest and is looking to challenge Stabenow next year.

A Mockery of Democracy or a New Phase in How We View Politics?

Fascinating new poll results show that Americans, by a 2-1 majority, are more interested in politics than in sports. This is staggering . Of course, remember that these sort of polls are sometimes difficult to extrapolate into actual policy pronouncements, but still, the inference that Americans are developing a passionate following for politics is hugely insightful to the future of government.

Any talk about Kid Rock, The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Caitlyn Jenner or a slew of liberal celebrities contemplating running for office needs to be prefaced with the fact that Donald Trump upended the traditional political playbook in the 2016 campaign. The free media attention Mr. Trump received drowned out his traditional opponents and reshaped the landscape (and even the terminology) we use to discuss issues.

We’re left to start with a political “chicken or egg” causality problem: did Donald Trump start the populist wave or did he feel the seismic tremor before anyone else and, buoyed by cash and his celebrity, get out ahead and ride that wave to victory? We get some insight on that in the Gallup “confidence in institutions” survey from 2014/15 that showed growing popular distrust of traditional sources of information, like the media. Of course, we’d be foolish to think that if Donald Trump were Bill Smith, a plumber with three kids and a mortgage, that he’d have been able to seize the national narrative and wind up in the White House.

So, the confluence of factors: popular discontent with established sources of authority, growth of new media, a cult of celebrity already growing around politics (see: the Campaigns of Obama, Barack), and a candidate with a ubiquitous profile and a public brand all combined in the 2015-2016 campaign to produce President Trump. The question, especially given the vocal discontent from, principally, those who benefited most from the policies then-candidate Trump attacked is: was this a one-and-done or has Mr. Trump kicked open the door to the full convergence of celebrity and politics?

The Unavoidable Convergence

It’s been speculated that Donald Trump decided he was running for President after he was publicly ridiculed at the 2011 White House Correspondents Association dinner. The Dinner, which has drawn some criticism from journalistic purists, is the closest Washington DC gets to the glitz, glamour and celebrity of the Oscars. While the event is, ostensibly, raising money for scholarships for journalism students, there is an undeniable sheen over the top of the fancy dinner that reeks of elitism– the same elitism candidate Trump blasted in his campaign. The optics of the rich and powerful hobnobbing with the media and politicians play, probably rightly, into the narrative that there is a power structure in place separate from the concerns of “average” Americans.

It’s as if, watching Republicans and Democrats pal around with massive donors, professional athletes, Hollywood mega-stars, and the owners of all the major news outlets in the country might give the normal guy or gal in America the impression that the system is rigged. Go figure.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a screed against the “way things are,” but rather setting the stage for “how we got to where we are.” Throw in a good measure of social media breaking the traditional news consumption methods, the rise of blogs and alternative media sites and you have a recipe for new and exotic combinations of politics.

O Brave New Politics that Hath Such People In It

With the looming specter of Senator Kid Rock (and others), there’s a divide between the pearl-clutching “oh my, this will certainly be the end of civility in politics!” and the folks who find the prospect eminently entertaining. Perhaps the truth may just be somewhere in the middle?

We come, then, to the crux of the conversation: what should we think about celebrity candidates?

Well, first, let’s break down what modern celebrity means. In effect, we are talking about branding. Mega-stars, from rockers like Kid Rock, to movie stars, to professional athletes, in order to be successful, are essentially brands. Certainly, in almost every case of someone becoming “famous” because of a skill or talent, there has to be some underlying quality that is marketable (obvious in a professional athlete, less-so in an overnight online sensation). With the right agent, and in armed with the right corporate boosters, a brand grows.

This germination of celebrity, then, is not dissimilar to politics. While we may be overly-deconstructive (or cynical) here, politics, is, at its core about expanding personal relationships and influence. With the right political apparatus, donors, and institutional support, someone with the requisite skills can achieve a position of authority and influence. Just look at the savvy media relations and communications operations that surround any successful candidate and tell us that it isn’t a complex branding operation.

So, given the similarities between celebrity and political branding, why are we, instinctively, concerned about certain celebrities crossing over into government? Certainly, we see A-listers throwing around clout and talking about pet issues, so why do we hesitate to think they could be political leaders?

The answer, while certainly subjective, probably comes down to what we’ve come to define as “political” and “celebrity.” There’s a certain wisdom, polish, and acumen that we associate with “politics,” generally, while we tend to associate “celebrity” with beauty, transience/shallowness, drama, and gossip. While these archetypes are wedged into our collective consciousness, there are few, if any, national-level politicians who don’t, in a competitive election season, exhibit all the qualities we instinctively associate with celebrity. Certainly in watching current news coverage with “unnamed sources” leaking scandalous information and willing journalists ready to report on even the most tenuous “scoop,” the parallels with celebrity tabloids come into focus.

Success is Success

Even if Kid Rock is just playing the media and Michigan over the possibility of running for US Senate, that in itself shows a level of business savvy and acumen that, for better or worse, is a trait most Americans want to see in a leader. Compare Ritchie’s successful music career (and rocky personal life) to Stabenow’s going right from grad school into politics (and staying there for forty-one years). Who, in the mind of the average voter, is likely better at business and more in-touch with the way people are feeling? Especially given Ritchie’s political advocacy and active support of Republican candidates.

The issue remains as to whether a celebrity’s public past or prior scandals are detrimental to a future in politics, or whether living a life that’s open to the public actually has the opposite effect and shows the human and transparent side of a person that is so often meticulously manicured and curated by traditional politicians (and cause such epic catastrophes when scandals destroy the veneer). Certainly Ritchie, as Kid Rock, would be pushing the envelope far outside the established mainstream (for example, would the FCC fine him over use of foul language at a debate?). However, the success Ritchie has had in his life, the brand he’s created, is a testament to either business talent, or the ability to listen and act on good advice. Both of these are leadership qualities whether we like their application or not.

So, Senator Kid Rock?

Perhaps the best conclusion we can draw from celebrities looking at political office is that we are forced into a degree of introspection over the direction of politics in the United States. While we’re not taking a stand on today versus the “good old days,” there’s an argument that the movement of celebrities towards politics wasn’t started by the celebrities, but rather by the politicians.

In the increased branding, metrics, and consultation surrounding politics, compounded by media institutions that have to compete for profits from clicks, we’ve seen marketing and business principles dominate traditional theory. One of the many lessons that can be drawn from election of Donald Trump is the triumph of business school over classical politics. Trump’s leaner, modern, social-media-and-controversy-driven, branded celebrity operation was superior against his data-driven, slow, methodical, poll-intensive establishment  rivals.

We don’t have any special insight into Kid Rock’s political future, but from what we can gather from our current political climate, we may just be calling him Senator Rock in 2019.