The ramifications of idolizing politicians
Recently, at Ithaca College’s All-Student Gathering, President Shirley Collado remarked that “people miss the humanity behind what it takes to be a real leader, and the mistakes that you make and the chances that you take.” By demanding room for error, Collado effectively cautioned against blind faith in being uncritical of her leadership.
This warning was healthy, as the consequences of idolizing authority of any kind can be damaging, and, in some cases, catastrophic. It is worth being wary of the relationship between a citizenry and authority, especially when it is one of obedience and unquestioning loyalty. Our world is rife with examples of this kind of relationship — on a national scale, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both share this kind of bond with many supporters. And internationally, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is an idol to some Canadian supporters, and even to many Americans.
But an examination of these politicians and figures calls into question the validity of this idolization, who (or what) we are actually idolizing, and the gap between the political leaders’ intended role and the role they occupy in our society.
Barbara Trish, a professor of political science at Grinnell College, contextualized loyalty to political figures by describing it as “one side of a transactional exchange,” wherein supporters exchange faith “for the leader advocating the positions of the supporter.” To this end, since loyalty “[gives] the leader some room to maneuver genuinely, without having to constantly worry about appeasing supporters,” Trish said it is a necessary quality in a healthy relationship between the politician and supporter.
What does it mean, though, to idolize politicians? If we define loyalty as steadfast support and idolization as excessive admiration, then idolization can be considered an extreme form of loyalty. Trish said it is when loyalty turns into idolization that the “transactional element goes away” and the relationship between politicians and their supporters can become an unbalanced one.
This raises the issue of accountability, which Trish identified as the main issue in idolizing a leader. “It gives [them] a pass of sorts on following through on campaign promises,” she said, granting them the freedom and power to disregard the constituents’ true interests.
Donald Trump’s rise and his passionately loyal core following are an apt example of political idolization. During the 2016 election cycle, the alarm of establishment politicians and the media grew with each tweet, rally, or statement Trump issued. With each “misstep,” this alarm was matched, even arguably topped, by the enthusiasm and passion of his core supporters.
Nine months into his presidency, Trump’s approval rating is hovering between 35 to 40 percent, according to Gallup. In the bubble of a college campus, it seems hard to believe that more than one in three Americans continues to approve of the job Trump is doing as president.
But while not a Trump supporter, Eric Rodriguez of The Hill identified a key aspect of his presidency and leadership that many like: “[Trump] is one of the few candidates who unabashedly will decry our political system for the sham it has become.” Rodriguez touches on a common theme among supporters — they like his anti-establishment rhetoric.
In addition, when The Atlantic collected explanations from Trump supporters in 2015, many cited his bluntness as the reason they like him, with one saying that Trump’s appeal is in “the collective middle finger to the establishment” that he represents. Another person responded that “those of us who buy Trump’s vision, nearly to the point of blind trust, are loudly professing our disgust with the current immoral situations that taint and threaten our blueprint of the American dream.” Finally, another said, “Trump makes brash and uncompromising statements about issues many people feel very passionate about.”
These and many other explanations in the collection suggest it is not Trump’s character which people idolize, but his ability to rattle our country’s stagnant political climate. Trump doesn’t fit into our image of how a president should behave and communicate — instead of offering lengthy, academic and professorial solutions, he speaks in 140 character superlatives. His tone is confident, even if the truth of his statements are often questionable.
Anne Norton, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, expanded on this, arguing that Trump is idolized “not because he is … a representative of some lost great America, but because he spits in the eye of this one.” The mainstream political environment becomes tiring and even absurd to onlookers whose health, opportunities and lives are being compromised by partisan gridlock orchestrated and perpetuated by conceited, overpaid and egotistical politicians.
The disconnect between establishment politics and the lives and struggles of everyday Americans creates an extreme environment that not only allows but invites a character like Trump, who is abrasive and polarizing, to emerge as an idol to some.
However, there are significant consequences that come with this blind idolization of Trump. It is fair to argue that the influence of big money in politics has resulted in willfully out-of-touch party leadership, but standards of decency are sacrificed in Trump fans repeated rejection of any criticism directed at the president.
Joseph Graf, a professor of public communication at American University, pointed out that “with President Trump, we see a portion of voters willing to toss aside standards of decorum, civility and respect for the law out of loyalty to their candidate.”
Norton said this gives Trump license to violate everyday civil norms like “using profanity, mocking the handicapped, calling for violence, [and] praising himself,” because he doesn’t have to worry about losing his core supporters. This freedom from the consequences of one’s actions and disregard for civility are precisely the issues with idolizing political authority.
While his pitch to voters was far different than Trump’s, Bernie Sanders was also able to forge an energized, emotional connection with his core supporters in 2016, capitalizing on widespread fears and struggles which remain unaddressed in establishment politics today. New Yorker columnist Nathan Heller pointed out that Sanders’s passion for the necessity of a “political revolution” was an invigorating alternative to the measured, calculating, incrementalist tendencies of Hillary Clinton.
However, Norton said one of the differences between the idolization of Trump and the idolization of Sanders is that while Trump supporters focused on his attitude, Sanders supporters were fixed on policies like free college tuition, ending student debt, health care as a right and curbing the influence of big money in politics. It is this vision of a more equal United States, rather than Sanders’s personality, that supporters idolized.
For a candidate who is revered by millennials more than any other demographic, the role of social media cannot be overstated. Branding, imagery, and hashtags make political affiliation trendy and idolizing candidates easy. John Wagner of The Washington Post pointed out that the Sanders campaign introduced initiatives to capitalize on the age of their demographic. They poured energy and resources into Reddit and other social media platforms and created an app to mobilize and transport voters to events. “Feeling the Bern” became a rite of passage for 2016 millennials.
While the Sanders campaign social media presence was strong, it was also spurred on by a collective, enthusiastic, change-driven group of fans who unequivocally defended him on (and off) social media against any and all criticism.The danger in this, again, is in the lack of accountability. If a candidate has an automatic green light from supporters, then they may operate solely out of personal interest, rather than duty or honest representation. That isn’t to say that this is guaranteed to happen, but the potential for the power of politicians in our culture is significant and must be monitored by citizens in a democracy.
While the idolization of politicians is exemplified by Sanders and Trump, it is not limited to them, or to the United States. Politicians, and especially candidates for any public office, actively attempt to connect emotionally, whether honestly or artificially, with constituents. They listen to and amplify voters’ concerns, and then propose solutions, pledging to solve their problems. This very function of politicians makes idolization easy — quick fixes are attractive, and it is the goal of the politician to convince voters that solving all of their problems is as simple as selecting the politician’s name on the ballot.
And while Trump and Sanders are convenient examples, they are not the only ones. This type of political idolization takes place in countries around the world. One example is Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has become an idol to many Canadians as well as to many Americans. NPR’s Jackie Northam has argued that Trudeau’s popularity is due, in part, to his ability to “control his image and build his brand.” Social media and video culture play a large role in creating this image of Trudeau, but it is deceptive in that it is a controlled, secondary image created by a team.
Northam says Trudeau uses skilled branding “as a foreign policy tool to help shape Canada’s image in the world.” However, Policy editor and publisher L. Ian McDonald told NPR that the idolization this has spurred among Trudeau fans gives the prime minister “permission slips from the voters to do a lot of things.” In saying this, McDonald highlighted the main danger in putting blind faith in politicians: that it gives those in power a blank check. Failing to hold politicians accountable prevents us from being critical observers and citizens, giving Trudeau and other leaders a dangerous and powerful pass.
It is in our best interest to hold politicians accountable, since they can more accurately represent us when we do. To return to Ithaca College, it seems prudent to give President Collado the room for error that she is asking for, but also to be alert, critical, vocal and engaged. She deserves the opportunity to learn from her mistakes, but without criticism or engagement she may not know what those mistakes are. Respect President Collado, political leaders and every authority enough to tell them when they’re wrong.
Isabel Brooke is a second-year politics and philosophy/religion double major who will rip apart all your fave political figures. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.