Celebrity Is Warping the Career Incentives for Politicians

Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann turned down gigs on Dancing with the Stars. But it's noteworthy and problematic that they were approached.

After dropping out of Election 2012, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann were reportedly contacted by Dancing with the Stars producers about competing on the popular reality TV show. Its stage has been graced in previous seasons by alleged "stars" Tom Delay and Bristol Palin.

If the program hopes to appeal to Fox News types in its upcoming season, it'll need to keep searching: neither Cain nor Bachmann was interested. But the fact that the offer was made is the latest example of the new career opportunities available to politicians in this strange new entertainment era. There is plenty of precedent for politicians from Ronald Reagan to Jesse Ventura to Arnold Schwarzenegger benefiting from prior fame. Now people who got famous through politics are scoring remunerative gigs on the cable news networks -- Joe Scarborough, Al Sharpton, Mike Huckabee -- or even going the route of the Palin family, which has leveraged Sarah Palin's political fame into the aforementioned run on Dancing with the Stars and a TLC reality show.

The resulting returns aren't ill-gotten, like the money Newt Gingrich got for influence pedaling on behalf of Freddie Mac. Better a politician earn money selling himself to the public than selling out to lobbyists. It is nevertheless the case that the opportunity for celebrity changes the incentive system in our politics. So long as gigs like Fox News, Dancing with the Stars, and TLC are out there, some people who wouldn't have otherwise run will seek office in pursuit of such gigs. Even politicians earnestly interested in being elected might change their rhetoric, or stay in races they'll surely lose longer than they otherwise might, if it could bring fame or money down the line. Already we've seen people go from politician to news commentator and back to politician again -- between elections lots of pols would now be better served burnishing their credentials on television than burnishing their governing credentials at a think tank or on a board of directors.

And the pervasiveness of political celebrities in popular culture changes the way voters think of politicians. In a profession where name recognition has always been an advantage, it may be the case that aspiring pols uninterested in being TV celebrities dutifully pursue such opportunities in the same way that they once grudgingly committed to kissing babies and asking for money. 

Alas, many of the qualities that make someone a successful television celebrity exacerbate the culture wars, and getting good at being famous for being famous isn't work experience that improves someone's ability to govern if they ultimately attain a position of power. The main winners here are entertainment companies, who are finding that they can monetize the political affinities of their viewers. The cost is a political system with yet another perverse incentive for its participants.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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