In 2016, director Joss Whedon pulled together perhaps the most star-studded cast of all time to act in his latest film project. Was it a blockbuster movie? No. Whedon’s great brainchild was a political ad intended to persuade Americans not to vote for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Yet despite its barrage of A-list actors, including Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle and countless others, the ad backfired colossally.
Viewers found the ad condescending and tone-deaf. While the backlash provoked by Whedon’s ad was certainly not the reason that Trump won the 2016 election, it was emblematic of the enormous frustration many Americans feel over what Trump and others have described as “liberal elites” and their attempts to influence politics.
In general, the American left has failed to come to grips with the role celebrities play in boosting its spectrum of ideologies. This fact is all the more uncomfortable because Democrats are, in general, highly critical of elites exerting outsized power in American politics. The problem is that when Democrats, ranging from President Joe Biden to Senator Bernie Sanders, talk about the wealthy and powerful, they often use far too narrow of a definition.
What exactly do I mean when I use the word elite? Elites are individuals with vastly more power and influence than others. This power can take many forms, like wealth, media influence or political connections. All that influence wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this power is often unearned. Politicians are elites, but their power is ‘earned’ through election. The problematic type of elite (and the type I’m going to be referring to) are the undeserving elites, like someone who grew up in a wealthy family or who gained their power through immoral means. Often, elites may use their undeserved power to actively promote their own political goals. For Democrats, it doesn’t really matter which political goals elites support. Sanders wants to tax Bill Gates just as much as he wants to tax Charles Koch. The point is that elites are using their power undemocratically, and thus damaging our democratic system.
The big problem is that Democrats overwhelmingly focus on financial wealth as the sole power source of the ‘undeserving elite.’ When Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren talk about the disproportionate power wielded by the one percent, they don’t mean the one percent most influential or powerful Americans; they are referring to the most wealthy Americans. Yet this fixation on wealth ignores sources of power that are harder to quantify and can be just as harmful to democracy. Elites are more than just wealthy people. In fact, you don’t necessarily have to be rich at all to be in America’s undemocratic and undeserving elite. Enter the world of cultural elites.
Undemocratic power takes more forms than just cash. Celebrities like those appearing in Whedon’s political ad match many of the same red flags as the financial elites that Democrats criticize. Hollywood stars, for example, can appear on television at will, and their political endorsements can carry serious weight, particularly if the celebrity is sufficiently well-liked. Nor did most Hollywood stars ‘earn’ their influence by some sort of objective process. Much like billionaires, Hollywood stars might claim they got where they are today because of their hard work or raw ability, but in reality, it’s more a matter of luck, timing and self-promotion (or even wealth). Even if Hollywood stars did win their fame through pure talent, that wouldn’t translate to them deserving more say over who we elect each year. Nevertheless, cultural elites frequently use their power to influence politics, whether by running for high office themselves (think of Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Donald Trump) or by directly appealing to voters as in Whedon’s ill-fated video. And celebrity culture itself can resemble the cult of personality which arises around the lifestyles and imagined talents of wealthy business people like Warren Buffett or Elon Musk.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that cultural and financial elites are deeply connected. Money can give a person the final boost to stardom, and fame can, in turn, be highly profitable. But the two sources of power are separate, even if they can sometimes bleed together.
It’s hard not to suspect that some of the reason Democrats have been so slow to apply their own logic to cultural elites is because cultural elites, be they writers, singers, actors or painters, skew overwhelmingly to the left themselves. Nor are these elites just centrist liberals. Mark Ruffalo, in addition to his appearance in the Whedon ad, had previously campaigned for Bernie Sanders, alongside fellow stars like Shailene Woodley and Danny DeVito.
More broadly described, cultural elites might also be extended to people just like us Amherst students. Graduates of elite universities typically gain far greater political influence than the uncredentialed masses. We are more likely to appear on television, get high profile jobs or have our perspectives heard (even if we come from low-income or minority backgrounds). And that increased exposure isn’t necessarily deserved. My co-columnist, in a rare display of insight, described last week how Amherst students are not, as a rule, more deserving of the school’s accreditation than the many who did not gain acceptance. And even if you do deserve your shiny Amherst degree, your B.A. in Theater or Physics in no way qualifies you for the increased political influence you will wield.
It’s a sad fact of American politics that while both parties criticize elites, and even agree upon a general definition of elites, each group has its own blind spots. Conservatives tend to cut financial elites extra slack, by supporting rulings like Citizens United and emphasizing the importance of philanthropy in civic life. Meanwhile, Democrats should be aware of their own failings. When they see a funny, awkward political ad involving the actors from The Avengers, they pay it no real mind — at most taking the time to cringe or mock the actors before moving on to the next tweet. But conservatives see it as an intolerable and provocative abuse of power. It’s hard not to empathize. I do not wish to create a false equivalency — financial elites have undoubtedly caused more damage to American politics than celebrities. However, that does not mean that Democrats can continue to let celebrities use their undemocratic influence freely.
It is hypocritical for Democrats to challenge financial elites and demand a redistribution of their power without also questioning the power of cultural elites and its accumulation by the credentialed and creative classes. Both financial and cultural elites weaken the voices of others through their accumulation of money and fame. The solution to the twin problems are also more similar than you might think. Just as Democrats have spent decades attacking the idea that wealth reflects an individual’s moral quality or abilities, so too could Democrats dispel the myth that fame or a fancy college degree automatically gives someone a right to use their influence for political causes. There’s nothing wrong with being a fan of a particular actor, or even with flexing your Amherst degree. But we have to stop letting cultural elites hold an entirely disproportionate influence over our politics. That means we need to be critical of celebrities’ political activism, but more than that, we need to bury perhaps the most beloved tradition of Amherst students — we need to learn to shut up when we don’t know what we’re talking about.