What voters must do amid the rise of political celebrities

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In this 2014 file photo former American Idol star Clay Aiken is followed by a video crew as he heads into a Cary polling place to vote.  It was taken during Aiken's first run for Congress, which he lost.  He's currently running again.

In this 2014 file photo former American Idol star Clay Aiken is followed by a video crew as he heads into a Cary polling place to vote. It was taken during Aiken’s first run for Congress, which he lost. He’s currently running again.

cseward@newsobserver.com

Donald Trump’s political ascendance has inspired both celebrities and would-be-celebrities to governance. We see filings from American Idols, TV doctors, country rockers, and self-proclaimed rap geniuses – not to mention the panoply of other stars who frequently flirt with the idea.

This phenomenon is troubling. After all, what does Clay Aiken know about Medicaid expansion? And why should Dr. Oz weigh in on criminal sentencing?

But the more drastic problem is not with celebrities running for office – it’s with individuals running for celebrity. Unproven, often young, “political outsiders” who see governance itself as the chief avenue to stardom. In a phrase: political celebrities.

This problem plagues both sides of the aisle, particularly in the US House. (Why settle for Warhol’s 15 minutes, when you can have a two-year-term?)

As a young conservative, I don’t doubt that fresh, unpurchased politicians are a positive addition to the rigmarole gridlock, but constituents must remember that newness is not beneficial by itself. It’s only advantageous if paired with proven leadership.

Wesley B. Jones.jpg
Wesley Jones

Trump may have been a governmental interloper, but he wasn’t a nobody. The same goes for past celebrities-turned-politicians. Ronald Reagan, though initially an actor, presided over the Screen Actors Guild as Hollywood battled an increasing influence of communist ideology. Before transmuting into “The Governator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated hard work, focus and heavy lifting – to say the least.

By contrast, the growing class of political celebrities have no prior success to point to. They are college dropouts and bartenders, often because they are too young to have any substantial professional experience. Their common battle cry is “I will fight for you!” but what prior battles are there to be seen?

Don’t misunderstand. This isn’t an elitist critique on Average Joe running for office. Many Americans are particularly qualified for high office, having lead community groups, educated the next generation, and built family businesses. I welcome these applicants like a friend at the airport. Why? Because their life reflects a commitment to servant-leadership.

But the opposite is true for the political celebrity.

These under-qualified outsiders mock “career politicians,” but at least they have careers. Ironically, professional experience is a distinguishing factor in every other occupation. No one chastises the “career-doctor” before surgery or the “career-mechanic” when the carburetor implodes.

Of course, their argument is that these “career politicians” are, in fact, leeches with no appetite for representation, who only want to protect their position. That may be, but regardless, the same heart of selfishness is precisely what drives the political celebrity.

I encourage voters to weed political celebrities out in primaries, as this is the only stage in the election process where thoughtful consideration is possible. Once a candidate has reached the general election, the window is closed. Both parties would rather have a fraud on their side than deal with a competent enemy.

At our founding, our representatives were the best and brightest among us. They were writers and scientists and community leaders and champions of faith. Today, too few of our members of Congress are of the same standard.

Even worse, we now face a new threat of political celebrities, who seem to be the loudest, most extreme elements of our two-party system. They are the inevitable result of ignorance and lack of leadership.

If someone can’t point to how they served in the past, they’re unlikely to serve in the future. Next time a millennial with a winning smile and abundant financial backing asks for your vote, ask them for their resume.

Wesley B. Jones is a Raleigh lawyer and author of “A Sunday Afternoon Drive.” He previously worked for the NC GOP and the views expressed are solely his own.

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