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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Eugene Scott: Get used to mix of celebrities, politics

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 23, 2017

By Eugene Scott Washington Post

The most heated health care debate this week wasn’t on Capitol Hill. It was between late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

Earlier this week, Kimmel attacked Cassidy over the health care repeal plan the lawmaker crafted with fellow Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller and Ron Johnson, as their last-ditch effort to replace the Affordable Care Act. Kimmel argued that the legislation “will kick about 30 million Americans off insurance.”

Cassidy dismissed Kimmel’s assessment of the plan. “There are more people who will be covered through this bill than under the status quo,” he said.

Months after President Donald Trump took over the Oval Office after promising to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” waded into the debate when his infant son, Billy, underwent open-heart surgery after birth. The television star’s use of his show to discuss his son’s pre-existing condition – coverage of which is guaranteed under Obamacare – has made Kimmel one of the more prominent voices in the health policy debate.

But not everyone is interested in hearing the funnyman’s take on a very serious issue. Some people – particularly conservatives – expressed frustration and even disgust that a television personality with no public policy expertise has become so vocal on an issue that Trump himself called “so complicated.”

“Jimmy Kimmel can be funny, and he loves his son,” wrote Theodore Kupfer in the conservative National Review. “Well and good. But Jimmy Kimmel knows policy? To paraphrase another comedian, comedians are not public intellectuals.”

Historically, the idea of seeing celebrities solely as entertainers who should not wade into political conversations has been embraced by conservatives because “Hollywood types” tend to lean left. Sure, Republicans were able to count actors, such as President Ronald Reagan, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee as part of their fold.

But over the last 20 years, most celebrities weighing in on politics have been overwhelmingly supportive of liberal politics and, more specifically in the last two years, anti-Trump. This doesn’t mean that Trump hasn’t had stars get behind his presidency and specific policy ideas. Musicians Kid Rock, Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons have proudly boarded the Trump Train.

But while “Shut up and sing” has been a fashionable demand of those on the right who argue that policymaking should be left to those with policy experience and knowledge (preferably of the conservative bent), it is getting harder to make that case when their party elected a former reality television star with no government experience who has padded his administration with people lacking expertise in the subjects they are overseeing.

At the end of the day, this is a conversation about identity.

One of the reasons that Kimmel gets people to listen to him – even on matters of health care – is because we live in a culture in which celebrities have become influencers not just in the arts but in society as a whole. It is why people allowed the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” to critique President Barack Obama’s economic policy and why Fox News hired “Clueless” actress Stacey Dash to bash Obama’s foreign policy approach to terrorism.

But the lack of expertise aside, the reason many of us tolerate celebrity engagement in policy is because we know that behind their public images celebrities are real people. They are fathers, employees and employers and, perhaps most importantly in this conversation, tax-paying American citizens. And it is these things that give them a right – and the freedom – to be in on this conversation.

Celebrities carry the same concerns many Americans have, but they have one thing most of us don’t: a giant microphone that allows them to make a dent in important conversations. As long as this is the case, and voters keep choosing celebrities to take on the world’s issues and politicians keep seeking stars’ endorsements and campaign contributions, these folks likely won’t be cutting off their own mics anytime soon.

Eugene Scott is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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