Historian shines spotlight on 'Showbiz Politics'

December 1, 2014  

Kathryn Cramer Brownell

Kathryn Cramer Brownell (Purdue University photo/)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A Purdue University historian goes behind the scenes to examine how and why entertainment has been utilized for nearly 100 years as an American political tool.

 “When we discuss politics and Hollywood, the focus falls on Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy and the role television played in his 1960 presidential campaign, but both, in fact, took a cue from decades of California-style politics rooted in the entertainment business,” said Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an assistant professor of history and author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.”

“Before Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower learned from Hollywood political activists how to use entertainment to communicate to voters over the radio and then on television,” she said. “Showbiz politics is when political contenders use the ‘Hollywood Dream machine’ to transform themselves into media celebrities to gain political legitimacy. As a result, American politics became about the individual candidate rather than the political party.”

At first, the American political establishment fought the emerging entertainment role, said Brownell, who focuses on the 1920s to modern politics.

“In the beginning, it was controversial, and even feared, for Hollywood celebrities to be involved in politics because it validated the expertise and skill set of people who were not part of the traditional political sphere,” she said. “For example, it gave power to political outsiders, such as women and Jewish immigrants.”

In the 1950s, lessons learned from Hollywood were applied outside of California as a way to use new media technology, especially the television, to engage new voters. An electoral battle began to emulate a Hollywood production and there emerged similarities between the operations of a studio, planning a successful election campaign and ultimately running an administration, she said. Moreover, this media-driven environment is costly, making celebrities important fundraising partners to help foot the bill for these strategies.

Embracing showbiz politics in 1968, Richard Nixon went on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In” to use entertainment to reach younger voters. His victory that year has encouraged his predecessors to follow suite.

“Just as in the past, politicians today use entertainment to bypass the mainstream press to reach voters,” Brownell said. “This strategy can engage a broader electorate, but does not always encourage a deep analysis of the issues at hand. Moreover, it also allows performative politicians to dominate political conversations, even if they reflect a more fringe point of view.”

“Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life” was published by The University of North Carolina Press in November 2014. Funding and support was provided by Boston University and Purdue University. 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu 

Source: Kathryn Cramer Brownell, brownell@purdue.edu 

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