Ah, Hollywood awards season. It must be time for celebrities to don gorgeous clothes, have each individual hair arranged by some stylist and get up on stage to advocate for some political cause - and for the rest of us to spend days arguing about what they said.
This election cycle has been unusually vicious and angry, and therefore, of course, the controversy is as well. Meryl Streep has delivered a rebuke to Donald Trump, and now social media is convulsed by debate over a blandly unobjectionable point: Trump was wrong to make fun of a disabled reporter’s handicap.
Out of self-protection, some commentators retreat to the meta-debate: Should entertainers even make political statements? Actors are chosen for pulchritude and emotional plasticity, not for their ability to grasp fine policy distinctions or complex moral reasoning, so why on earth do they presume to lecture the rest of us? And isn’t it bad for business?
Well, yes, celebrities are stupid about policy, often breathtakingly so. On the other hand, so is everyone else. You want to hear some really stupid ideas about policy? Grab a group of whip-smart financial wizards, or neurosurgeons, or nuclear physicists, and sit them down for a nice dinner to debate some policy outside their profession. You will find that they are pretty much just as stupid as anyone else, because policy is not about smart. I mean, smart helps. But policy is fundamentally about domain knowledge, and that knowledge is acquired only by spending a great deal of time thinking about a pretty small set of problems. Funnily enough, this is also how one gets good at finance, or neurosurgery, or nuclear physics.
Take Streep. She’s right that Trump should not have made fun of a disabled reporter. However, she surrounded that point with an extended discussion of how mean everyone was being to actors and journalists.
This was a double mistake. First, it accepted Trump’s frame: it’s a handful of liberal elites against the rest of the country. That’s an argument he just won, so it’s unwise to try for an immediate rematch. And second, there is in this whole world no sight less rhetorically compelling than that of successful people with fun and rewarding jobs, and a decent income, complaining that they’re victims of the unglamorous folks who labor at all the strenuously boring work required to make their lives nice. Even I, who have one of those jobs, am rolling my eyes and saying “Good heavens, suck it up.” The only people who don’t recoil from this sort of vacuous self-pity are those similarly situated in elite liberal institutions - but since those folks already hate Trump, you haven’t actually changed anything.
Or take these videos that celebrities have been making, first trying to persuade voters not to vote for him, then trying to persuade Electoral College members not to vote for him, and finally just giving up and issuing a sort of bleak existential scream. These things are so ham-fistedly unpersuasive that I began to suspect a secret cabal of Hollywood Trump fans, masterfully orchestrating a coup. When I realized they’re really serious, I thought about rounding up a group of #NeverTrump Republicans to make an outreach video for celebrities thinking about making an outreach video. This video would explain, with lots of repetition to drive the point home, that smug self-congratulation is the exact opposite of a good way to attract voters.
This is an industry whose whole job is to invent magical collages of images, words and music. How is it that when they start in on politics, they go so terribly wrong?
Because when Hollywood people make movies, they’re thinking about the audience. They know that if they want to keep making movies, they have to get butts in seats and eyeballs on screens. Every choice they make is disciplined by a single question: “Is the audience going to be moved by this?” And they use their domain knowledge to answer that question. They don’t always get it right, but they do a lot better than a random person off the street would.
When they start talking about politics, however, they’re not thinking about the audience; they’re thinking about themselves. They’re exactly as effective at reaching an audience as your average Washington staffer is with those screenplays he scratches out in his spare time.
This painful contrast between how entertainers approach their art and how they approach their political statements, is nowhere more evident than the cast of Hamilton delivering its message to Mike Pence. The right question was not, “Did they have a right to do that?” (It’s a free country, and they had purchased the right to appear on that stage.) The correct question was, “Did they move even an iota closer to their stated goal?” And the answer was, “Obviously not.”
If you didn’t already agree with them, it came off as the kind of thing that clever middle-schoolers do, technically staying within the rules while flouting basic norms of politeness. They gave Mike Pence a chance to look like a grown-up and a statesman, while they came off as juvenile. It diminished their message, rather than spreading it.
The irony is that Lin-Manuel Miranda has made an incredibly effective musical about America’s great diversity, and the challenges of political and social change. He knows better than to condescend to his audience in his art, or to berate it, or to subject it to bland cliches. Yet he couldn’t let the art stand on its own. He felt the need to do every off-putting thing he felt constrained from doing when he was disciplined by the need to actually win people over.
There’s a reason that people who actually want to make political change tend to avoid doing this sort of thing in public, however much they may enjoy it with like-minded friends. (Though occasionally, to their dismay, someone else publicizes their private tirades for them.) Those folks count votes the way entertainers count box office. They know they can’t afford a citation for public smugness, because it costs them votes and gains them nothing. And if you really think that Trump is a disaster for the country — if you really want to change hearts and minds — then you can’t afford it either.
McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.