by Maddy Hoffman
This Wednesday, fashion magazine Vogue announced that it would debut a new cover featuring Vice President Kamala Harris after the original cover photo of her received backlash for being unflattering. This announcement got me thinking: why is Harris on the cover of Vogue in the first place?
Of course, it is not uncommon for first ladies to grace magazine covers. Michelle Obama, for example, was on the cover of Vogue three times during her tenure as first lady. But wives of presidents are not civil servants; they have no constitutionally defined role, nor are they elected to make decisions on Americans’ behalf. Harris, on the other hand, is a civil servant; she was elected by Americans to push specific policies and perform specific duties while representing American interests. When non-political publications (such as Vogue) put civil servants (such as Harris) on their covers, they transform government officials from typical politicians into mainstream, national celebrities. As a country, we must consider the consequences of elevating civil servants to the level of stardom enjoyed by society’s most elite movie stars, models, and performers.
The pros of Harris’ Vogue cover: Perhaps by putting Harris on their cover, Vogue will inspire some Americans to get more involved with and informed about politics.
The cons of Harris’ Vogue cover: When we elevate civil servants to the status of celebrities, we also transform voters into fans who are loyal to individual politicians. Fans are dangerous for democracy because, being blinded by the star power of their politicians and reliant on them for political direction, fans are unable and unwilling to stand against their politicians when necessary. Instead, fans project honorable qualities onto dishonorable civil servants and ignore information that contradicts a politician’s carefully crafted public image, leading to less political accountability and more political corruption.
Unfortunately, we now know exactly what can happen when voters of a politician become fans. On January 6th, the world watched in astonishment as domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election results. By rejecting the American constitution and the democratic principles on which their country was founded, the terrorists put one man – President Donald Trump – above their entire nation to try and illegally keep him in power. These terrorists were fans of Trump; being so blinded with loyalty to only one man, they denied reality by creating stories of voter fraud and rushed into the Capitol Building on his behalf. The result is five dead and a country more fractured than ever.
Admittedly, the events of January 6th are an extreme example of what can occur when we become fans of our own politicians. However, I believe that Harris’ Vogue cover – and other instances in which politicians are glorified in non-political spaces – lays the groundwork for people to feel attached to and connected with individual politicians, which could lead to the type of destructive allegiance demonstrated on January 6th.
I don’t mean to harp on Harris exclusively (though I believe her suspected plagiarism, hypocrisy on marijuana, and constant flip-flopping on some of the nation’s most pressing issues – including healthcare – are deserving of interrogation that I doubt Vogue will or can provide). In December, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez graced the cover of fashion magazine Vanity Fair as her district, a “Coronavirus epicenter,” reeled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in 2016, when then-presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Cruz joked about his high school days with host Jimmy Fallon and participated in one of Fallon’s comedic sketches without ever being questioned about his contested beliefs on global warming, controversial desire to “abolish” the U.S. Department of Education and IRS, or any other of his political positions. Between the glamor shots of our politicians and soft interview questions, non-political media sources do a disservice to their country and audiences when they refuse to portray civil servants with any nuance or critique as opposed to unwavering adoration. (Side note: I had to dig to find an example of a Republican civil servant featured in a mainstream, non-political media source, but the differences in the treatment of Republican and Democratic politicians by the media is a topic for another day).
Who benefits from such public appearances? It isn’t America – as previously discussed, turning our politicians into celebrities can lead to voters becoming fans, which can result in our representatives abusing their power. It isn’t Americans – what do I get from seeing Harris on Vogue? How does seeing Ocasio-Cortez in Vanity Fair help alleviate the COVID-related struggles faced by her constituents? How does Jimmy Fallon pretending to call Ted Cruz as Donald Trump give viewers greater insight into Cruz’s plans for America? It is politicians and politicians alone who benefit from unchallenged public appearances, and for that reason we must ensure we remain skeptical of our politicians and keep ourselves from becoming fans.
Don’t get me wrong – this is easier said than done. Politicians go to great lengths to build “fandoms” of supporters by gracing magazine covers, making television show appearances, being transformed into purchasable bobbleheads, or even wearing Converse to appear relatable to the average American (because there’s nothing more relatable to struggling Americans than seeing their Vice President wear Converse and a designer jacket on the cover of Vogue). And being a fan is not without perks – identifying with someone in power makes us feel like we have power as well; trusting someone with authority makes us feel safe and confident in our system of government; adopting someone else’s policy positions is a simple way to feel involved with politics without actually getting involved with politics. It is also easier than ever to become a fan of a politician – in an age of social media, we can connect with our representatives with just the touch of an app, making it feel as though we “know” them. But blind admiration of civil servants can lead to political corruption and the deterioration of democratic principles. If we want our civil servants to truly serve us, we must stay skeptical of them and advocate for media coverage that does not glorify, but challenges our politicians.
It is one thing for TIME – a periodical about politics and current events – to feature a headshot of a prominent politician on the cover of their magazine, or a 60 Minutes correspondent to interview a government official. After all, politicians are public figures who play an important role in shaping our lives and country, and publications such as TIME and programs such as 60 Minutes are equipped to evaluate them with a level of objectivity and scrutiny that fashion magazines and late-night TV shows are not. But even though the line between politician and celebrity has always been a thin one (we did just have, after all, a reality TV star as our president), we must remember that politicians are people, not gods, and just as they have a responsibility to represent us and our needs, we have a responsibility to keep their power in check.
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Maddy Hoffman is a student at the College of William & Mary, and the Founder of Counterviews.org.