Last week brought to light a likely Democratic challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from actress-turned-politico Ashley Judd. The Daily Caller responded to the news with a jab at Judd’s character, pointing out how often she has been nude throughout her film career. This triggered a firestorm of indignation on the Left, with writers from The Raw Story, Salon, and Mother Jones among others lambasting conservative prudery.
While the Left’s objection appears to be informed by sexual licentiousness and a general obligation to feign offense at any suggestion of modesty as virtue, a legitimate critique can be made of the attempt to marginalize Judd’s candidacy. In several ways worth noting, making an issue of Judd’s on-screen nudity is a mistake.
First, let us concede that we live in the year 2013 amidst a generation separated from past chastity by a great cultural and technological divide. Naked women are not as shocking as they used to be, assuming they ever actually were. Granted, a higher-than-average standard ought to be applied to candidates for public office, and certainly to candidates for U.S. Senate. However, context matters. Judd acted in mainstream films. It’s not as though she made her career in pornography.
Activists on the Right ought to hold greater concern for the circumstances which make Judd’s potential candidacy viable. We live in a political culture where celebrity proves increasingly valuable. One of the greatest hurdles facing campaigns at any level is name recognition. If voters don’t know who a candidate is, they aren’t as inclined to vote for them. The campus paper for Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, sources the work of political scientists in that area:
[Cindy] Kam and [Elizabeth] Zechmeister have shown, in a paper currently under consideration for publication, that brief exposure to a candidate’s name increases voter support by 13 percent, if voters know nothing else about the candidates.
No one should be shocked to learn that campaigns grow more expensive each cycle.
USA Today reported in 2012:
Total spending on the presidential and congressional races this year is on pace to reach a record $5.8 billion, according to a new analysis.
The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates the total cost of the 2012 elections will jump 7% from $5.4 billion four years ago and could “come close” this year to reaching $6 billion.
As a result, the ability to aggressively fundraise is evermore invaluable to a statewide campaign.
Celebrity solves these problems. Celebrity opens doors. Not only do people know who Ashley Judd is. They are excited to meet her. Wallets eagerly open for the opportunity to say, “I had dinner with Ashley Judd.” What’s more, her celebrity brings along established relationships with deep pockets. It makes for a much easier campaign than trying to convince strangers to write checks for someone they’ve never heard of.
That may be why the notion of a celebrity candidate is not new. Like Judd, Ronald Reagan came to politics from acting in film. So did Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has also bared his goods on the silver screen. His Predator co-star, Jesse Ventura, ran a successful third party campaign for governor of Minnesota. The venerable Fred Thompson of Law & Order fame has served in the U.S. Senate and was among candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
As an example most relevant to Judd’s candidacy, we must consider the sitting senator from Minnesota, former Saturday Night Live comic Al Franken. If past performance proves enough to disqualify a candidate from public office, one might have imagined that the Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley would do the trick. Yet Franken prevailed in his 2008 recount and must now be taken seriously as a representative of his state, not to mention the sixtieth vote which enabled the passage of Obamacare. Is the nudity in Judd’s film career a greater liability than having played Stuart Smalley?
Given such examples, scoffing at the candidacy of Ashley Judd based solely on the steamier highlights of her filmography seems ill-considered. Focusing on past nudity undermines the seriousness of any critique.
This episode speaks to a larger trend which modern political campaigners must consider. Ours is the first generation to experience a new normal, where anyone of note will have an expansive and diverse online presence. The candidates and leaders of tomorrow post unflattering portraits of themselves in compromising positions today. It has become increasingly difficult to compartmentalize different aspects of life, to separate work from friends and friends from family, and to keep politics and religion from spilling over into business and pleasure. Work friends mingle with those you have known for years, who mingle with neighbors from church, who mingle with Mom and Dad. Just as importantly, different stages of life blend together over time, smudging the immaturity of adolescence with the professionalism of an adult career and the stature of parenthood and family. One’s overall online presence cooks up as a giant social potluck.
The time will soon come when any given candidate for political office will have something intimate or uncouth lurking in their digital past. The only sensible way to handle it will be owning up to indiscretions and marginalizing them as common and unimportant. The tactic will work due to the mutually assured destruction inherent in any exploitation of social media. Like every mom’s cache of baby pictures, everyone will harbor embarrassing moments from their past.
The cultural shift has already begun. Jobs and homes now last around five years. People increasingly switch careers once or more over the course of their lives. Such diversity in the experience of individuals necessitates that the ever sophisticated market distinguish between what are effectively past lives. Senator Al Franken is not Stuart Smalley. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was not elected as the Terminator. As a candidate for Senate, Ashley Judd offers more than a pair of legs.
Any attempt to pigeonhole a celebrity who turns to politics will backfire. Picking on a likable, attractive woman for being likable and attractive is a losing strategy. Instead, political opponents of Ashley Judd will better serve their cause by taking her to task on policy. Judd has said some awfully ridiculous things worthy of debate.
Instead of tilting at the windmill of celebrity past, activists on the Right must look ahead to the future. The recruitment and development of our own celebrity candidates ought to be a priority. Conservatives must be willing to yield to the more libertarian stances a celebrity is likely to hold. Ventura’s win in Minnesota was due in large part to his defiance of established norms. He may not have proven a conservative governor, but much of his winning campaign rhetoric was libertarian in nature. Recall that Reagan was an advocate of liberty and a star among the Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican Party.
In short, the future of politics will track younger, hotter, and far more digital. Such change cycles evermore rapidly alongside advancements in technology, leaving conservatives at an inherent disadvantage if they insist on clinging to obsolete methods and mores. No one ever got atop a wave by trying to hold it back.