By Paul Ziek
In June 2016, Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) ran an article detailing the day that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker hosted Hillary Clinton in his adopted hometown of Newark. The article describes how Booker was “working it” as he posted Twitter videos of himself and the presumptive Democratic nominee dancing, having coffee and engaging New Jerseyans in discussion (see Silverberg, 2016). The point of the article was to acknowledge that the public sees Booker’s desire to be the vice presidential candidate. The interesting part though is that the article appeared in GQ and not the New York Times, The New Yorker or on CNN or MSNBC.
GQ is by its own account “the definitive men’s magazine, with style advice and tips, women, entertainment and culture news.” Although the publication dabbles in politics, it is known more for its coverage of lifestyle. The appearance of the article points more to Booker’s celebrity status than a break in the magazine’s editorial policy.
Even though the 2016 American presidential election, and ensuing years, has been dominated by Donald Trump, in all actuality, the emergence of Booker is what truly speaks to the changing landscape of celebrity politics. While the intersection between politics and celebrity is nothing new, the advent and rise of social media has created variants to the celebrity politician. Indeed it is at this turn where Booker’s story becomes central to the academy. Booker uses social media, particularly Twitter, as both a tool for broadcasting his political platform but also as a way of fostering interpersonal interactions. Therefore instead of following the track of studying celebrity politicians under the prism of image management and marketing (e.g., Blumler & Kavanagh, 1999; Drake & Higgins, 2006; Inthorn & Street, 2011), this forum piece will take an alternative approach and look at the ways the properties of social media can be used to create a new form of celebrity politician.
Cory Booker, the Celebrity Politician
According to Street (2004), there are two main variants of celebrity politicians: the first is an elected politician or candidate who uses “celebrityhood” to represent a group or cause; the second is the star of popular culture that uses “celebrityhood” to speak for popular opinion. The first variant can best be seen with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken and of course Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Bono, George Clooney and Angolina Jolie represent the second variant as they use their celebrity to speak on a wide range of issues from AIDS research to feeding the hungry to protecting the physical environment. Booker though stands in contrast to both the variants of celebrity politicians. Booker is neither a politician who uses celebrityhood to represent a cause nor is he a star of popular culture. In much the same way as Barak Obama and Justin Trudeau, Booker is a politician who has gained celebrity through the media in general and social media in particular.
Booker has not only been featured in multiple documentaries, such as Street Fight, Brick City and Miss Representation, he has also been on Real Time with Bill Maher, Parks and Recreation and held a satirical YouTube war with Conan O’Brien. However, where Booker has really made his mark is through social media, particularly Twitter (Smulowitz, Ziek, Rodriguez-Rentas, 2014). Currently Senator Booker has over 4.1 million followers, which is one of the highest amounts of any senator or Congress member. Yet it is not just the amount of followers that stands in contrast to other politicians but the way that Booker uses Twitter. Instead of using social media Twitter as simply a podium for airing political views, Booker has worked to create a different type of communicative environment – a hybrid where communication occurs in both one-way and two-way formats. The result has been clear and many have noticed. In fact, in 2015, Booker was dubbed a “Twitter Celebrity” by the Huffington Post because he reinvented the way that politicians engage the public (see Mosenbergen, 2015).
Cory Booker and Twitter
America has seen many waves of stylized political communication yet one of the more enduring has been the convergence of the political leader and celebrity (Marshall, 1997). For decades, individuals have trafficked between the two spheres and academic attention has followed suit. Our understanding of how these celebrity politicians build and maintain their celebrity revolves around a simplified model of communication. Typically, communication relative to celebrity is viewed from the transmission prism – as a way of persuasion and information management. For example, Drake and Higgins (2006) contend that celebrity politicians are created through a type of image management that aims to appeal to a mass audience, which is why celebrity politicians rely so heavily on formats such as television and radio talk shows. Street (2003) goes one step further by arguing that celebrity politics is “political marketing”, which draws on the idea that celebrity politicians are products to be created and maintained (see also Inthorn & Street, 2011). Finally, Bennett (2011) adds to this approach by explaining that politicians promote themselves by mobilizing public relations tactics such as creating imagery and certain personas. What is missing is that communication is also constitutive of interaction. In other words, communication is as much about informing and persuading as it is about how moments between individuals are created and unfold.
Booker’s Twitter is an organic environment that is both a space where he can push his agenda as well as create moments with individuals that are not constrained by intermediaries or message strategies. He posts messages, photos and videos of himself and his travels that clearly have the purpose of disseminating information about his political agenda and beliefs. At the same time though, Booker uses Twitter to create personal interactions on a widespread scale. He does this by holding one-on-one conversations both publicly and through direct messaging. What’s more is the way he chooses to deal with negative tweets and “haters”. As the Washington Post recently remarked, Booker is a “model of equanimity” (see Viebeck, 2016). Instead of responding to “Internet trolls” with party lines and sound bites, he engages these critics with compassionate words and debates (e.g., Mosenbergen, 2015). With Booker, Twitter is a space where he can be both transmissive and interactive, the result of which is clear – he has roused groups and individual into making him a celebrity.
As Partzsch (2015) contends, there needs to be a closer examination of the scope of celebrity politicians. Given this call to action, the point here is not to just review the social media resume of Booker but to start a discussion on how it was used to build his celebrity. A simple search of the subscribers of Instagram, Pinterst and Facebook yields countless politicians. The success of Booker’s approach, leaves them with something to think about, a choice of sorts: what approach will they take? As Booker has shown us, the choices are endless – they can rely on the tried and true model of transmission, put their confidence in build personal interactions or any variation in between. Either way, the story of Booker’s Twitter serves as a reminder of the different paths politicians can take to break into the realm of the mass audience. What’s more is that the choice politicians take toward social media, and the celebrity that they build though it, will be tested even further now that Booker has announced his candidacy for the president of the United States of America.
Paul Ziek is chairperson of the Media, Communications, and Visual Arts Department at Pace University.
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