In a discussion ranging from Charlie Chaplin to President Barack Obama, Steven J. Ross, a professor of history at USC, delved into the intersection of politics and celebrity. Ross discussed this trend in his latest book Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics on Wednesday at the second event of the Provost’s Writers Series.
Ross said his interest in writing the book stemmed from his concern with the fate of democracy and its erosion in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“My idea was, in order to get people to understand the politics, why not write about movie stars and through their story, tell the story of politics?” Ross said.
According to Ross, movie stars have influenced the ways in which we think about politics for over 100 years. One example of this influence, Ross said, was Charlie Chaplin’s use of visual politics.
“[Chaplin] can put it directly on the screen where it can be both seen and potentially acted on by millions of people,” Ross said.
According to Ross, Chaplin mocked authority figures through his roles, which included police officers, judges and world leaders. Ross said because Chaplin was a movie star, audiences listened to him.
Ross asserts his book differs from many previous viewpoints in that he argues Hollywood stars have had a greater impact on right-wing politics than left-wing politics.
Citing President Ronald Reagan and Sen. George Murphy — both actors turned politicians — Ross said that the Republican Party was more greatly influenced by movie stars than was the Democratic Party.
Ross said he believes there are flaws with celebrities running for office: They’re not always qualified, but voters won’t look completely into their platforms because they are blinded by their esteem.
“In the end, Schwarzenegger’s story highlights differences between a celebrity who knows how to run for office and a politician who knows how to govern in office,” Ross said.
According to Ross, as a result of celebrities in politics, voters have become more concerned with a candidate’s image and ability to communicate rather than their ideals.
Regardless of whether or not Ross agreed with famous individuals taking political action, he acknowledged their power and ability to command overwhelming amounts of attention in civil movements and politics.
“As Barack Obama has shown in 2008 and John Kennedy before him, politicians who become celebrities have a better chance of governing effectively than celebrities who become politicians,” Ross said.